We need to move beyond romanticising either cities or villages & develop more nuanced understanding about their economic and social roles.
In the last two decades, everybody from senior bureaucrats to World Bank officials and academic scholars keep reminding us that cities are the engines of economic growth. They complain that cities have not been given enough attention since independence and we need proper policy and increasing financial support for our cities. To some extent, the slogan ‘cities are engines of economic growth’ is posited against ‘India lives in her villages’. This contributes to a misplaced contest between cities and villages and vice versa.
This is a rather old debate in India. Some political ideologies have demonised cities as sites of criminal activities, greed and pollution. Besides, romanticising village life, which is believed to be closer to our traditions and nature. Both demonising cities or hailing their growth potential presents a one-sided picture. We need to move beyond romanticising either cities or villages and develop more nuanced understanding about economic and social roles of different settlements.
Cities are not islands. Each city becomes a city because of its hinterland, which is rural and agrarian in nature. There is a symbiotic relationship between cities and villages of economic, social and cultural exchanges. It is very difficult to draw a physical boundary around economic production or cultural imports. In fact, cities are quite diverse themselves and so are villages. To say that cities are the engines of economic growth is a misinformed analogy. Would engines have any meaning if they were running without the rest of the train? Would the rest of the train move if there were no engines? We need both the engines and the other bogeys of the train. And one should not claim that I am more important than the other.
In the urbanisation story of India, thousands of small and medium towns play an equally important role as the big metropolis. As per the 2011 census, we have about 50 cities with one million plus population and about 7,900 towns in the range of five thousand to one million populations with great diversity in their geography and economy. Lot of urban growth is taking place in these small and medium towns. According to the latest National Sample Survey, the small and medium towns across the country have witnessed more growth in jobs. Unfortunately, these towns are hardly supported by efficient municipal administration with adequate financial health. In Gujarat, we have about 150 municipalities, which do not receive as much financial support as the big municipal corporations.
Before embarking on the urban policies and programs, we need the right kind of imagination and conception about our cities. An urban discourse or urban policies should not necessarily hamper the focus on rural development and vice versa. Cities are not only engines or industrial production houses or labour markets. As the great urbanist Jane Jacobs would put it - “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” We need cities created by everybody and for everybody. Imagining cities as ‘engines’ is so limiting and boring.
(8th June, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)