Wednesday, August 17th, 2022 15:35:43

Urbanization Shrinking Space

Updated: October 9, 2010 10:32 am

Very often we miss recognizing fragments of the new landscape, because our view of the Third World is a limited and egocentric one. For instance, consider one of the most miraculous—and largely uncelebrated—characteristics of the Third World. It is this: despite poverty and exploitation, despite centuries of deprivation, the people as social and human entities are still largely intact. This is a factor of crucial importance to their future development. In the eyes of the well-to-do citizen, the squatter struggling to shelter his family is an anti-social element; from any other point of view, his endeavour is as marvellous, intuitive and socially positive as a bird building a nest. Compare the phenomenon he represents with the muggings and meaningless slayings of most North American cities. But will this innate decency (which it takes centuries to create, and which presumably is one of the main fallouts of that process we call civilization) survive the jolting demographic changes that are taking place? For in most of the Third World, urban centres are growing about twice as fast as the national population.

                This tidal flow of population is not, merely due to the ‘pull’ of city lights. Most of it is distress migration from the villages to the urban centres-marginal earners (landless labour, etc.) whose existence can no longer be sustained by the rural areas. These are desperately poor migrants, coming to towns and cities to look for work. Housing has a very low priority on their list of needs. They want to be where the jobs are. Hence their willing acceptance of life in crevices of the city, as illegal squatters and pavement dwellers. To offer them self-help housing on land at the edge of the city, far away from the jobs, is to misunderstand totally their predicament. This is why the migrants move back to the pavements, as near as possible to where they can find work.

                Obviously, there are several things that must be done (and some of which are already being done in many Third World countries), about this distress migration.

                First of all, land redistribution and other social reforms must be implemented in the villages so as to increase their holding capacity.

                Second, key market towns in each district must be identified and reinforced with appropriate investments so that they become new growth centres.

                Third, wherever possible, new industry and offices (especially governmental ones) should be located in small towns and cities—and not in the large metropolises.

                The first is the most crucial task of all. It is what Mahatma Gandhi was trying to bring about through his village development programmes (khadi spinning, etc.) and what Mao so spectacularly accomplished for China through his communes. In most cases, it will involve a redistribution of land holdings—as for instance in India, where so many of the urban migrants are destitute landless labour. This means changes in the class/caste structure—perhaps the most difficult political objective of all. Yet, if that is not done, developmental funds and resources (i.e., irrigation schemes, government loans, etc.) get routed through the rural elite—who use it to increase their own leverage, thus triggering off even more distress migration.

                The other two objectives are more easily achieved. Because of national policies regarding industrial location and financial investments, the largest metropolises in India are not the fastest growing ones. Bombay and Calcutta are increasing at a little over four per cent annually, whereas right now medium-sized cities like Bangalore and Bhopal are growing at more than seven per cent.

                If all these strategies work, then Bombay, which today has nine million citizens, may stabilize at fifteen million or so. If not, there is no doubt that it will go the way of Mexico City, which by the turn of the century is expected to grow to thirty million inhabitants. (Actually Mexico has an advantage—the national population is only fifty-five million. So there is an upper limit to how large its cities can become. With a current population of 700 million, our urban future is far more open-ended.)

                To the industrialized West, numbers like these are, of course, traumatic. Yet, it is a trauma which cannot be resolved unless we understand the functional value of these migrations, viz., that they are serving to read just the socioeconomic pressures acting on society. Thus, far from being an indicator of the demise of a society, they are a sign of hope, a sign of the will to survive. In fact, wouldn’t India be a far more pessimistic proposition if the have-nots just lay down in the villages, waiting to die?

                Anyway, mass migration to urban areas is nothing new. European society also grew several-fold between the 17th and 19th centuries, and was equally desperate—for much the same reasons: growing rural population, limited supply, of arable land and so forth. That precedent, however, had one crucial difference: the Europeans did not need to read just themselves within their own national boundaries. Because of their military clout, they were free to distribute themselves around the globe—which in turn led them to higher standards of living, and hence to smaller families. (In other words, family planning is a natural con-commitment of rising expectations-and not vice versa. People do not have smaller families for altruistic, ‘national’ reasons—nor larger ones, as witness the futile attempts of successive French and German governments in this century.)

                Unfortunately, this kind of global redistribution is not an option open to the Third World today—and certainly not to India, or any other Asian country. To understand this is to begin to perceive the crucial role which our towns and cities are actually playing. They are substitutes for migrating to Australia—functioning, in effect, as mechanisms for generating employment.

                If this is so, then the question is: How can we increase their absorptive capacity? Since there is a sharp limit to the number of jobs which can be generated in industry, the vast majority of the migrants to cities will have to find work in tertiary and bazaar activities. Any intervention we make in the urban scene, therefore, should aim to increase economic activity in these areas.

                To achieve this

objective, the physical form of the city itself can be of crucial importance. For instance, large high-rise buildings restrict activity to the handful of developers who can organize the staggering bundles of finance needed for such projects, to the very few engineers and architects who design the structures, and to the even fewer construction companies that build them—not to mention the profits, much of which goes to the banks that underwrite the whole deal. Compare this to the number of jobs in the bazaar sector (masons, carpenters, petty contractors, etc.) that the same amount of investment would generate if the pattern of development consisted of the kind we find in old city centres, throughout the Third World, viz., small, tightly packed buildings, each four or five storeys high.

                Sadly, these sort of issues are not perceived by the decision-makers and the privileged. Instead, as the migrants pour in, they opt, like King Canute, for edicts to stop the tide. Many believe that some kind of permit system to enter the city must be made mandatory. Unfortunately, this totally ignores the fact that such measures, apart from trampling on fundamental human rights, are also of questionable morality (what we are saying to the poor in effect is, ‘I got here first’). Furthermore, in most cases, they will only serve to increase political favouritism and corruption.


The urbanisation of India is taking place at a faster rate than in the rest of the world. By 2030, 40.76 per cent of India’s population will be living in urban areas compared to about 28.4 per cent now. So says the United Nations’ ‘State of the World Population 2007’ report.

                But at the same time, the report adds, metropolitan cities like Mumbai and Kolkata have a far greater number of people moving out than coming in. It also says that a few cities will be the size doomsayers had predicted in the 1970s. Mega cities are still dominant but they have not grown to the size once projected and have consistently declined in most world regions, the report says.

                According to the report, over 90 per cent of slum-dwellers live in developing countries with China and India accounting for 37 per cent of them. About 56 per cent of the urban population live in slum conditions. The report also says that in countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the literacy rate of women living in slums is as low as 52 per cent.

                For countries like India, the report says, getting ready for the aging population is another big challenge. In Chennai, it says, total fertility rate has fallen to below replacement levels. The city has closed down 10 maternity clinics and reopened them as geriatric units.

                Interestingly, though half of the world’s population live in urban areas, the rate of urbanisation is showing a decline except in growing economies like India.

                The population of towns and cities in developing countries like India is set to double in the space of a generation, while the urban population in the developed world is expected to grow relatively lower, the report says.

                In comparison to the urban population growth rate, the world’s rural population is expected to decrease by some 28 million between 2005 and 2030.

At the other extreme, there are those who would like to legalize every squatter settlement, exactly as is, where is. This approach at least has the advantage of having a humane and moral basis—however it ignores the scale of the phenomenon we are facing. For although it is a fact that a large number of people have managed to find unprotected land and pavements on which to live in various parts of the city, there simply aren’t enough such crevices left in most cities for this to be a general solution to the problem.

                If Bombay, for instance, had four million well-housed inhabitants and no more than 100,000 destitute, then this approach might have been valid. But today there are 4.5 million illegal squatters in Bombay (by government count!)—and many more to come. So that strategy just isn’t viable. For when the city authorities have filled all the pavements, and all the maidans (i.e., green areas), and all the staircases of all the buildings (which won’t take very long at the rate we are going), then what will they do for an encore?

                Obviously, more urban land need to be generated—and at a rate (and on a scale) commensurate with the demand. By urban land one means not just any land anywhere, but land serviced by public transport and related to work opportunities. In other words, new growth centres which read just the pressure points in the existing city structure.

                This approach has a crucial advantage—it is perhaps the only way we can urbanize within the almost implacable financial constraints prevailing in our countries. For in India or Pakistan or Bangladesh, the income per family is extremely low. Using brick and concrete, very little can be constructed within this budget—in Bombay, somewhere between 1.5 sqm to 3 sqm for each family. And this for almost thirty per cent of the population! Of course, simple mud and bamboo houses built with self-help schemes are very much cheaper, but here the cost of desirable urban land becomes exorbitant. Thus, these ‘sites-and-services’ schemes tend to be located, almost by definition, on unwanted land on the edge of the city—a miserable location since the inhabitants are far away from the mass transport lines and hence employment. At best, many of these schemes become ghettos of cheap labour at the mercy of one or two local factories.

                On the other hand, there are the advocates of high-rise housing schemes—such as are found in Hong Kong and Singapore. Here the cost of service infrastructure, including mass transport, is lower. However, the cost of the housing unit in a multi-storeyed building itself is way beyond the reach of the vast majority of the Third World poor (Singapore has a per capita income several times higher than Bombay). And if any subsidies are available, they would have other and more urgent priorities—such as food, health, education and so forth.

                Thus, we see that as long as we are dealing with small bits and pieces of the problem, there doesn’t seem to be any solution in sight. To find the right strategies, we must start with an overview; we must of necessity examine the entire system we call ‘city’ and try to identify those living patterns and those lifestyles, which are optimal in their totality—including roads, services, schools, transportation systems, social facilities and, of course, the housing units themselves. Only then might we be able to perceive how one could—in Buckminster Fuller’s ineffable phrase—’rearrange the scenery’.

                This, in fact, is the opportunity of ‘New Bombay’, a growth centre for two million people, currently being developed across the harbour from the old city. It is an attempt to divert the office jobs (which in Bombay are growing three times faster than industrial jobs) away from the city, so that in one stroke the pressure on the existing city centre is relieved and a key input is added to the urban growth equation across the harbour.

                Bombay’s growth is typical of many of the primate cities of the Third World. It took forty years, from 1900 to 1940, to go from one million to 1.8 million. Then came World War II and a jump in population. By 1960 the population had crossed four million. Today it is over nine million.

                And Bombay, of Course, is not an isolated phenomenon. A number of cities around the World are growing at this rate. For instance, between 1950 and 1985, Abidjan has grown from 69,000 to over a million; Lagos from under 250,000 to over two million; Bangkok from less than one million to more than four million; and Bogota from 650,000 to over three million.

                Most of these Third World primate cities (Calcutta, Singapore, Lima, Hong Kong, etc.) came into being as an interface between the colonial powers and the hinterland. The colonials developed them for their own ends—at a scale, and with an economic and physical structure, which suited their purpose.

                With the independence of these countries, however, these cities started to grow at a much faster pace—and with no upper limit in sight. In most cases, little or no attention has been paid by the new national governments to adjust the obsolete city structures. Hence their holding capacity has no relation to the scale of the demands being made on them.

                This is particularly true of Bombay. Like many other seaports, the city is one long breakwater, protecting the harbour from the open sea. The East India Company started the settlement more than three centuries ago, placing the docks and the Fort (i.e., the protected manufacturing and trading area), right where the ships berthed, at the southern tip of this breakwater. This linear structure provided a natural functional framework—one which sufficed, in a manner, right up to World War II. Subsequent population increases, however, have stretched this structure further and further, until now, like a rubber band, it is ready to snap.

                At the southernmost tip of the island lies an enormous complex of governmental and commercial offices—which form the principle financial centre of the entire nation. These office jobs, together with the vast textile mills next to them, trigger off every day massive flows of traffic, southward in the morning, northward in the evening. To avoid this gruelling commuting (up to several hours, each way), people try to live as close as possible to the southern end—in squatter settlements, or in overcrowded slums, ten or fifteen in a room.

                There is, indeed, a brutal mismatch between the city’s structure and the load it must carry today. As the population escalates, there is increasing competition for the same facilities—and, of course, the rich win out, pre-empting the desirable urban land. Compare the pattern of job locations in the city—and the land prices. Is it any wonder that the poor have to live on the pavements?

Excerpts from A Place in the Shade (Penguin Books 2010)

By Charles Correa




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