With the title ‘Urban Villager’ and a cover photograph juxtaposing a dhoti-clad herdsman and his sheep against towering highrises, Vandana Vasudevan’s book held out the promise of looking at a pan-Indian phenomenon of rapidly spreading urbanisation and its impact on the villages and small towns that the mega city engulfs as it grows without the necessary infrastructure.
Vasudevan is literally on home turf in this book as her move to live in Greater Noida (GNOIDA) sparks off the need to understand the processes and impact of a new satellite town on the villages where land is acquired, new tenants — both individual and commercial — who move into the new town, on the environment and the scarce resources such as water and electricity.
The 16 chapters of the book are split into 5 sections, each of which describes a facet of the change — sometimes slow, sometimes dramatic that the new town engenders. The clash of worlds as described by Vasudevan is more pronounced given that GNOIDA as a satellite town of the national capital Delhi in Uttar Pradesh, sought to usher in urbanisation in one of India’s least urbanised states — a situation prevailing even today. The opposition is stark in the world of the 1990s that she describes.
In her introduction, Vasudevan details the official process that led to the setting up of the satellite towns of NOIDA and GNOIDA to ease the congestion of Delhi, to offer residents the amenities of a world class city while being within reach of the national capital and to expand the urban experience to the hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh, east of Delhi. The pride and sense of achievement of Yogendra Narayan, the first chairperson of GNOIDA in envisioning and seeing the new city come to life with its neat grid of streets and avenue trees speaks of the sincerity of a rare breed of bureaucrats — spurred by a vision rather than pelf.
The first section titled ‘Whose land is it anyway’ deals with land acquisition, with Vasudevan tracing roots back to the times of the Mahabharata, describing communities of snake catchers and charmers now dispossessed not only of their land but also their livelihood post Maneka Gandhi’s campaigns.
The second section looks at the impact of lost land on the mainly farming communities as well as the changes wrought by the sudden availability of surplus money in the form of compensation that lacks avenues for investment. According to Vasudevan, the compensation money has largely been spent on SUVs and building larger homes, with very few farmers having bought alternate land. The rest of the money has almost naturally gone down the bottle.
A significant amount of the compensation money has also gone into attempts to buy an education with the mushrooming of ‘institutes’ offering courses that promise a fast-track to white collar employment. Sadly, many of these are fly-by-night operations with unqualified teachers and only serve to cheat the students and their unsuspecting parents.
The third and fourth sections — ‘New owners of an old land’ and ‘The schizophrenia of the peri-urban town’ — look at the new entrants into this dystopia, people like Vasudevan herself and their attempts to create sociological infrastructure/civilisation as it were leading to the creation of a ‘community’ beyond just the proximity of habitation. She describes music and dance classes and the space set aside for the arts in the new cities as much as the spaces set aside for industry. Even as industry languishes for lack of infrastructure — connectivity, electricity etc, the proto-cultural centres’ efforts of the various dance and music schools meet with indifferent success and quickly switch from odissi to salsa since that is what the big, fat Gujjar wedding demands! And Vasudevan has a chapter on the big, fat Gujjar wedding though her discomfort at the village welcome and largesse reveals more about her than the Gujjars.
The volume concludes with ‘Growth pangs of Young Towns’. Vasudevan’s prescriptions: ‘Do not grab land’ i.e., give the original land holders a stake in the new city; do not isolate — ensure the participation of the original inhabitants in the new city; and do not neglect — the need to provide basic infrastructure of electricity, water and transport in the new satellite cities. Despite the length and wealth of description, Vasudevan’s Urban Villager ultimately remains a Sunday/magazine feature, with no coherent analysis of the many issues raised by the pattern of urbanisation and city development epitomised by NOIDA and GNOIDA.
Her concerns remain middle class — of maids, transport — a telling chapter details her visit to the Gautam Buddh F1 races with her son and her and the sad trudge back in the absence of any public transport from the mutli-million rupee venue, epitomising the lop-sided and incomplete nature of urban growth in the country. There are nuggets — such as the process of de-watering, necessary for the construction of high rise apartments that serves to severely deplete groundwater, or the impact of the urban sprawl on wetlands and water bodies such as the Dadri wetlands in Bil Akbarpur village, site of mega builders Ansals proposed lakeside city.
The real estate mega boom across the country has resulted in an epidemic of concretitis; fuelled by easy bank credit and tall promises of builders. The cost of the Indian middle class dream of ‘own house’ in the absence of state-mandated urban planning and a housing for all policy, has been an irreparably destroyed ecology, acute and growing water scarcity with nary a thought for replenishment, pollution from exploding traffic (‘own car’ is the sibling of ‘own house’) and universal waste mis-management.
In not joining the dots and widening the scope of her book, Vasudevan’s ‘Urban Villager’ leaves one disappointed.