Only a process of reverse migration based on the Gandhian model can save India’s cities, and also rural India.

A report prepared by the United Nations Development Programme reveals that in India’s big cities more than 40 per cent of the people live in slums. Some of them have reasonable levels of income, but cannot afford other housing. For many reasons including the population load, slums are unhygienic. It is high time the root causes of unplanned and ugly urbanisation, and the destruction of rural life, are identified.

More than 40 per cent of Indians live in the urban areas and less than 60 per cent in the villages — and this dichotomy is growing. Even basic amenities such as water, streets, drainage, electricity, educational or medical facilities, and playgrounds are often not available.

On the eve of Independence, Kolkata and Mumbai were the only Indian cities with a population of more than a million. In 1980, the number of such cities was hardly 10. At that time, as the Union Minister for Planning this writer had insisted that without provision of adequate water, sufficient area for the construction of houses and infrastructure facilities, no city should be allowed to have a population of more than a million. But this was ridiculed. During the last 30 years, the craze for urbanisation under the garb of “growth” has spawned unplanned, ugly and congested cities in India. The only solution is to de-congest the cities, for instance Mumbai, moving out mills that make cotton, edible oil, vanaspati and so on that are dependent on raw materials coming from the rural areas, and stop any further influx into the cities. Simultaneously, population growth should be checked.

Satellite cities and towns where the raw materials are available should be created. These should be planned with facilities for housing, education and health. Commercial, industrial, educational and entertainment complexes should be built, surrounded by a green belt that is up to 2 km in breadth.

London witnessed such an experiment after the Second World War. The London Municipal Corporation succeeded in voluntarily moving out 15 lakh people to new modern satellite cities.

It is necessary to explore the basic cause of the influx from the rural areas. For want of employment opportunities, medical and educational facilities and infrastructure such as roads and communication in the rural areas, people prefer to come to the cities, particularly in search of employment.

Along with unplanned urbanisation, rural life is being destroyed. To prevent migration, the villages should be enriched. The 6,00,000 villages in the country should become self-reliant and have adequate employment opportunities, educational facilities, medical services, communication facilities and roads. They should become green and clean.

This may appear to be a dream. The organisation named Vanarai has sought successfully to prevent the influx into the cities. In fact, several families have returned from city slums to their own villages as these had become self-reliant. Only such a process of reverse migration based on the Gandhian model can save our cities, and also rural India.

Our land, water, cattle wealth, forests, the 7,000-km coastline, vast biomass resources, the bright sun, and species including medicinal plants are India’s real strength. Ever since Independence, these natural resources have remained under-developed. By effectively developing them, it has become possible for Vanarai to achieve reverse migration.

Water is the key issue for any sort of development process. India gets a significant quantity of water from rain or the melting of Himalayan ice. Despite investing thousands of crores of rupees on major, medium or minor dams, India has not been able to harvest even 10 per cent of the water that is available. It is possible to conserve every drop of rainwater that falls, take adequate care of drinking water and still make water available for protective or seasonal irrigation through a scientific watershed management programme.

Wasted lands not wastelands

Nearly half of India’s geographical area of 32.8 million square km is degraded land or wasteland. These are not wastelands but wasted lands. It is possible to make them productive with modern technology and scientific micro-watershed management. It is also possible to increase productivity. Compared to India’s rate of about 2,000 kg a hectare, countries such as China have a productivity of the order of 4,000 kg a ha. In some other countries this varies from 5,000 kg to 6,000 kg a ha. India has huge cattle wealth: there is one animal for every two persons. Here again productivity is low with respect to milk, wool, mutton, eggs and so on. There is tremendous scope to increase yields. Fisheries in inland water reservoirs and along the 7,000-km seashore holds significant potential. Efforts are needed to boost fisheries on a much wider, scientific scale.

Though 22 per cent of the land in India belongs to the Forest Department, nearly half of the forest land has no green cover. Similar is the case with natural resources including biomass and solar, wind and wave power. By developing natural resources, villages could be made self-reliant. And better basic education with contemporary computer literacy and medical facilities could be provided.

In villages like Gawadewadi near Pune, Varandh in the Konkan and Zari in Marathwada, Vanarai has achieved reverse migration. Many families have returned to their villages. They now earn better incomes and have a better quality of life in an environment-friendly atmosphere.

With due respect, this author disagrees with the opinion of many eminent scientists that India will suffer scarcity of water and food as a result of global warming. All natural resources including manpower in India can be fully developed. There is adequate drinking water and food in India. There cannot be any scarcity. On the contrary, India has the potential to feed other countries also to some extent.

The decongestion of cities by the creation of environment-friendly satellite cities, enrichment of villages and reverse migration are the means to save the urban areas and rebuild a clean and green rural India. This calls for vision, determination, unity and resolve on the part of all people.

(Mohan Dharia is a former Union Minister and a former Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. He is the founder-chairman of the Confederation of NGOs in Rural India, and president of the Vanarai Foundation. Email: vanaraitrust@rediffmail.com)

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