SUNDAY MAGAZINE

No line on the urban horizon

Emerging political boundaries can help us rethink other categories

Whenever a new State emerges on the Indian political horizon, there is a burst of hope amongst its residents that the reboot will usher in a new era. Typically, a new State is accompanied by a major boost to construction activities that get centred around the capital city.

The relatively newer States of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh with the cities of Ranchi and Raipur, went through this process a few years ago. Similarly, Telangana and Seemandhara, with Hyderabad and Amaravati continue this mammoth political opera.

Unfortunately, after a few years, those bursts of hope and glory typically fade away and business continues as usual. We usually don’t get to hear of much beyond some new real estate projects in the capital city or tourist hotspots that the government tries hard to push, mostly to divert attention from the continued lack of development in rural areas or a reckless takeover of natural resources.

The modern kingdom

One major reason for this is the relative obscurity of what lies beyond the urban horizon. Much of rural India, in spite of the panchayat level decentralisation, is still ruled through systems that were designed to extract revenue and govern populations through excessive control of resources. The mechanism that is employed is primarily the governance of the district.

The district as a unit of public administration and governance has pre-colonial roots. The kingdom, traditionally, was ruled by centralised royal enclaves with villages being networked into larger administrative categories. British colonialism inherited and transformed the district. It became an even more efficient and ruthless system of revenue collection, extraction of natural resources and of the setting up of infrastructural regimes of control. Feudal systems were strengthened while decentralised modes of administration — for example, traditional councils in coastal, tribal and hilly regions — were dismantled.

Today, much of rural India is still administered by templates where older configurations for control and revenue extraction remain active, even as they get further straddled with achieving developmental goals. And this is where the system trips, as one logic often gets in the way of the other.

Even the Centre’s well-meaning and ambitious Rurban Mission project may find itself trapped through these cross-wired systems in the coming years. The Rurban Mission creates frameworks for rural governance through village cluster schemes, and by the planned creation of “rurban” enclaves. It has formalised a vision articulating rural-urban habitats as integrated systems and is working towards development goals within this frame.

However, the space of the rural is a complex one. It is not constituted of discrete habitats — which can be placed on a rural-urban continuum that adds up first into networks and clusters and eventually cities. The overwhelming influence of modern urban economies in shaping rural contours remains extremely intense. Whether through shaping agricultural demand, influencing rural lives through circular migration or controlling the use of natural resources like fish and minerals.

Power equations

Some scholars such as Anthony Leeds reject the ‘rural’ category altogether seeing it as a sub-set of the urban. At first reading, such an argument may seem to be anti-rural. A closer look, however, reveals that it only describes power equations that exist and are indeed overwhelmingly influential — based on flows of economic energy and urban dominance.

However much we plan rurban enclaves and rural networks of villages, the power of the urban economy will continue to overwhelm the way it emerges. In practice, the rural is indeed the sub-set of the urban and the more this is acknowledged and understood, the better will we be in a position to make lives and economies in rural areas prosper and grow.

What new States like Telangana need is new ways of thinking about administration, especially around the categories rural and urban.

Configurations that emerge around existing lives, along the flows of people and goods, where local histories and economies have a greater say at larger regional and national levels — have to become the real contours for governance and participation.

The writers are co-founders of urbz.net, an urban network that’s active in Mumbai, Goa and beyond.

Much of rural India continues to be administered by templates where older configurations for control remain active

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