Author : Ramanath Jha

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Dec 05, 2020
The impact of Gandhi on post-Independence treatment of cities

If India’s tallest and most influential leader propounded a view with great passion and conviction, its impact on generations of decision-makers that followed was bound to be profound. This was more than true in regard to cities. Gandhi’s views about cities were critical in the extreme and his appreciation of villages was laudatory to the hilt. They left indelible imprints on his followers and India’s decision-makers for decades. While several other factors have intervened and ought to share the culpability in landing cities in their current pitiable state, much of the neglect that they have faced could be traced to the urban views and expressions of the Mahatma.

Gandhi, during his life, remained an unalloyed votary of the village. He firmly believed that the “future of India lies in its villages.” Reiterating his views, he wrote in the Harijan in 1947 that the “real India lives in the 7,00,000 villages. If Indian civilisation is to make its full contribution to the building up of a stable world order, it is this vast mass of humanity that has … to be made to live again.” He wished the country would emerge as a nation of villages and that each village would be a republic that was self-sufficient, empowered and proficient in managing its own affairs. “The cities are capable of taking care of themselves. It is the villages we have to turn to,” he wrote.

He was deeply anguished by the emergence of the cities as exploiters of villages. He also saw cities in civilisational terms as alien to the soil of India and their growth as signs of degeneration. He wrote, “To me, the rise of cities like Calcutta and Bombay is a matter of sorrow rather than congratulation. India has lost in having broken up a part of her village system.” Perhaps, his strongest condemnation of cities was captured in his following words, “I regard the growth of cities as an evil thing, unfortunate for mankind and the world, unfortunate for England and certainly unfortunate for India. The British have exploited India through its cities. The latter have exploited the villages. The blood of the villages is the cement with which the edifice of the cities is built.” Statements and writings that reflected similar sentiments continued to flow from Gandhi over several decades, and with the exception of Dr. Ambedkar, generally went uncontested by other leaders of the time.

Pandit Nehru, who was at the helm of the country for 17 long years, saw villages in a different light and was aware of the frailties of rural India, especially the entrenched caste system, and was quite critical of the traditional social order. In his Discovery of India, he unequivocally propounded this. He wrote, “In the context of society today, the caste system and much that goes with it are wholly incompatible, reactionary, restrictive, and barriers to progress. There can be no equality in status and opportunity within its framework, nor can there be political democracy, and much less economic democracy”.

Despite the fact that Nehru’s overall analysis of the village differed from Gandhi, he was clear that developmental priorities should focus on the village. He was not against urbanisation per se. He backed the development of the new city of Chandigarh and regarded it as symbolic of the freedom of India and an expression of the nation’s faith in the future. However, he completely concurred with his Guru that cities did not deserve care. “Cities, after all, are moving and they will go ahead. But the villages require great attention,” he said, while speaking at a seminar on social welfare in September 1963. He drove his point of developmental preferences further. “Although I live in Delhi city, my mind is concerned more and more with the villages of India and how to give them the basic necessities of life, and how to make them self-reliant.” Speaking at the Central Council of Local Self-Government in 1963, he remarked, “Municipalities, by and large, are not shining examples of efficiency in doing any kind of good work. A very dangerous situation confronts us now when we have also the Panchayati Raj and new councils and Parishads have been elected. Are they also going down the drain like our third-rate municipalities?” There is no reason to contest his assessment of the state of municipal bodies, as they then existed. The question is, what did he do about them? Clearly not much. The net result of Nehru’s thinking was that it further cemented the anti-urban mindset that Gandhian thought had imposed on the political masters of the country.

Dr. Ambedkar’s views, on the other hand, were absolutely anti-rural. He regarded the village as “a den of inequity”. “In this Republic”, he wrote, “there is no room for democracy. There is no room for equality. There is no room for liberty and there is no room for fraternity. The Indian village is a very negation of the Republic.” Ambedkar did not support the idea of an all-powerful village. He was convinced that “decentralisation can lead to further empowering the powerful and a more blatant exploitation of the weak, left naked in the absence of a higher and more powerful arbiter from outside”.

He, therefore, exhorted Dalits to migrate to cities to escape the humiliation that they suffered in rural India. He saw in cities the possibility of freedom for Dalits from caste and their caste-based occupations as well as the chances of better wages. He was convinced that it is only cities that could lead to economic and socio-cultural equity. However, while his influence among the Dalits has continued to grow, and a large number of Dalits, especially in Maharashtra, did choose to become urban residents, his criticism of the village could not root out the entrenched anti-urban beliefs that had been nurtured by Gandhian thought.

The impact was palpably visible in the policy statements contained in the early five-year plans. “Urbanisation, by and large, does not appear as a problem worthy of attention,” the plans concluded while discussing financial allocation, despite observing that urban growth was ‘haphazard’. Several five-year plans, thereafter, continued to treat cities as the periphery. It was Manmohan Singh, who for the first time openly recognised the significance of cities and declared in his very first speech on 15 August 2004 that urbanisation will be one of the seven pillars of the Indian economy in the years to come. He also brought in the first substantial urban programme, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (2005-2012), directed at select Indian cities. However, even this was too little, too late. By the end of the programme, India’s urban size had risen from 62.4 million (1951) to 377 million (2011) and its towns had risen in number from 2,843 to 7,935 in the same period. Its metropolitan cities multiplied from 5 to 52. Many of these became mega cities with huge slums beset with a multitude of seemingly intractable challenges.

Whereas, the studied inattention towards cities shown by policy and decision-makers resulted in the haphazard and run-down growth of cities, the cherished wish in regard to the preferred settlement pattern of the founding fathers had been blown away. Over the years, Indians have shown increasing readiness to abandon the village and move into towns, thereby negating the fond hope that India will live in its villages. Soon, India will be living overwhelmingly in towns and cities. Despite the inattention and neglect, more and more cities and towns are springing up, and a rising number of villages are mutating themselves into urban centres. The sad part is that cities have turned away from some of the tenets of Gandhian thought that continue to be of abiding value. Urban India is hugely inequitable, quite unhygienic, very polluted and a poor example of livability. And while the political followers have largely stuck to the inattention recommended for cities by the Guru, they have rejected his teachings on local self-empowerment. Cities continue to be tightly held in the suffocating embrace of the states.

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Ramanath Jha

Ramanath Jha

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...

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