‘Urbanised’ rural areas must migrate to regulations that would get urbanisation right.
It is widely acknowledged that many strategically located villages move away from rural characteristics and progressively adopt urban features. The Indian Constitution terms any such changing settlement as ‘transitional area.’ Ultimately, these villages transform themselves into proper towns. This metamorphosis involves a rise in population, greater demographic density, larger local revenue generation, higher percentage of non-agricultural employment, increase in economic significance and such other factors. Based on an assessment of these developments, governments declare such villages as urban local body (ULB) through an official notification.
It is also evident that the forces of urbanisation do not merely operate within the confines of a settlement. They press themselves outwards, engulfing peripheral areas with urban features. After some time, they are ready for merger into the neighbouring notified municipal entities. We, therefore, learn periodically that the areas of ULBs have expanded through mergers of peripheral villages. Mergers lead to a larger geographical area for the ULBs, more population within their limits and greater economic activity.
Invariably, however, conversion of a village into a separate ULB or merger with a neighbouring ULB have proved highly unpopular with villages. Examples of such resistance are abound. Most recently, in September 2020, Maharashtra government approved the merger of some peripheral villages into Satara municipal council. This merger will eventually lead to a rise in local taxes in these erstwhile villages. To soften the blow, government spread the rise in taxation over a period of five years. Interestingly, the expansion proposal was mooted first in 1979 and it took 41 years to take a final decision because of various pressures the state had to contend with, primarily from the local leaders and residents.
In June 2020, Gujarat government expanded the limits of six municipal corporations — Ahmedabad, Surat, Gandhinagar, Rajkot, Bhavnagar and Vadodara. A total of 100 sq. km. got added to Ahmedabad’s existing area of 464 sq. km. Surat had 27 villages and two ULBs merged with it expanding the city’s limits from 326 sq. km. to 500 sq. km. Gandhinagar subsumed eighteen villages and one municipality, Rajkot four villages and Vadodara seven villages. These proposals were under consideration for quite some time; but there was stiff opposition from many village panchayats and four of them have moved the Gujarat High Court against the merger. Bhatt, sarpanch of one of the four villages wondered why Vadodara wanted more areas when it has as yet “not provided basic amenities to villages acquired in previous expansions.”
In 2010, the Tamil Nadu government expanded the limits of the Coimbatore Municipal Corporation by amalgamating three municipalities, seven town panchayats and a village panchayat. In an effort to buy peace with the resenting village residents, government declared that it would not increase taxes for five years. In Chennai, a 2018 proposal to expand its geographical area was stoutly opposed by citizens and activists. In Uttar Pradesh, a proposal to expand the boundaries of Prayagraj by merging several villages has been pending since 2013. The proposal was stalled in a recent cabinet meeting. Reportedly, a UP minister opposed such expansion since the officers had not apprised him of the facts of the case.
Why is there such deep-seated local prejudice against merger with a ULB? One of the most significant reasons, generally not openly articulated, is political. It comes from the ‘sarpanch’ of the village panchayat. The sarpanch enjoys the ‘numero uno’ position in the panchayat and is the key decision-maker. Amalgamation with a ULB completely destroys his political pre-eminence. He could become a future councillor; but he would have none of the authority that he enjoyed earlier. It is obvious that the sarpanch would resist any such eventuality by pulling whatever strings he can in state politics to get such a decision annulled.
The resistance gets stronger as the villagers are equally opposed to the merger for a different set of reasons. The foremost is the rise in taxes. In the governance architecture of this country, state financial assistance to ULBs reduces in comparison with village panchayats. It is expected that with stronger economies, towns will be able to generate their own revenue to shoulder a larger financial burden. This translates into a higher outgo from each erstwhile villager’s pocket for the upkeep of the ULB. This becomes more galling as the rise in taxes leads to no perceptible improvement in services. In many instances, their money could be diverted to expenditures in wards where local councillors are more powerful, such as Chairman of the Standing Committee. Neither are villagers enthused by the prospect of local service delivery issues and grievance redressal getting more centralised. These could move to the more distant municipal office and get mired in municipal red tape. As a Coimbatore councillor protested, “In a bigger elected body, it is as good as shouting in the market”. Interestingly, it is the conversion and merger that are the subjects of rural resistance, not urbanisation. The rise in property values and the local economy that urbanisation brings gets gleefully lapped up by villagers.
Surprisingly, municipal bodies themselves are no longer overenthusiastic about merger. In the earlier ‘octroi days’, the eagerness was high. This was because local traders built their godowns outside the municipal limits to avoid octroi. However, municipalities were aware that the goods in these warehouses were for consumption within the ULBs. Hence, they sought to extend their boundaries to bring these godowns within municipal limits. With the onset of General Services and Goods Tax (GST), octroi itself got subsumed into GST. Extension of limits now became a burden for ULBs as it brought meagre additional revenue, a larger population to look after and a sizeable village staff to absorb that had poor capacity to handle complex municipal functions.
With little democratic backing, the urban development department of the state remains the only support base for mergers. The need essentially comes on account of the situation created by urbanisation within a rural governance framework. It leads to haphazard urbanisation in the absence of proper planning and development control regulations. This results in problems of health, transport and environment. Unfortunately, even at the state level, political parties tend to weigh political gains and losses before supporting any such urban classification and merger.
It is clearly not in the overall interest of the nation to promote sub-standard urbanisation. ‘Urbanised’ rural areas must migrate to regulations that would get urbanisation right. This could be done by either declaring such villages as independent ULBs or merge them with another ULB, depending on administrative viability and economies of scale. A further point of concern is that there is a huge amount of state discretion afforded by the Constitution in determining the basket of factors and their levels at which villages would be deemed to be towns. This results in the adoption of varied yardsticks that make levels of national urbanisation difficult to assess. Additionally, while such discretion serves political expediency, it skews the urban planning process. It is, therefore, imperative that a standard be uniformly applied. All rural settlements that cross a fixed urban threshold should automatically get converted into a ULB or get merged with a ULB. However, for this to happen, citizens must find perceptible difference in the quality of services that a ULB delivers. This could only occur if Government of India and state governments share adequate resources with ULBs. The current funding levels are abysmally low and financially struggling cities will not be able to cope with the wave of urbanisation and aspirations of the people.
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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 ...Read More +