Discrepancies in urbanisation: India compared to China

The divergence in urbanisation between India and China is informative, reflecting as it does variables including in the modes of economic production (Nijman 2012: 8). The global urban revolution that advanced through the nineteenth century was intimately tied to industrialisation. Cities became important centres of manufacture demanding large concentrations of labour; urbanisation mushroomed, and the social fabric was reconfigured (Barnes 2012; Nijman 2012: 8). The success of the Chinese economy today is firmly tied to manufacturing industry, providing some 100 million jobs.' The current urban population bias in China conforms to a continuation of the historical model into the twenty-first century.

Today’s variant of the urbanisation model, gathering momentum since the 1980s, is closely tied to the rise of the information economy and the processes of globalisation, including the mobility of capital and fluidity of means of exchange. India’s urbanisation, especially in the southern States, has been driven in substantial measure by fast growth in the software industry. Whereas urbanisation is substantial in numerical terms, the rural-urban share remains static and the rates of growth the same. Labour-intensive industrialisation is low, providing some 10 million jobs4 — a tenth of the figure in China — with ongoing urban growth deriving primarily from natural increase rather than net migration from rural areas (Barnes 2012). The substantial and continuing rural population bias in India manifests the potential for a new twenty-first century model of distributed urbanisation.

Support for this thesis is evidenced by a tripling in the number of ‘census towns’ in India in recent decades (villages whose populations have expanded beyond 5,000 with less than a quarter of the male workforce engaged in agriculture) (Nijman 2012: 11), suggesting that rural-urban migration to smaller cities has been especially significant (Nijman 2012: 14). A further phenomenon is the design and development of new towns on the periphery of metropolitan areas, specifically to attract wealthy investors in the advanced information economy, connected to global circuits of capital and removed from the pressures of urbanisation in the megacities (Nijman 2012: 18; Wang, Kundu, and Chen 2010).

Questioning the orthodox urbanisation paradigm

India’s larger cities contain a seemingly bewildering spectrum of economically connected activities that embrace pre-industrial-age technologies through today’s post-industrial and computer-driven era (Nijman 2012: 15). This characteristic is allied to a hybrid social structure that, contrary to conventional urban planning theory that presupposes adaptation to nuclear family lifestyles corresponding to other world regions, sustains strong ancestral traditions, social ties and cultural identities including caste in the urban slums, allows extended families to flourish and remain connected to the myriad villages (Nijman 2012: 16), and supports fluidity in patterns of rural-urban-rural migration.

As Jan Nijman suggests:

We are only just beginning to understand Indian cities in their entirety, this amalgam of human modes of survival and adaptation, of diverse modes of production, historical continuities and ruptures, disparate urban fabric, complex geographies, and vernacular representations of modernity. India seems to be writing its own script.

(Nijman 2012: 18)

Slums remain an integral and expanding part of the urban landscape in many parts of the developing world (Davis 2006). Contextualising to this chapter, ‘[t]he prevalence of slums in urban India can be regarded as a consequence of urbanization without industrialization’ (Nijman 2012: 15). Mumbai alone is estimated to have 6.5 million slum dwellers, whose numerous geographically and socio-economically distinct neighbourhoods exist in symbiotic relationship with the modern parts of the city and comprise an integral part of the urban landscape (Borgen Project 2017; Nijman 2010). The inequalities, however, are growing and are greater in cities than in rural areas. Whereas the Indian government has articulated urbanisation as a goal, synonymous as it is with orthodox notions of development, economic growth, modernisation, and consumer access to goods and services, it is not clear that single adherence to this received model is sustainable in the medium let alone long-term (Nijman 2012: 17); the phenomenon of ‘ghost cities’ in China and the concomitant destruction of traditional communities and agrarian societies together with rural as well as urban heritage reinforces this assessment (Shepard 2015). The notion that India’s urban transition could enable more citizens to live better quality, healthier and better-educated lives as well as lead to less resource-intensive development with lower environmental impacts (India Institute for Human Settlements 2012: introduction), needs to be qualified.

India faces enormous challenges of housing and basic services, infrastructure including transportation systems, energy generation and distribution. These issues are magnified in the major cities where acute urban pollution and deficiencies in water supply and sanitation pose major risks to human health and ecosystems.

That ‘India is very much going its own way and old urban theories may have to be discarded’ (Nijman 2012: 7), concurs with the conclusions of a number of leading authorities:

  • • Paul Polak, author of Out of Poverty (Polak 2008): ‘The only effective large-scale answer to extreme poverty is to stimulate rapid scalable growth centered specifically in the villages where most poor people live, not urban-centered growth that generates only a trivial trickle-down impact’ (Polak 2014: 1).
  • • Pierre Laconte, Belgian urbanist: ‘With today’s telecommunications, cities are no longer a functional necessity.’
  • • Peter Head, founder and chief executive of the Ecological Sequestration Trust: ‘The future will be with medium-sized rather than mega cities.’6
  • • India Institute for Human Settlements, Urban India 2011: Evidence: ‘We will need to understand and deepen the linkages that enable small urban centres to become catalysts for rural non-farm employment, sites of opportunities, and a foundation for eliminating rural poverty and exclusion. The spatial patterns of urbanisation will also affect the possibilities for the country to pioneer new, less resource intensive forms of development’ (India Institute for Human Settlements 2012: foreword).

This questioning of the orthodox urbanisation paradigm corresponds with today’s environmental awareness and with rapid advances across multiple supporting sectors including digital communications and renewable energies.

Environmental awareness advanced through the 1960s and 1970s (Rodwell 2007: 47—63) and was greatly stimulated by the 1987 Brundtland Report (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987), its popularisation of the term sustainable development, and its conclusion that current patterns of resource consumption and environmental degradation cannot continue, and economic development must adapt to planet Earth’s ecological limits. Cities around the world currently occupy a fortieth of its land surface, house over 50 per cent of its population, and account for 75 per cent of the annual consumption of natural resources and discharge of wastes. Far from supporting the notion that urban development is resource efficient resulting in a reduced ecological footprint, this substantiates the contention that explosive urban growth is accelerating global warming (Doucet 2007). This interrogation of the orthodox paradigm is reinforced by the escalation of challenges that are specific to India’s major cities and pose multiple threats to citizens’ human health and well-being, including infrastructural deficiencies and acute urban pollution (Irfan 2018).

Concurrently, this questioning animates a re-evaluation of traditional academic and object-focused definitions of urban heritage pertaining to the Asia-Pacific region, to embrace the broad socio-cultural reality of urban environments at all scales and in concert with the evolving UNESCO Historic Urban Landscape initiative.

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