Urbanisation is a phenomenon that is closely linked to industrialisation and modernisation. More and more people are flocking to urban centres seeking well-being and prosperity. There is no gainsaying the fact that urban areas are centres of economic opportunities and growth, providing not only the wherewithal for survival but also prospects of self-actualisation and openings for satisfaction of the higher needs of human life. No wonder, worldwide a phenomenon that is called the “urban drift” is occurring and people are migrating from rural areas to urban centres seeking the “good life”.
The United Nations had projected that half the population of the world would be living in urban centres by 2008. That has indeed already happened. Around 74% people in developed countries now live in urban centres and 44% in less developed countries. It is a far cry from 1950 when only 30% of the population resided in towns and cities. In India, too, urbanisation has picked up pace, though rather belatedly. Through most of the decades after independence India was predominantly a rural country with an agrarian economy. Almost 80% of the population used to reside in the country’s villages. That, however, is changing. The 2011 Census has revealed that about 32% of the country’s 1.2 billion reside in urban areas which means migrations from rural areas have picked up during the last few years. In absolute terms, while 285 million people resided in Indian urban centres in 2001, in 2011 that number has inflated by more than a hundred million.
Rapid economic growth and a steadily rising population with the inevitable “urban drift” have created a situation that has prompted most of the urban centres to burst at their seams. All over the country cities and towns are growing, spreading out all around their cores in a haphazard manner, gobbling up farmlands and forests. Colonies – authorised or unauthorised – are being built, mostly devoid of civic amenities. Builders and developers are having a field day, constructing condominiums, self-contained colonies or gated complexes where the local bodies generally fail to extend civic services. Neither there are sewer lines nor are there water connections, making such colonies and complexes dependent on groundwater with all the economic and environmental consequences. Besides, for want of suitable public transport such unplanned growth has necessarily promoted use of personalised vehicles, fuelling their demand as also of precious imported oil – a non-renewable energy source – significantly contributing not only to its escalating price but also emission of the country’s greenhouse gases.
Newspapers every day carry advertisements with offers of flats of varying sizes, detached or semi-detached bungalows in plush surroundings. What is more, “aawas melas” (housing fairs) are held where crowds throng looking for their dream-houses. But all the ads or the propositions made at such fairs are for the well-heeled and the aspiring upper (and middle) classes who think nothing of investing half a million or more on a fancy house. There is nothing for the masses that are migrating into urban areas in millions, offering themselves as cheap labour or seeking opportunities for self-employment. Having no other alternatives, they indulge in slumming on the available vacant lands. In fact, Indian cities are not prepared to receive the economically weaker migrants from the country whose numbers are going to rise by about a hundred percent by 2030 when India is likely to become the world’s most populous country.
Even currently, urban India is struggling with the problems caused by uncontrolled outward spread of settlements that in their relentless advances eat up fertile farmlands and the environmentally useful forests. The rural inhabitants are induced to migrate into the urban agglomerates and their lands, if not built upon, are used as dumping grounds for wastes of the newly developed colonies/complexes – a process that has together been branded as “predatory” urbanisation. Be that as it may, the year 2030, therefore, holds out a frightful prospect before the country.
In order to restrict the urban sprawl a visionary set of laws has been enacted by several states of the US. The first was the state of Oregon which, enacting and enforcing laws for delineation of “Urban Growth Boundaries” (UGB), transformed its capital, Portland, into the greenest of cities in the country. The concept of UGB, essentially the antithesis of ad-hoc and predatory form of urbanisation, seems to hold an important lesson for the exploding Indian cities.
In a blog posted by her, Ishani Mehta, Urban Vision's Fellow at The Young Urban Leader Program working in Portland, says that by keeping urban development contained in a compact boundary UGBs promote more efficient land-use planning, along with an assurance for businesses and local governments about where to place basic infrastructure necessary for future development. Moreover, limited resources can be invested on making existing infrastructure more efficient rather than constantly building new capacity for an ever-expanding urban area.
She says that in Portland the metropolitan region is required by law to have a UGB that contains at least 20,000 acres (81 sq km) of vacant land, in addition to maintaining restrictions on the development of farmland. While land outside the boundary allows protection of forests and farmland, the land-use within the boundary supports urban services including roadways, water supply and sewerage systems, and other utilities that are conducive to compact and liveable urban communities. The state-wide planning law requires the city to maintain a 20-year supply of land for future residential development inside the boundary and also determine the requirement to maintain 20-year land supply for new jobs, thus allowing for sustainable economic expansion of the urban areas as well. An urban growth report is prepared every five years that analyses both the residential and employment needs of the region. If the report suggests need for expansion of UGB, it is considered, but only as a last resort. The metropolitan council, however, has powers under special circumstances to expand the UGB to meet immediate needs to provide lands for specific purposes that cannot be accommodated and cannot wait till the next urban growth report.
A time now seems to have come to halt India’s urban sprawl. Every small city seems to be enlarging itself to eventually become a metropolis and every metropolis a mega-polis, steam-rolling over everything that comes in their way – farmlands, hills, forests or whatever. Within their respective confines, people lead a miserable life owing to over-crowding, insanitation, environmental degradation, water scarcity, transport bottlenecks, and what have you. UGBs seem to provide a way out for reasonably restricting urban growth, fostering development of smaller cities, promoting more efficient use of scarce land, protection of rural economy, prevention of denudation of the country’s fast-disappearing forests and enabling people to live a healthy and fulfilling life.