Achieving a Gandhian dream: Metamorphosing India’s backward villages into modern self-sufficient suburbia

The idea is to turn backward villages affected by floods annually - whether in Bihar, Bengal, Assam, Jharkhand or Odisha - into suburbia-like agglomerations with proper housing and urban-standard infrastructure

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India’s backward villages into modern self-sufficient suburbia

Mahatma Gandhi desired that modern India should evolve into a self-sufficient village economy. His role models were the European and English villages he had observed during his travels and stay abroad. Over there, villages have evolved into desirable suburbia and dormitory towns that offer all modern infrastructure and facilities while retaining the environmental advantages of rural living. Such units have their marketplaces, artisanal output and small businesses, education and healthcare, but are well-connected to larger towns from which they receive their additional supplies and to which they gravitate for tertiary and professional education, advanced healthcare, employment, and entertainment. 

These villages have been provided with modern road and rail linkages, proper urban infrastructure and planned development by their local councils

In India, however, the task of modernization has not been done efficiently, particularly as regards civic infrastructure. Most of India’s villages are still eyesores of primitive housing with some evolving masonry/concrete, huddling higgledy-piggledy without paved roads, sewerage, sanitation, water supply, or stable energy sources. There is little civic planning or catering for water-related emergencies which regularly affect India, particularly in eastern and northeastern India every year.

As a result, floods caused by overflowing rivers, torrential rains and filled-to-the-capacity reservoirs wash away homes and livelihoods of India’s villages with unfailing regularity. This not only forces large parts of the rural population into safe houses and stay there till waters recede but, in the process, it also reduces the human capacity to live and work in a healthy environment and continue without interruption to contribute to the economy and national prosperity.

There are examples of suburbs/villages becoming an extension of megacities, given the increasing pressure of real estate and geographical limits of city authorities. For example, Gurugram (earlier known as Gurgaon) is outside of Delhi city, but still part of the National Capital Region as a satellite city; or Rajarhat (also called New Town) in Kolkata, and many similar examples of Indian cities. These are the result of massive real estate demands which respective megacities were not able to fulfill. They were also set up with the aim of reducing the pressure on megacities.

Challenges

These suburbs/villages still face the challenge of flood, infrastructure, and regional connectivity. Navi Mumbai is one of the first experiments of suburban development, by which city extension was envisaged. It is working efficiently, but still commuting is an issue.

Since eastern India is a deltaic region where population pressure has forced large masses of people to live in floodplains, there is a need to factor this periodic flooding into civic planning and infrastructure engineering. One must recognize that river training has its limits, that siltation caused by floods is good for topsoil creation and re-fertilization of agricultural land --as the flooding of the Nile contributed to the agriculture of Egypt -- and that it is impossible to mechanically dredge all our waterways.

Suburban infrastructure should enable people to survive periodic flooding in their permanent homes, by placing underground all sanitation, sewerage and water supply systems in watertight pipelines and storage tanks. Even main telecommunication, electric supply, fiber optic cabling, gas pipelines, etc can be placed underground in waterproof ducts to prevent outages during inclement weather. Street lighting should be by solar power. Civic authorities must prevent haphazard zoning and construction, preferably maintain a town master plan.

Villagers should be encouraged to form cooperative housing societies which create multi-storeyed apartments to house people and animals above flood level. Animal shelters accessible by ramps can be made on the first floor level of such housing constructed on heightened plinths if separate dedicated shelters cannot be built for them, while people may occupy accommodation from the second floor upwards.

Rooftop renewable energy installations can continue to provide basic power supplies when necessary while contributing to the main grid in normal times and reducing the cost to consumers. Even electricity generators powered by the incineration of household waste can be placed on rooftops, reducing the problem of municipal waste management during such times. The land saved within the village housing area by such efficient multi-storeyed housing can be used by the occupants for vertical agriculture or market gardening, to augment their agricultural output that may be adversely affected by inundation and subsequent increase in soil salinity, thereby protecting their incomes to some extent.

Metamorphosing backward villages into urban agglomerations

The idea is to turn backward villages affected by floods annually - whether in Bihar, Bengal, Assam, Jharkhand or Odisha - into suburbia-like agglomerations with proper housing and urban-standard infrastructure, using proper civic planning procedures and modern building codes.

By this process the goals of smart urbanization will be achieved thereby reducing the need for evacuation to dedicated shelters and disaster management, enabling the rural population to ride out inclement weather and inundation, while developing such rural agglomerations into desirable suburbia, providing potential for local employment and reducing the pressure for migration to existing cities already bursting at the seams and where civic services are under strain from ancient, creaky and inadequate infrastructure.

Such modernization of Indian villages into smart and efficient suburbia will require a social, cultural and political transformation engineered through a nationwide campaign by political and civil society to transform the still medieval mindsets and obsolete ways of planning to work sincerely for the general welfare of the community as well as individual prosperity.

The major obstacle to this process of providing urban infrastructure to rural agglomerations is finance. Innovative fund-raising techniques will be necessary. Only then will India progress a long way towards truly achieving the Gandhian ideal of a decentralized, autonomous, self-sufficient village economy where the population is healthy, educated, skilled, productive and able to continuously contribute to India’s prosperity.

(Sarvajit Chakravarti is a former Indian ambassador. He can be reached at sarva.chakravarti@yahoo.co.uk. Rajendra Kumar is an architect. The views expressed are personal).