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Re-imagining Ruralscape to bring changes to the lives of people in rural India

Planning of Ruralscape can help rural India to be seen as an important component of developed India

For past few months, India is facing the challenge of Covid-19 pandemic, like any other country. Govts (Central & State) are totally dedicated to containing it, check it, treat it as much as possible, provide relief, etc. Heartening is the fact, that, statistics in India are being compared with statistics of developed countries and developed regions. Without being insensitive, I also take pride that today, in times of crisis, India is being compared with developed nations of the world and not with other developing nations. I also take pride from the fact that had there not been certain social fissures, India was more or less able to pre-empt and contain this threat right in the nascent stage. Still, hopes are on, and with a collective will, despite certain slips at the community level, India may still be able to come out as a winner.

This pandemic has also shown that India is unique in many ways. The statistical models, the model of governance, inner strength of Indians, uniting them as one entity, to fight this threat, etc. show that it is not necessary that if something works elsewhere that if adopted in toto in India will be equally successful, and similarly if something fails elsewhere, will fail in India too. India requires improvisation in each little or big thing, to suit its needs.

This pandemic has also highlighted the fissures in the Indian habitat, and urban/rural planning, which so far were not under focus, as something of priority. As a matter of fact, it is also time to identify and plug those holes, so that India, while it is positioning self to enter into next orbit of development, will not have to face some major setbacks right at the launching pad, or at the time of landing. The first of such fissure was noticed when a large number of the migrant population started on the journey back to their towns/villages after lockdown. Reasons can be many, but the intention of this writeup is to focus only on planning aspects that lead to these large number of migrant population to go through such ordeal of travelling to and from cities, religiously two times in a year, with or without facilities to travel.

This migrant population faces interesting challenges: they are indispensable for urban comforts, as well as indispensable for Rural needs, yet they are seen as a drag on the system. While in cities, they are seen as a major reason for slums and super dense areas, crimes as well, and while in rural setups they are people without root and labour to work in fields. Interestingly nil provisions are kept in the planning of cities for these people and similarly rural India doesn’t want to acknowledge either, hence Ruralscape has no catalysts for them to remain in villages.

It is time to understand, therefore, how planning can make a difference to the success of citizens (a large number of them are rural & migrant) leading to the success of the country. First of all, it seems to be an objective (obvious, yet seemingly utopian) that if this migrant population is somehow kept wherever they belong to, then pressure on cities will be released to an extent, and also rural India will also have some life, simply because, due to migration rural India is left with elderlies, females and children. It is a pathetic situation both ways; a person who migrates to cities, is subjected to live in pathetic and challenging conditions, and at the same time his family, living in the village, faces social issues, foremost of them is children without father of family and females without husband. Such living, in challenging conditions, also has a deep impact on the psychology of the child while growing up. This may be another big topic in itself for experts to look into.

Idea of this article to stick to planning aspects and how planning of Ruralscape be a catalyst to handle all such problems and may even lead to reverse migration and ultimately help rural India to be seen as important component of developed India, in its own way.

Rural upliftment is not new terminology, in the Indian context, and almost all stalwarts of Indian polity, right from Mahatma Gandhi, to Deen Dayal Ji, to Nanaji Deshmukh and Dr Abdul Kalam Azad said in no uncertain terms that progress of India is through villages. They also did show some models, like Gram Swaraj, the concept of Antyoday, the concept of zonal independence of village economy and capacity building of villages, and PURA (Provision of Urban Amenities to Rural Areas). Nanaji Deshmukh’s approach was a step forward to concepts of Gandhi Ji & Deen Dayal Ji, combined. He tried to generate real-life models through his intervention at Chitrakoot. These approaches can be studied in depth through all the material available on the net, and hence there is no need elaborate (read, repeat) it here.

How does planning play its role? This question won’t seem to be important at first, but if analysed deeper, it seems that it is like the nucleus of every urban problem. The answer lies in focus on rural planning. This is one thing, on which Nana Ji hinted, as well, and could not implement, in Chitrakoot, because his initial focus was on capacity building of otherwise super backward rural populace of Chitrakoot region, a herculean objective in itself. Having worked with him as young architect of 28 years of age, I had the chance to get into discussions on several occasions, with him, that how planning is important for any region for its growth. With his encouragement, a comprehensive development plan for Chitrakoot was also prepared and was probably submitted by him to the government but later his efforts ran into political conflicts when government at Madhya Pradesh change.

The aspect of planning of Ruralscape of India, has very simple and understandable objectives.

It is obvious the unhealthy and uncontrolled urbanization is primarily due to rampant migration towards cities. All cities are bursting through their seams and no workable. But what are the reason that this migration…. one of the reasons was already mentioned earlier, and this is the most obvious one, is the reason of economy. People come to cities for want of earning and another reason, less obvious, is the ambience of the city. Focusing on later, first, the city offers them spaces and the opportunity to be present in those spaces, that are not otherwise available to them. Here I am not talking about the most obvious answer, which may be skyscrapers and Malls, rather public spaces, and psychology of confidence emanating out of spaces. This confidence is the magnet which keeps them in cities despite challenging living conditions. Space around imbibes them with lateral confidence and they feel part of that success despite being rejected, in reality. It is a matter of satiating needs of their subconscious mind.

Many years ago, Sarah Williams Goldhagen became interested in research on how our brains register the environment around us. “This Paradigm,” she writes in her new book, Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives, “holds that much of what and how people think is a function of our living in the kinds of bodies we do.” Not just conscious thoughts, but non-conscious impressions, feedback from our senses, physical movement, and even split-second mental stimulations of that movement shape how we respond to a place, Goldhagen argues. And in turn, the place nudges us to think or behave in certain ways. Thoughts of Sarah Williams Goldhagen were inspired by the book, Metaphors WE Live By. It’s co-authored by George Lakoff, who’s is a cognitive linguist, and Mark Johnson, who’s a philosopher. The basic argument of that book was that much of how our thought is structured emerges from the fact of our embodiment. And many of ways those thoughts are structured are metaphorical. Goldhagen argues that the built environment, we inhabit, is drastically more important than we ever thought they were. One of the Chapter is titled, “The Sorry Places We Live,” it talks about “beggary” of the built environment, and what are the most flagrant sins that buildings and cities commit against human wellbeing.

The takeaway from Goldhagen’s study is very pertinent to what we think of our Ruralscape, in future. The most common mental hurdle, that is manifested in reactions such as, “before that we need to do this…. we need to improve this……” As a result, the Ruralscape shall always remain what it has been, for so many years; it is associated with poverty and most of the negative aspects. India is still one of the few countries in which the Urban image and Rural image have no resemblance, these are diametrically opposite to each other. While Rural India remained, where it was in 1947, whilst Urban India marched ahead.

We need to change ruralscape to give rise to a place where people would love to be, not just remain out of compulsion. We have to make ruralscape as a symbol of success, and not a failure. Here it will be pertinent to mention that there exists a lot of potential of development (planned and sustainable, and not haphazard like most of India), to respond to a large number of urban population who don’t want to live in cities and are desperate to have reasons to leave cities. Numbers are huge and serve both purposes, it gives a reason enough to invest in village and it also gives the opportunity to recover such expenses.

There can never be two opinions about it, that, for India to progress, the progress of Rural India is a must. The social and geographical fabric of India does not have room for the nation to grow just as Industrial Nation or Technology Driven Nation.

Today in India, many changes are taking place across the board in urban India, which may result in strengthening of Indian economy, as well as result in the further development of Urban Infrastructure, such as, Smart City concept adopted by Govt with full zeal. The result, however, will be seen in coming years, but I think it will have a similar fate as of PURA or any other of such initiative, simply because detailing of the concept was left to the people who knew little about the objective. More or less, it became a catalyst of business of all kinds. This is no criticism but it is a statement as I see it, and I won’t mind being proved wrong either. However, all this push has a glaring pitfall……. the gap between Rural and Urban India shall increase. As the cities will grow, the problems at the level of Rural India is going to aggravate and that will be a major game spoiler, manifested by an increase in unchecked migration of rural population to urban India. For cities to survive, it is important that rural India is developed in a manner that people in Rural India will start looking down on Urban India.

Time has come for some aggressive & out-of-box thinking, and to bring to the table, the need for revitalizing of Rural India, hence the need of “Reimagining Ruralscape.” A holistic and daring approach, (which may prove to be a game-changer), will result in real upliftment of rural India, and would also change the way “Rural India” is perceived. The added benefit would be checking of migration to cities, and rather it may initiate the reverse migration.

The genesis of the idea lies in two aspects, first; since independence, no efforts were made for Rural Planning. The whole focus remained on the improvement of Urban India. Therefore, cities had many plans done, however, the rural domain was left to fend for itself. At the maximum, some cosmetic improvements were done to Rural India, and that too with much gratification. A large portion of GDP was always year marked for improvement of Urban India, which in the long term has proved not only ineffective, but also counterproductive.

To maintain the continuity of nation’s march towards progress, we certainly cannot let a gap in vision to take place, or to widen further, hence it is important that we extend the ‘depth of our vision’ and include the topic, “Reimagining Ruralscape,” in our discourses and intellectual churnings.

It is further important, therefore, to shed the vision of improving the villages with cosmetic changes. It is must that we need to adopt a new paradigm for the village of India of 21st Century. Let us have a village which is no inferior to the villages of developed countries. This village shall be re-designed, if so needed, well planned for all the needs related to living, storage of produce, processing of produce, market place, etc.

Some of the features in so re-designed Ruralscape can be: (The features can be improvised as per local needs)

1. The newly designed village cluster shall have prefabricated houses, specially designed to positively respond to ‘living of villager’. The dwelling units will respond to their way of life as well as to comforts of time. Such as space for day time sitting, and still be part of happening around, (verandah at the individual unit level, and chaupal at cluster level), space for storing fodder, kitchen with connection to internal court (aangan) where children while playing are in contact with vigil eyes of a mother, etc.

2. In addition to the living clusters, there shall be an integration of appropriate market place, storage and distribution of their produce, by providing specially designed structures for the same. These structures will be responsive to loading/unloading and other commercial requirements, in terms of facilities. Important to note that India, till today, has only 5% of storage capacity, at the points of produce. This huge gap needs to be bridged, this will lead to more employment, and better prices to farmers. This will empower farmer to take decision, (read, benefitted) suited to demand and supply concept. This will be a goldmine opportunity for not only villager but will also be an opportunity for new investments.

3. The village shall be able to generate employment by engaging maintenance team amongst the people living there.

4. These villages shall have all components of sustainability integrated within itself; village shall have inbuilt system of rain water storage (harvesting of excess water), toilets, disposal of waste system, collection of human and organic waste and conversion of same into fertilizer, etc.

5. The village will have a potential of migration of urban people who want to live there. A large number of young and middle-aged professionals are looking forward to living in village surroundings. If the planning allows them to move to villages, then these professionals will bring in not only monetary investments but will also be a catalyst of the capacity building of youth of villages in many ways. Opportunities for education and training may undergo a paradigm shift from present existing systems.

6. The villages, so designed will uplift the moral of the villages, hence of national image.

7. It will also help tremendously in checking the migration of villagers towards cities. Thereby also resulting in solving problem of overpopulation in urban areas.

8. Revitalizing of natural ponds & water bodies.

9. The above are some of the suggestions only, and features can be further added/refined, based on collective brain-storming.

To address the issue of the economy of the idea. It is important to note that even a single flyover in cities costs around 100 crores. Whereas in the same amount of money, it is possible to construct approx 3,000 new village houses, including the related infrastructure development.

It is high time, that an approach of holistic development is initiated for rural India instead of pumping money in cosmetic changes. This will trigger the transformation of rural India. It is time we must re-imagine our Ruralscape… we want it to remain as leftover space, or do we want some kind of planning/technology to bring changes to the lives of people who in their wildest of the dreams never have expected this. I am sure, this change of thought will take India a long way, and even sky shall not be the limit.

Author: Ashutosh Agarwal

Member of Council of Architecture (2018-2021)
Member Governing Board – School of Arch. & Planning Bhopal
Member Finance Committee – School of Arch. & Planning Bhopal
Member Senate – School of Arch. & Planning Delhi

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