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India's small towns - symbols of urban blight

By Kalpana Sharma

68% of India's urban population lives not in the metros but in towns with population of less than 100,000, many of which get water for a few minutes once a week or every alternate day. No one even talks about the appalling absence of infrastructure in these towns

crowded town in India

Most of us have a stereotypical image of small-town India.  Pitted roads, piles of garbage, open drains, stagnant pools of water, overhead electric wires, long power-cuts, acute water shortage etc.   

That image is now changing with the success stories from small towns that the media is celebrating.  So Bhiwani in Haryana is suddenly in the news for having produced Olympic medal winners and other towns are home to amazingly talented young people who win television reality shows.  Dozens of our cricket stars come from smaller towns and cities, bringing to them a touch of glamour that they have never seen before.  Of late there is also a touch of notoriety attached to small towns with a place like Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, once known for being the home of distinguished writers and poets like Kaifi Azmi, now being given the ‘terror’ tag and Bhatkal in Karnataka being mentioned as the home of the ‘mastermind’ of the Indian Mujahideen. 

Unfortunately, neither glamour nor notoriety detracts from the appalling conditions that prevail in most small towns in India.  To understand the downside of urbanisation, one has to take a closer look at India’s towns and cities and move the focus away from the large metropolitan urban centres.  

Typical of such small urban centres is Nawada, the district headquarters of Nawada district in South Bihar. Barring a few reasonably broad paved roads, the rest of the city appears to be connected and disconnected with narrow pot-holed roads where all manner of vehicles jostle for space with vendors, pedestrians, and animals.  The winners are the ones who are more dexterous. 

Electricity comes sporadically.  The rich have diesel generators and invertors.  Most manage with kerosene lamps after dark.  Many homes depend on handpumps either inside or just outside their houses for water. Sanitation facilities are suspect although there must be some sewerage, and there is little evidence of garbage collection as you see the piles of garbage around every corner with pigs and dogs competing for access. 

Yet, this town has a history studded with the names of men and women who played an important role in the freedom struggle -- like Jayaprakash Narayan. The Sarvodaya Ashram he established is a couple of hours away from the city.  And there are older reminders of a distinguished past that residents will tell you about, including its link to Buddhism and Jainism.  Nawada is also home to the master of dhrupad and thumri, Siyaram Tiwary.  

Its past notwithstanding, Nawada’s present reflects little that distinguishes it from other towns of an equivalent size.  It exemplifies the acute problems that urbanisation poses in India – the absence of investment in infrastructure, the lack of planning and developmental norms and the poor status of structures of governance that could make a difference.  There is a silent crisis afflicting these places that is affecting the lives of millions of people, yet no one seems to notice or care. 

According to the 2001 census, there are over 5,161 towns and cities in India.  Of these, 35 are metropolitan cities (population of 1 million plus), home to 37% of the urban population or around 108 million people.  Next come the 388 large towns or Class I cities with populations ranging from 1,00,000-10,00,000.  These are the most populous with around 68.9% of the total urban population.  The rest live in the 4,738 Class II towns with population of less than 100,000.

According to the 2001 census, there are 4,378 towns and cities in India. Of these 35 are metropolitan cities (population of 1 million plus) that are included in the total of 393 Class I cities with population exceeding 1,00,000. Together they account for 108 million of the urban population of 285 million. The rest live in towns with population of less than 100,000 going down to just 5,000.

While urban India as a whole faces huge problems, particularly of infrastructure, to support a burgeoning population, the worse-off are these 4,738 urban centres that have to contend with the absence of basic services, inadequate new investment and entrenched poverty. 

On almost every measure, availability of water, sanitation, waste disposal or electricity, India’s small towns are found wanting. Take the availability of water, for instance.  If you look at the national average, then around 90% of India’s urban population has access to water and about half to sanitation.   Yet, these averages hide a vast discrepancy not only between the metropolitan cities and the Class I and II cities and towns, but also within these urban centres.  Thus, while Mumbai for instance gets a per capita supply that is greater than most other cities in India (268 litres per capita per day) and exceeds even the norms laid out for a city that size (150 lpcd), in fact a small minority get more than 300 lpcd while the vast majority receive an intermittent supply that adds up to little over 80 lpcd.  However, even this lower figure is more than the amount of water supplied to people living in Class I and II cities and towns. 

According to figures quoted in ‘Status of Water Supply, Sanitation and Solid Waste Management’ prepared by the National Institute of Urban Affairs (June 2005), there are literally dozens of fairly major towns in India that get water twice a week or every alternate day.   Although the figures quoted in the study are from 1999, and the situation in some of these towns could have improved, it is indicative of the extent of the water crisis in these cities. The worst off, according to the 1999 data, were towns in Gujarat.  Surendranagar, for instance, got water for 30 minutes once a week, Gondal was slightly better off with water supplied for 20 minutes once in four days while Amreli received a supply of 60 minutes once in three days. Nine towns in Tamil Nadu had water either twice a week or on alternate days.  Even Bangalore got water on alternate days.   

Accurate data on services such as water, sanitation or solid waste disposal in urban India is not easily available as even the Planning Commission’s Working Group on Urban Development notes.  It points out, “Many cities do not maintain data on the level of services that they provide and what they spend on them.”  As a result, it says that the urban development sector is handicapped for want of basic information and data. 

Yet, even the outdated data that exists paints a dire picture. According to figures of the Central Pollution Control Board for the years 2003-04, in 921 Class I cities and Class II towns where an estimated 70% of India’s urban population lives, only 27% of the total wastewater that is generated can be treated. The facilities just do not exist. 

For the collection of municipal waste, the situation is not much better.  This is a function that urban local bodies are supposed to handle.  The report states, “There has been no major effort in the past to create community awareness either about the likely perils due to poor waste management or the simple steps that every citizen can take, which will help in reducing waste generation…” 

As a result, even as the per capita generation of solid waste in our cities is increasing with the introduction of modern lifestyles, in many smaller towns, the local body is able to deal with less than half that waste.  Even in the metropolitan cities, between 70-90% is cleared.  Given the volumes generated, that still leaves huge amounts of solid waste unattended.  Visual evidence of this is abundantly available in all our cities, big and small.  But it is particularly striking in the smaller towns where there appears to be no system to clear solid waste given the scores of festering piles of garbage that are emblematic of urban neglect. 

One of the reasons for the absence of these basic services is the low investment in these urban centres and the inability of the local bodies to raise independent revenues.  Thus while the big cities and metros can generate funds through local taxation because the urban economy yields higher revenues, greater poverty in these smaller towns makes it impossible for urban local bodies to collect funds for local services, thereby feeding into the vicious cycle that compounds urban neglect.  Despite this, the bigger cities and metros continue to attract funding from outside as their problems are more visible while the smaller urban centres continue to be neglected. 

Systems of governance too are poor in the smaller urban centres.  With the devolution of power to local bodies, it was expected that urban governance would improve.  The experience has been, at best, patchy.  Even in a metropolitan city like Bangalore, powerful heads of IT companies complain that they cannot get local civic problems addressed.  In smaller towns the situation is much worse and in many, it would appear that there is no local governance.  As a result, even the basic services that could be delivered remain unaddressed. 

Urbanisation is a trend that cannot be stopped as people will continue to go where they can find work and a livelihood.  For many rural migrants, the closest district town is often the first stop.  Given the state of many of these places, it is hardly surprising that many of them prefer to move to a bigger city, even if they have to live in slums.  In a Mumbai slum, for instance, despite the over-crowding, people have access to water and electricity and some modicum of sanitation.  In the long run, the pressure on the bigger cities can only be stemmed if there is fresh investment in the smaller urban centres like Nawada.  

InfoChange News & Features, October 2008