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Slumdogs and small towns

By Kalpana Sharma

Little is known or written about the 2,000 small and medium towns of India. The one characteristic that defines them all, says this report from towns such as Madhubani, Jhunjhunu and Sehore, is the absence of planning. Many of these towns do not even possess an accurate town map. And upto a quarter of their population lives in slums

Read Part 2 of this report here

Madhubani town in North Bihar

In Madhubani town in North Bihar, the longest lines are outside one of the four ATM machines dispensing instant cash. In Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan, many people keep their own cows or buffaloes for milk because they do not trust the local milk supply. In Narnaul, Haryana, there are dozens of beauty parlours and one of the women nominated to the municipal council is a trained beautician. In all three, the most popular advertisement is for mobile phones.

What is common between Madhubani, Jhunjhunu and Narnaul is that they are all small towns. Typically, they illustrate the heady mix of new technology, social and behavioural change and traditional habits that overlap in thousands of similar towns across India.

India still lives in its villages. But more Indians are now living in cities and towns than ever before. A little under half the 285 million urban Indians (Census 2001) -- that is around 108 million -- live in big cities with populations ranging from 100,000 to several million. But the other half lives in over 2,000 small and medium towns, some little more than villages on their way to becoming urbanised.

Little is known or written about this section of our urban population with the media focus – and also that of much of academia and of planners – remaining firmly fixed on the larger cities, particularly our globalised million-plus cities.

This article is part of a longer report that is a tentative attempt at shifting the focus to this neglected half of urban India. It is based on information gathered during visits in February 2009 to seven small towns in six states. These are Madhubani in Bihar, Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan, Rajnandgaon and Janjgir in Chhattisgarh, Sehore in Madhya Pradesh, Narnaul in Haryana and Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh. These are some of the towns where PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia) and its partner organisations have been working since 2000, specifically on issues of governance.

Even this limited foray into small-town India has yielded several important insights that would probably hold true for the majority of similar small towns in the rest of the country. For instance, the impact of governance, or rather misgovernance, on the lives of people. You see the possibilities that this size of town presents for the development of environmentally and economically sustainable urban centres. You realise how this could happen with very little additional investment combined with better and more informed governance and an involved citizenry.

In India, the size of the population determines the category of an urban centre. Hence, all cities with a population of 100,000 and above are termed Class I cities. But they also include 35 million-plus cities, some of them huge metropolitan cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. Classes II to VI include towns that have a population of less than 100,000 going down to towns with only 5,000 people.

The 2001 census laid down specific criteria that determined whether a settlement could be termed urban. These are (a) that it should have a population of at least 5,000, (b) that the density should be greater than 400 persons/sq km, and (c) that over 75% of the male workers ought to be in non-agricultural occupations. As a result of this last criterion, there are several villages that are larger than the smallest town because they continue to be inhabited predominantly by people engaged in agriculture.

This is the technical definition of a small town. But small towns have certain common characteristics that run like a thread, linking them across states and cultures. Many of them appear to be little more than overgrown villages as is evident in the lifestyle of their residents. Their link with the rural hinterland is alive and is integrated with urban living. Hence, domesticated animals like cows and buffaloes are an inextricable part of the scene in these towns. The problems this poses for efficient solid waste management is another story.

Small towns generally show a much slower rate of growth largely due to poor infrastructure that puts off fresh investment by business or industry. As a result, they tend to stagnate and their inability to raise finance perpetuates the poor conditions that prevail. Yet, the slower growth could also be seen as an opportunity for them to define how they grow.

Those towns that have a colonial past – and these are often the district headquarters – exhibit a distinct division between the old company town, which has wide roads and planned housing and the old ‘native’ quarter that thrives on its organic, unplanned form. Mirzapur in UP, for example, is typical of such towns. The old city is a maze of extremely narrow roads that now host the automobile for which they were not designed. As a result, the traffic jam defines this historic urban settlement on the banks of the Ganga. Yet, the ‘sarkari’ area is neat and orderly with the prized locations overlooking the river reserved for the bungalows of government officials.

The quality of life in small towns varies greatly according to the state in which they are located. Certain basic requirements, such as electricity, are outside the remit of the local administration. They depend on the state government’s ability to supply and distribute electric power throughout the state. Hence, while in Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan, no one complained about the shortage of electricity, in Madhubani in Bihar, the ‘current’ came for only a few hours every day. The rest of the time people managed with battery backup or diesel generators.

Similarly, while the urban local body is supposed to manage the distribution of water, the supply of water to small towns depends on state governments and their schemes. Here again, while there are towns with no source of water, entirely dependent on external supplies, there are others that have revived their local sources to tide them over times of shortage. Sehore in Madhya Pradesh faces an acute water crisis and is dependent on tanker supplies, while Jhunjhunu is located in a perennially dry state and yet manages its water resources. Shortage of water is one of the biggest challenges facing most towns and cities in India, a problem that has to be addressed to sustain urban life.

What is most evident in most small towns is the absence of planning. Many of them do not possess even an accurate town map. In several towns, PRIA provided the first proper map of the town. The local councils are supposed to have planning committees but rarely are these constituted. As a result, there is no plan on how to use the space available for expansion, to establish rules for construction in older parts of the town, or to preserve adequate open spaces. Many of them have natural resources such as ponds or a river that could be revived. Several such towns have important historical sites that could be turned into revenue generators given some thought and planning.

Instead you find that natural ponds are silted or stagnant, the rivers are polluted, there is no particular pattern or plan in the way new structures are constructed, and the historical monuments are neglected and mostly vandalised. Sehore and Narnaul, for example, have significant historical structures. In Sehore, the community looks after the memorial to Kunwar Chain Singh, the man who is believed to have fought against the British in 1824, many years before the better-known rebellion of 1857 led by Mangal Pandey. But in Narnaul, impressive monuments from the Moghul era, including a beautiful Jal Mahal that now has no water around it, have been vandalised with only a hint still remaining of what they must have been like in their heyday. In contrast, Jhunjhunu is a town that is much more geared to the tourist trade that centres around the famous Rani Sati temple and the dargah of Kamruddin Shah. But here too there are stepwells and traditional water storage structures that are not maintained.

Urban poverty and slums are also a visible presence in these smaller towns. We think of slums as the problem of bigger cities. In fact, in many smaller towns upto a quarter of the population lives in slums. These are different from the slums in larger cities in that they appear more settled, they are cleaner and the people living in them have title to the land. Yet, they are deprived of basic urban services like water and sanitation and even the electricity they have is usually stolen. In addition, there are few avenues for permanent employment for people living in such settlements.

A visit to such slums in Rajnandgaon and Mirzapur illustrated both the deprivation and the hopelessness. In the Shankarpura slum in Rajnandgaon, people have electricity and water but little work. The women make beedis to earn daily wages. Yet, a young man who had worked for years in Mumbai selling chappals narrated how he had managed to earn and save enough to build a pucca house in his slum. If he had stayed behind in Rajnandgaon, he felt he would not have been able to find the work, or build the surplus, to improve his living conditions.

In the Visundarpur slum in Mirzapur, 350 households living a stone’s throw from the well-appointed bungalows of government officers, have no electricity, water or sanitation. Their houses are semi-permanent and the men work as daily wage labourers. The community expressed a sense of hopelessness about the future because there was little work and no one paid any attention to their needs. This suggests that even though the physical conditions for the urban poor in big cities are terrible, the possibility of finding regular work makes such living bearable. On the other hand in small towns, people live without basic services but also without the prospect of finding sustainable livelihoods.

Yet, both these slum colonies were remarkably clean. This is the result of mohalla samitis set up by PRIA and its partner organisations in the slums. The women, in particular, have played an active role in monitoring the work of the municipal employees and keeping the pressure on the ward councilor to fulfil his or her duty to keep the area free of garbage. The Nai Basti in Narnaul, for instance, has an active and vociferous women’s group that has campaigned to keep the area clean and organised protests in front of the district office demanding better supply of water.

However, what is common in the condition of the urban poor in both locations is the iniquitous manner in which urban resources are distributed. In the towns visited for this report, a common feature was the absence of sewerage in the entire town. But even in the towns where it existed, such as Mirzapur and Narnaul, it bypassed the localities where the poor lived. The same story was repeated with the supply of water where the distribution was skewed in favour of areas where the better-off section of the population lived. Thus, even where poor communities have organised and taken their own initiative at solid waste management, they have not always received the requisite support from the municipal authorities.

Repeatedly, the absence of any source of regular income was a refrain one heard from urban poor communities in all these small towns. In district towns, the only avenues are government or trade. Young men in a dalit basti in Mirzapur spoke of the kind of money they have to invest to land a government job. “Even to get a peon’s job, you have to pay Rs 2 lakh,” said an educated young man from Tarkapur Police Lines.

Apart from government jobs, the only option is to run a small business or shop. Given the levels of poverty in these small towns, the turnover in such businesses is relatively modest. Some towns that serve as ‘mandi’ or market towns for the surrounding countryside, such as Mirzapur, do better. Yet, globalisation and the entry of corporations into the rural market, such as ITC with its e-Chaupal, a rural supermarket that caters to all needs of rural communities from tractors and fertiliser to groceries, has impacted places like Sehore that were once important mandi towns. Just outside Sehore, ITC has set up its e-Chaupal. As a result, people who earlier bought these supplies from Sehore have stopped entering the town.

There was a time, in the 1960s, when the government actively encouraged industry to locate near small towns in order to create sources of employment and turn these small towns into counter-magnets that would discourage migration from rural areas to the big cities. Today, most such plants located away from big cities have closed down.

Rajnandgaon in Chhattisgarh, for example, was a part of the textile belt that was centred in and around Nagpur. The Bengal Nagpur Cotton Mill, established in 1892 and partly owned by the family of Ravishankar Shukla, veteran Congressman and freedom fighter, was one of several large cotton mills in the region then known as the Central Provinces and Berar. Until a little over a decade ago, this privately owned mill was functioning. Thereafter it was taken over by the government-run National Textile Corporation and eventually closed in 2008. Today the old mill is a ruin standing amongst vast grounds enclosed by high walls. Evidently, no one has planned what to do with the land or whether to consider some other industry on that plot.

In Madhubani, an estimated 22,000 people, including 1,100 weavers working in 42 centres in the district, were employed in the khadi village industry. The historic Khadi Gramudyog, founded in 1919, still stands in the centre of the town. Today its 17-acre campus is silent, deserted, with only a few old men living there and a handful of elderly women who come every day to spin khadi yarn on the ambar charkha. Only 48 workers, including a handful of weavers, are still employed. Most of the workers are assigned the job of ensuring that the lands owned by the Khadi Gramudyog are not encroached upon. Yet, it is evident to even a casual visitor that the place could be revived, put to some other use that reflects the spirit of khadi, and become once again a source of employment for the town and its environs. Sadly, the old men who still live there have lost their ability to dream.

(To be continued)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009