By Aseem Shrivastava
31 October, 2006
In an article concerned with the rapid urbanization of India and China, a writer for London's Financial Times (August 5/6, 2006) points out that Bangalore "has become a byword for a catastrophic failure of urban planning."
Interestingly, he attributes this lapse to "Indian sentimentalism about the supposed benefits of village life, and the consequent incompetence in managing cities" which "contrasts starkly with the ruthless pragmatism of the central and local authorities in China."
Let us not bring up that bugbear of the absence of democracy in China just yet, no matter that the Anglo-Americans are all so keen to bomb us all to "freedom" these days, China being that fearsome and much envied exception.
More worrying are the writer quotes from supposed Indian experts. One of them is K.E. Seetharam, a water and sanitation expert from the Asia Development Bank in Manila, according to whom "civilizations have always been urbanised" and "this concept of rural development is something more recent and in my view doesn't exist."
Is this man truly Indian? Has he forgotten those school history lessons about the Indo-Gangetic plain and the role it has played throughout time in sustaining the economies and cultures of empires from the Mauryan to the Mughal? Or, seeing as he comes from South India, he might visit a library and read about the role of the farmers of the Kaveri and Krishna basins whose taxes helped maintain the splendour of the Vijayanagar courts.
However, to be fair to Mr. Seetharam, his view has widespread currency today. And this is why it is so dangerous. The reasons for the prevalence of the view are not far to seek. The industrial revolution treated from the beginning the countryside as a hinterland for mineral resources or as a sink for its effluents. It made it easy to forget the fact that industrial workers (often dispossessed peasants) and their bosses were fed on food that the farmers grew in the villages. Also, since cities grew around industries, it gave birth to the illusion that civilisations have always been urban.
Even when civilisations have been formally urban, as in the cities of the ancient world, like Athens or Sparta, they have often had, believe it or not, little to do with commerce or industry (those being of least importance to Greek citizens and thinkers), unlike our cities today, offshoots as they are of industrial growth.
We would be well-advised to suspend our intoxicating amnesia, bred of industrial affluence, (and effluence) and recall at least a bit of what the countryside has contributed to human civilisation. From legends and myths to melodies and dances, human culture anywhere is unimaginable without the backdrop of rural inspiration.
This is not the place for it, but here is a sampler, unjust as it necessarily is. Great landscape art from delicate Chinese woodcuts to Van Gogh's majestic canvases have been inspired by nature, available only in the countryside. Beethoven's pastoral is hard to imagine being inspired by urban industrial noise. Nor can the poems of the Romantics, whether in India or in Europe.
Thomas Jefferson's dream of a free American republic was peopled with farmers. Gandhi championed the idea of village republics for a reason. Rabindranath Tagore set up Shantiniketan in the countryside when he could as easily have done so in Kolkata. So many of our great bards, from Lalleshwari to Tukaram, sang to the lord in the jungles and the meadows.
Our tragedy today is that William Blake's warnings about the "dark, Satanic mills" of London went unheeded by Western culture. Independent India, which has never decolonized culturally, followed suit.
The concept of rural development does not exist? Would the Prime Minister be willing to repeat that in front of a meeting of villagers anywhere in India before the next elections, apprising them of the latest wisdom of our policy experts?
Even more chilling, the Financial Times article goes on to argue that the mismanagement of Indian cities is to be blamed upon the fact that Indian politicians are "obsessed with the problem of rural poverty" and thus drag resources away from urban development! "One reason for this illogical approach is politics: India is a democracy. For historical reasonsthe countryside is over-represented in the political system and power rests with the state government, not with the cities."
So the lament is that, alas, for "historical reasons", India is a democracy and the villagers carry too many votes. Talk about doublespeak in the mainstream of the Western media!
The FT writer seeks further explanation for the state of Indian cities from someone much more influential than Mr. Seetharam. Nandan Nilekani is the CEO of Infosys, one of India's software flagships. He represents Indian business interests at the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos every year. He is approached by all the Western media outlets whenever representative views from Indian corporate circles are wanted.
Listen to what he says: There is "a disconnect", he points out, "between the economic power and the political power." Bangalore with only 10% of the population of Karnataka state contributes 60% of the state's GDP. However, it has only 7% of the state assembly seats.
So what is to be done? Here might be a foretaste of things to come: "In China you don't have that problemIndia is the only example of urbanisation (on this scale) happening with universal adult franchise."
So the moral of the story is that urbanisation shouldn't happen with universal adult franchise. When the West urbanized it did not have universal suffrage. China continues to urbanize only because there is no democracy. Nilekani's diagnosis of the problem is accurate. The problem lies with its one-eyed superficiality, drawn as it is from the premises of industrial growth, predatory on the countryside.
Shall we take the Chinese route to industrial greatness and do away with the nuisance of democracy which, in any case, has nothing to do with capitalist success and does plenty to put brakes on it? That, at this stage of history, might prove to be politically explosive in India (no thanks to the West that we are democratic). What the increasingly political corporate elite will want to experiment with is a set of constitutional amendments that fiscally empower cities at the cost of the countryside, correcting in favour of urban India the disconnect that Nilekani mentions. This cannot happen without deep-rooted changes in the very structure of Indian government and politics. Jurists would be able to tell us more though there are surely many corporate fantasists dreaming of globally networked, autonomous post-modern city-states!
Let us be clear. Nilekani is arguing, in effect, for a "dollar democracy", where one rupee will count for one vote, rather than one person. Does anyone see how gigantic a retrograde step this would be in human affairs? It means setting aside all the mammoth political and cultural efforts ranging across the centuries and the continents that have gone into enfranchising the historically powerless. In the long historical argument between town and country, the metro now wishes to intervene with decisive finality. It is a dangerous trend, whether it is observed in India, China or elsewhere.
In the US they have achieved a dollar democracy without major constitutional amendments. However, it is easier to brainwash and fool a well-fed electorate which can take out loans to buy vacation homes and BMWs. Achieving the same political feat in India is not going to be easy at all. That, in fact, is the reason why during the past 17 years, in the six general elections the country has had, the incumbent party has not been returned to office even once, a fact unmatched by any world democracy.
What people like the writer of the FT article, Seethram, Nilekani and so many others, for whom they are the spokespersons, would ideally like to see is India grow as "smoothly" as China (or 19th century Dickensian Britain), with the nuisance of things like "democracy" and "rural development" out of the way. Indian cities, their slums duly demolished and put out of sight of visiting investors in air-conditioned cars, will then wear the gloss of Singapore or even London, starved rural underbellies not in view.
But alas, you cannot hide 300 or 400 million starving mouths, and the insistently unjust social reality of India will break through into one or another rear-view mirror, disturbing the fantasies of financiers' wives and girlfriends.
Time to recall William Blake once more: "When nations grow old, art grows cold and commerce sits on every tree."Aseem Shrivastava is an independent writer. He can be reached at email@example.com