Small towns deserve better

Small towns deserve better
It is very easy to do business with a hundred thousand dollars in one’s kitty. The climb to the top, however, becomes impossibly steep if you have to run your business with ten dollars. So it is with small towns in India. Large cities at least have the felicity of resource generation potential, while small cities have just ten dollars worth of potential, with no capacity to harness their wherewithal to serve their citizens. The government parlance follows a <g data-gr-id="102">gradation</g> of Class I, II and III cities according to the population sizes, statutory towns and census towns. The census town is the smallest in this gradation list and is defined as one with a minimum population of 50,000, or where 75% of the male population is engaged in anything other than agriculture pursuits. Definitions are one thing, governance is another. 

As per the Census of 2011, 3894 census towns are listed. These towns are difficult to classify as independent entities, having often grown on the periphery or outskirts of an existing city and they grow by virtue of an increasing population pressure on its existing resources. Before a few years, an outpost has mushroomed into existence. Furthermore, there are 4041 statutory towns, 475 urban agglomerations and 981 urban grounds, according to the census.

The country’s urban chaos can be multiplied by a factor of ten in the census and statutory towns. There is no governance paradigm of any kind in these towns and no mechanism to enforce any urban planning and building norms. Do as you please, and the size of your presence is proportional to the sway the owner of the house/plot has in local matters. There is no waste management, no infrastructure maintenance either. The list could go on till the end of eternity. Yet, these towns exist in the shadow of metros or municipal towns and have natural and organic links to the bigger proximate city. 

Take <g data-gr-id="103">Boisar</g>, a small industrial town near Mumbai, as an example. In Delhi, itself, there are three census towns: <g data-gr-id="104">Asola</g>, Bhati and Jonapur. Take any census town and the story is the same. Look at Burari Gaon: in the heart of Delhi, this area has not seen the advent of urban governance or civic amenities. Then there is Khora, a settlement of over one lakh inhabitants in the proximity of Ghaziabad, but no bye-laws, no urban planning and no waste or water management worth mentioning. Sanitation is a joke and preventable diseases are aplenty. This is not to say that everything is bleak as far as census towns are concerned. 

There are a few successes, though. We can easily recall the planned development of Manimajra. Manimajra is a small town in the jurisdiction of Union Territory Chandigarh, India. Situated close to Panchkula, Haryana, it is mainly a residential hub. 

This town lies about 8 km to the east side of Chandigarh and till the ‘70s its population was barely twenty odd thousand. And then a series of unplanned developments took place. Finally, at the start of the 90s, an urban plan was prepared and steadfastly implemented. Today, Manimajra looks like a smart adjunct of Chandigarh and has its own municipality to govern it. Panchkula and Mohali in the proximity of Chandigarh have benefitted from these timely incorporations of these settlements into regulated and planned cities with emerging identities and distinctive cultures. 

The examples of decayed and decaying census towns can be seen across the country, state after state. Sometimes one feels the pointlessness of seminars and workshops on urban <g data-gr-id="88">management,</g> when we see the appalling state of civic infrastructure in these towns, and the criminal abdication of duty by the local authorities in these settlements. Every arm of the administrative structure is aware of what needs to be done. Yet the question is when will it be done? 

 The planned urban development is not a broad spectrum antibiotic which, if taken for a specified period, will deliver normalcy to the health of an ailing person. It has a long gestation period and every step of urban planning has a number of dimensions which are specific to the local geography. Like seeds, these have to be sown in fertile soil and nursed with care.

The journey for rejuvenation has to begin with examining these neglected areas for the best practises adopted in management and administration of the proximate city, and applying the same laws and bye-laws as a starting point. Geography-specific changes can be brought in later, but at least there will be some law and order that the area will be subjected to. In fact, urban management needs to be changed from the limits of the municipality system to contiguous areas as well. The state must identify these <g data-gr-id="101">contiguities</g> such that no area is left unregulated or unsupervised as an urban growth centre. The distinction of census towns, statutory towns, and urban agglomerations needs a regulatory environment. It cannot be that no building laws apply and no permissions are needed to build, as is the case presently. Such a laissez-faire state of affairs will only lead to haphazard growth as is already being witnessed in these towns.

Money is an important consideration in guiding planned urban development. Either the state is rich enough to make budgetary allocations for civic infrastructure creation or the concerned municipality should be competent enough to administer and implement projects under tight budgets. There could also be a scenario where there is enough resource generation potential in the territory so that revenues and land values can be ploughed into the town’s civic needs. Coupled with these two prerequisites, there also has to be an available capacity in the industry to deliver the projects in time and as per designed specifications. Sadly, on all three counts, there is a lot left to be desired. There is a huge vacuum in the engineering capacity. Government budgets, for the most part, are routine exercises, with <g data-gr-id="108">little</g> imagination and extreme disregard for sequencing the needs of  different sectors of the state. 

True, there are political statements intended to win the sympathies of the future voters, but economics has taken a position of primacy in guiding investments into the most productive avenues. We have to begin with a state perspective plan, considering the special features of each district and its proximate rural areas, their needs and their growth potential. The administrative framework needs a fundamental overhaul as well. The district magistrate/deputy commissioner/collector system needs a thorough relook. It’s safe to say this trifecta has been unable to deliver on the development needs of our small towns.

We have to empower the entire bureaucratic framework so that they can deliver at the grassroots level. To know how to do something and then not do it is criminal neglect. We need to put the best bureaucrats in the districts and divisions, and not as transitory birds of passage, but as those whose nests must prosper if they do their work honestly, efficiently and competently. The head of a division in a state must hold a tenured post and performance must be a factor for moving ahead in the hierarchy. 

 The census town or the statutory town can no longer exist as areas of no civic laws. Enough damage has already been wrought by the apathy of the administrative system. The smart cities will have an ugly backyard if these dimensions are not properly addressed. And there will be no handsome appearance unless the profile is wholesome.
Raj Liberhan

Raj Liberhan

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