Urban village: A whiplash on the face of recent crisis.

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

By Guest Author Pragyan Rai

A ‘localization project’ was started on 22nd September, 2012 by Australian non-profit Sustainable Communities in Joslin Reserve, South Australia. The project was to create an urban village, a concept that established its prominence in Australia, the United Kingdom, Western Europe, and much of the developed world.

37 years before this, a village in the Ahmadnagar district of Maharashtra, a rain shadow area with temperature hiked up to 44 degrees Celsius, was under hydrological and social distress. Abuse of natural resources coupled with soil erosion and water runoff, made this village of 2500 farmers, unfarmable. To add to it, there was a toll in deaths due to methanol infused ethanol, brewed in 40 alcohol dens. A native of this village, a retired army truck driver, who survived an aerial assault on his truck during the Indo-Pak war of 1965, went through the ordeal of post-traumatic stress disorder returned to the village in 1975. He began talking to communities and through community participation, built a youth brigade that not only helped in organizing mechanisms for water harvesting but also in eradication of the alcohol problem. The name of the village is Ralegan Siddhi and the person talked about, Anna Hazare.

Ralegan Siddhi turned out to be an example of how community participation and systems thinking can lead to the sustainable development of a village from scratch. But there were only a few villages that followed this model. The question stands, why did the localization project spread from Australia to the rest of the western developed world whereas Ralegan Siddhi got limited to environmental education textbooks. The right answer probably lies in the right marketing and promotion of the idea by government and non-government organizations in an integrated manner. There are many examples like these that don’t get serious attention from the policymakers. As of now, India being a developing nation, is mostly dependent on the private sector for development and there is no surplus to revamp and work on the idea of an urban village from scratch.

During a time of crisis due to COVID-19 that is catalyzed by a global political turmoil, self-reliance popularised as aatma-nirbharta is making the rounds on economic discussion forums and meme pages but have we reached the phase where we need to go back to our villages? Where cottage industries will be the new source of capital? Where the rural-urban divide needs to get dissolved and a healthy synergy is the call of the hour? Are urban villages going to be the new Silicon Valley and Detroit?

Battle of livelihood is the most urgent battle we need to conquer. The crisis is going to modify the global supply system but at the same time open opportunities for India to become a global manufacturer. The pandemic has pushed us against the wall and the only way out is to think of size, scale, and speed of action. The tomb of rapid rural development stands on the pillars of employment, development of SMEs, and agriculture. Although the private-public partnership will remain a formidable one, it will open gates for large scale training for the manufacturing industry, hence employing the unemployed sections of rural India. In the quest of being a global manufacturer, India will need resources and then it will knock on the gates of villages again.

Secondly, for agriculture, there needs to be accurate backward and forward linkages between giant manufacturers and farmers. As the textile industry may turn out to be a saviour, intrinsic research and funding for cotton and jute cultivation with the infusion of technology and AI for the same might add up to the self-reliance of farmers. Food distribution networks are going through a period of revolution and are going to witness some major tectonic shifts post-pandemic as farmers who understand the network are willing to expand as traders, thus owning the entire distribution network. Propulsion of the idea of conclusive land titling will instil a sense of ownership and security among farmers. SMEs of rural and semi-urban India have remained credit-starved and 90% of MSMEs are micro-enterprises. With precise backward and forward linkages and innovation models based on GST to ensure credit flow based on financial creativity, SMEs may substantiate the idea of India is a leading global manufacturer. Times like these, require India to nurture and produce few global champions, if 1 out of 5 global champions comes from the rural, it will again be a big feat and everything that is done, whether by the centre or state, must be marketed and promoted globally.

The right definition of modernity and urbanity needs some serious reformulation and it is not the competition between industry and agriculture in terms of resource allocation, it is the synergy between the two that will strengthen our roots. Possession of smartphones doesn’t make a society urban, correct use of it does. Technology will be the guardian of this revolution of which wisdom must take the central space and the rural will emerge as the new urban.