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COVID-19 Reveals The Ugly Truth Of India's Urban-Rural Divide

The need to prioritize comprehensive planning is just as acute in both in urban and rural areas.

A boy at the site of demolished slum dwellings At Okhla In New Delhi
A boy at the site of demolished slum dwellings At Okhla In New Delhi
Ranjit Sabikhi


The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that we are currently passing through will have a disastrous effect on the life of large numbers of people across India and is more serious than the government acknowledges.

The biggest impact is going to be on the poorer sections of society that constitute more than half of the population, particularly the daily wage earners who were suddenly made helpless with the onset of the pandemic and the arbitrary announcement of total lockdown in March 2020.

These were the people who lived in slums and highly congested areas in cities who could not pay rent and did not know how to feed their families. They left for their homes in rural areas, with an estimated 25 to 30 million migrants escaping the cities.

Many of them found no work after returning home, and their household income fell drastically. With the partial revival of economic activities after the first lockdown, several workers were able to return to the cities by February 2021, finding employment at salaries that were 8% to 10% less than what they had previously earned.

The second wave of the pandemic has now hit them hard, leading to uncertainty and fear, as they have again been forced to return to their villages. They and their families are in urgent need of a sustainable plan for their future.

People who lived in slums left for their homes in rural areas.

Except for a draft national policy on migrant labor prepared by Niti Aayog, government agencies entrusted to provide help have not attempted to study, record, and analyze the details of the massive migration of workers that took place last year. There has also been a complete lack of sympathetic response to the uncertain future that migrant workers face.

The various programs set up by the government to provide food and jobs have not reached a large number of migrants. Recent surveys reveal that 74% of them had no access to subsidized cereals like rice and wheat, and only 12% got pulses. Less than 10% got jobs in public works at their native place under the MGNREGA plan.

The demand driven skill training under the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Yojana (GKRY) did not reach most migrants — only a very small number of migrants got any skill upgrade or training at their native place. Almost all the relief plans that the prime minister announced with such fanfare have been poorly implemented in only bits and pieces, and have failed to be of real help.

Safe spaces for everyone

In planning for post-pandemic development in both urban and rural areas many issues will need to be addressed.

First and foremost is the issue relating to the provision of space on an equitable basis for all sections of society. To minimize the spread of infection, minimum distance has to be maintained between individuals in all areas whether at work or home and also in public areas and streets. This is an issue that is related to equitable access to land, both in the urban and rural areas.

As per the 2011 Census data, almost 46% of the urban population consists of migrants who need rental accommodation. Wherever there are concentrations of low-income housing in cities, they are squeezed into minimal size plots built as four- to six-story walkup apartments.

Many of these are built on 25 square meter plots — an area on which you can barely squeeze in a single room, a toilet and a narrow staircase. Each floor on such plots has a single dwelling unit accommodating one family of four to six persons and this is the basis on which large numbers of unauthorized colonies have been developed all across Delhi. This is where over 60% of the population of the national capital currently lives.

With the realization that these are the hot spots where the coronavirus contaminates large numbers of people, it is necessary to ensure that future development — even with small sized residences in urban and rural areas — has substantial open space both within and around it.

With the return of migrants to their villages, the problem of long-term rural development requires urgent attention.

This change is not easy to bring about, particularly due to the stranglehold that politicians and administrators have on land all over the country. To develop plans where space is allocated on a fair and equitable basis to all sections of society, a complete change in the approach to planning and urban design is called for.

To ensure that the same mistakes of crowded development in urban areas are not repeated in the rural areas, a more sympathetic and responsive framework of planning needs to be prepared. With the return of migrants to their homes in villages, the problem of long-term rural development requires urgent attention.

Keeping careful records

For proper planning, the GIS survey of every village in the country, along with a record of all existing structures, access roads, trees, forests as well as all individual farm holdings is essential. It should be the responsibility of each state to get such accurately updated records.

All new developments can then be properly considered and planned on a comprehensive basis. The process of regional planning also calls for the active participation of professionals like economists, sociologists, demographers, engineers, architects, town planners, urban designers, landscape architects, etc. to produce long-term plans to bring about meaningful change.

Concrete buildings in India — Photo: Juniper Photon

Currently, there is no separate administrative body to deal with the effective implementation of development in rural areas. For improvements and development in village abadis to happen, proposals need to be prepared with the active participation of the local Panchayats.

Because of the enormity of our rural areas and the different social and economic conditions that prevail, it is necessary to set up a separate Rural Administrative body for effective coordination with the state and central government.

This is needed urgently. It has been proposed repeatedly in the past, but IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officials have resisted these plans, which they see as an intrusion on their domain. Many years ago, Jayaprakash Narayan, a senior politician, wrote a detailed note on the subject, stressing the need for proper rural development, but the note was never able to get past the IAS stranglehold.

Plans are shelved or stuck in the administrative quagmire.

Regardless of the obstacles, the enlargement of the entire rural administrative setup in each state is now essential. With the proper regional planning of rural areas in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, locations from where the largest number of migrants originate, large scale employment opportunities need to be created within the states themselves.

It is essential to have accurate surveys for the proper planning of rural areas. The Svamitva plan for the survey of village abadis and mapping with aerial surveys was launched in April 2020, and is in the process of being implemented by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj. One of the components of the Svamitva plan is the preparation of comprehensive GIS survey maps of the rural areas in each state. Until April 24, 2021, maps had been generated for only 875 village abadis in Haryana, two in Karnataka, and 976 in Uttar Pradesh.

The plan aims to provide an integrated property validation solution for rural India. The demarcation of rural abadi areas is being done with the help of Drone Survey Technology.

The intention is to help provide the "record of rights' to village household owners possessing houses in inhabited rural areas in villages, which in turn, would enable them to use their property as a financial asset for taking loans and other financial benefits from banks. The process will also help to create accurate land and property records of land ownership.

And yet, as of March 2021, surveys have been completed in only 31,000 villages, and property cards have been distributed to around 230,000 property holders in 2,626 villages.

As in many of the current government schemes, shortcomings including their slow progress have not been corrected, and the process of implementation is long drawn out. In this particular program, proper coordination with local panchayats has not been done, and a process of entrusting property rights along with the issue of proper property titles has not been followed through with individual states.

Similarly issues of property ownership such as multiple owners, and the recognition of an individual or joint women's ownership rights, and their correct record on property cards, have not been resolved. It is also necessary to introduce legal changes to empower gram panchayats to collect and utilize property tax for the development of village areas.

In the absence of proper follow through, including the need to set up the necessary rural administrative infrastructure, it is likely that this important plan may lose focus over time.

Like with most of the prime minister's ambitious development proposals, the approval of adequate funds is a major problem that ultimately leads to the plan being shelved or stuck in the administrative quagmire. But seeing how deeply this year has impacted migrant workers across the country, it is imperative that urban and rural planning be more carefully considered and prioritized.

Ranjit Sabikhi is an architect and urban designer. He was formerly a Professor of Urban Design at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi.

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Pasta v. Fascists: How Italy's Staple Dish Became A Symbol Of Resistance

Pasta may not be considered controversial today, but it played an important role during Italy's fascist years, particularly in one family's celebration of community and liberation.

Photo of the Cervi family.

Photo of the Cervi family, whose seven children were shot by the Fascists on December 28, 1943, at the Reggio Emilia shooting range.

@comunisti_alla_ribalta via Instagram
Jacopo Fontaneto

ROME — Eighty years ago — on July 25, 1943 — the vote of no confidence by the Grand Council of Fascism, leading to Benito Mussolini's arrest, set off widespread celebrations. In Campegine, a small village in the Emilian province, the Cervi family celebrated in their own way: they brought 380 kilograms of pasta in milk cans to the town square and offered it to all the inhabitants of the village.

The pasta was strictly plain: macaroni dressed with butter and cheese, seen as more of a "festive dish" in that period of deprivation. As soon as the Cervi brothers learned about the arrest of Mussolini, they procured flour, borrowed butter and cheese from the dairy, and prepared kilos and kilos of pasta. They then loaded it onto a cart to distribute it to their fellow villagers. Pastasciutta (dry pasta) specifically regards dishes with noodles that are plated "dry", not in broth. That would disqualify soup, risotto, ravioli...

Even though pastasciutta is the most stereotypical type of pasta today, it had a complicated relationship with the government during Italy's fascist years.

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