Urban villages – an oxymoron?
Urbanisation in developing countries is marked by large increases in population and has consequences such as sprawl. As a physical phenomenon, urbanisation takes two paths: through expansion of existing urban bodies by engulfing adjoining villages into their territory and through the independent transformation of rural areas into urban areas. Delhi is a classic example of urban sprawl caused by population growth. In the two decades between 1971 and 1991, Delhi’s population increased by 4.8 million with the city’s sprawl extending by 239 square kilometers — an increase of 53 per cent in area to accommodate 132 per cent increase in population.
Urbanised by default Delhi holds a large number of human settlements, both urban and rural. Many of them are currently passing through a transitional phase of rapid urbanisation and physical expansion. There were 348 rural settlements in 1951. These were reduced to 209 in 1991 as 139 villages were notified as urban in 1963, 1966 and 1982. Another 14 villages were urbanised in 1994. They have all been annexed to the Delhi urban area and designated as ‘urban villages’. This term is inherently contradictory as its population size leads to it being classified as an urban entity, whereas its characteristics are still typically village like. Such pockets are typical of large cities.
The urban village as an entity exists only as a concept. Administratively, it merges with the urban ward as soon it gets notified, but has starkly different characteristics from the rest of the ward. The rural-urban conflicts are strongly manifested here.
In the wake of current planning mechanisms, urban villages remain isolated and alienated entities to be exploited by property dealers, political power brokers and speculators. The pattern of development that emerges in these areas is haphazarded and chaotic. Uncontrolled invasion of non-compatible land-uses and elimination of traditional interrelationships by outside and superfluous forces leads to the disintegration of the communities.
As a consequence of economic and speculative forces unleashed on villages in the periphery of the metropolis, massive transformation in their physical form and socio-cultural setup takes place. Some villages have experienced population growth rates of up to 700 per cent in a decade. The village is confronted with a forced upsurge of deleterious activities, but it lacks any mechanisms to control them. Though, urban villages provide economic advantages such as cheap land prices and inexpensive housing to the service classes in the metropolis, their social and physical environment undergoes steady degradation.
The aftermath of notification The journey for the rural village begins the day it is notified by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (mcd) for acquisition. Panchayats are superseded and the Delhi Development Authority acquires the land for development works. The mcd deals with the supply of infrastructural facilities and once the development work is complete, the urban village is transferred to this body for maintenance and upkeep.
The entire process may take anything between 15 to 20 years — a fairly long period for a village to lie without coordinated administration. It is during this transition stage that maximum speculative development happens in the villages. Lack of land-use regulations give birth to several illegal colonies and absence of control over pollution norms result in small-scale polluting factories taking root. Some such as Mundka village in north Delhi emerge as the worst hit. Here environmentally hazardous activities such as the recycling of hospital waste and plastic waste thrive. Following the government’s ban on polluting industries, several of them continue to quietly operate behind closed doors. As the city sleeps, these units come alive.
It is but ironical that our planning processes still give rise to complexities and contradictions that are integral parts of the urban environment: non-conforming and unsustainable land-uses, relocation of polluting industries, regularisation of illegal settlements and slums. There remain many such rural ‘pockets’ in the city fabric that are not well integrated and are subjected to the vagaries of market forces, manipulations and speculations. This leads to situations where these settlements end up becoming the underdeveloped backyards of the city in the long run.
Manu Agarwal is a research consultant with Ahmedabad-based Samerth