Can the New Urban Agenda heal India’s urban-rural divide?

Last year’s Habitat III process brought global focus to links between urban and rural development. In India, this has meant a new regional approach to planning aimed at bridging this gap.
According to the 2011 census, India was home to some 650,000 villages. (Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

Over the past quarter-century, the collective wisdom on how to deal with imbalances between urban and rural areas has undergone a major evolution. This has been particularly stark in India, home to one of the largest rural populations in the world.

The recent Habitat III summit on sustainable urbanization also paid significant attention to these so-called urban-rural linkages. And indeed, the Habitat conferences — which happen only every 20 years — offer a useful measuring stick by which to gauge strategy on this complex issue. The phrase “human settlement” formally entered the United Nations lexicon during the Habitat I conference held in Vancouver in 1976, coined to acknowledge that all settlements, whether urban or rural, fell under the purview of the U. N.’s new Human Settlements Programme, now known as UN-Habitat.

From the 1970s to UN-Habitat’s creation in 2002, the definition of human settlement didn’t officially change. But in that time the idea became understood as referring primarily to urban settlements. In 1996, for instance, Habitat II was popularly known as the Cities Summit, clearly giving greater prominence to urban than rural settlements.

Nonetheless, the outcome strategy adopted at Habitat II — a document known as the Habitat Agenda — still underscored the needs of rural settlements and the rural poor, albeit separately from the urban. It also proposed a host of actions for the “balanced development of settlements in rural regions”: providing infrastructure and employment, for instance, spreading technological advancements and diversified agricultural systems, and making available education and robust marketing support. All of this aimed to develop strong synergies for rural areas with urban development.

Now, the Habitat Agenda has been supplanted by a new strategy: the New Urban Agenda, the consensus declaration adopted at Habitat III. In name, at least, this is a document that focuses explicitly on the urban. So how does this new strategy look at the rural end of the spectrum?

[See: Assessing the New Urban Agenda’s ‘new concept’: Integrating the city and countryside]

For the most part, the rural finds mention in the 24-page document as part of a compound: “urban-rural”. The agenda doesn’t have a separate vision for rural settlements and rural development; rather, it links the growth of urban development with that of rural areas. The resulting “urban-rural linkages” came to receive significant attention during the run-up to Habitat III, including in a technical “issue paper” that described these linkages as “flows of people, capital, goods, employment, information and technology”.

Evolving approach

Close on the heels of Habitat III, India hosted a major conference on the implementation of the New Urban Agenda in December. The sixth Asia-Pacific Ministerial Conference on Housing and Urban Development brought decision-makers from over 70 countries to New Delhi. The event endorsed the New Urban Agenda, and concluded with the New Delhi Declaration and a related action plan.

“Last year India started a new intervention that could be globally unique, looking at the rural-urban continuum by using a “cluster” planning approach.”

For the conference, India led a working group on urban and rural planning and management — an issue to which the event overall paid great attention. The declaration notes that urban-rural linkages have “significant relevance” for the region and emphasizes the importance of achieving “balanced rural and urban development”. The declaration’s first two actions points pledge the region’s governments to develop and strengthen “policies towards integrated development of cities, towns and their peripheral areas”, and to “encourage the adoption of approaches that promote … an urban-rural continuum”.

[See: In India, training the next generation of urbanists]

India’s interest in this issue stems from its massive rural area, which includes nearly 650,000 villages, according to the 2011 census. Yet the country’s approach to addressing the urban-rural continuum has changed significantly over the past two decades.

By the mid-1990s when Habitat II took place, India was in the midst of a decade of major economic liberalization and reforms. This resulted in economic growth that prompted a surge of urban expansion as well as related challenges. In response, policymakers focused primarily on providing adequate urban housing, social services and physical infrastructure for urban dwellers.

At Habitat II, the Indian government highlighted these new city-focused measures as well as constitutional amendments that would devolve more functions and finances to local governments. Together, these actions were taken to establish urban and rural local bodies — municipalities and panchayats, respectively — as a third tier of governance.

Yet while the local governments were essential to undertake these measures on behalf of both state and central governments, their role was still envisaged separately rather than collaboratively. Thus, at Habitat II, India did not propose an integrated urban-rural planning mechanism for equitable development of both areas.

[See: The New Urban Agenda’s rural-urban conundrum]

Between Habitat II and Habitat III, the challenge of urbanization became increasingly daunting. Yet approaches to bridging the divide between urban and rural also evolved significantly, both globally and within India. The Habitat III issue paper on urban-rural linkages, for instance, put forth several drivers for action aimed at how to avoid exacerbating the urban-rural divide. These recommendations eventually were included in the New Urban Agenda.

While many of these drivers are relevant to India, three are particularly important: territorial and spatial planning, improving governance mechanisms and policies to enhance urban-rural partnerships. Let’s look at each of these in turn to understand India’s actions in this regard and how the country could bolster these responses.

Three ‘rurban’ drivers

Territorial and spatial planning: In India and many other developing countries, the urban-rural divide increasingly has been approached through integrated planning and management approaches.

“India still has neither a national urban nor a national rural policy. However, several national policies do address issues faced in these areas and the interface between the two. These policies now are giving a growing role to local bodies, and are empowering state and local governments to conceptualize and approve projects.”

At Habitat II, India did talk about the need for balanced socio-economic development. In its country report at the time, it briefly alluded to a planning approach involving a larger region, aiming to allow  “economies of scale” to help promote “the urban-rural integration process”. It also suggested moving from a top-down master-planning process towards integrating all stakeholders in a region under a single planning exercise.

[See: Developing countries face a catastrophic lack of urban planning capacity]

Twenty years later, in last year’s country report for Habitat III, India made clear that it had significantly ramped up this strategy. The government had recently unveiled a planning approach focused explicitly on regions — and this time, with the explicit intention of bridging the urban-rural gap. A key step was the revision of the country’s national planning guidelines to specifically address regional resources for development and to embrace both urban and rural settlements in any region. The planning process in most urban development programmes also has been made far more participatory.

Last year India also started a new intervention that could be globally unique, looking at the rural-urban continuum by using a “cluster” planning approach. The Rurban Mission, under the Ministry of Rural Development, defines “rurban” clusters as geographically contiguous villages where the mission provides basic social, economic and digital services. This programme is still quite new, and how these rural-urban linkages will play out is not yet known.

Improving governance mechanisms: The New Urban Agenda and other Habitat III documents urge countries to address urban-rural imbalances through legislative frameworks. This could be a particularly useful recommendation for India, where there are several ministerial mandates dealing with urban and rural governance. Also, the urban portfolio is split further into two agencies, the Ministry of Urban Development and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation.

This means that at least three ministries would need to coordinate on addressing the urban-rural continuum from a governance perspective. With almost half of all urban settlements still having rural governance structures (known as census towns), a cohesive and cooperative approach between the urban and rural ministries is necessary.

[See: How a generation of young leaders is emerging from India’s slums]

Urban-rural partnerships: Finally, there is the issue of bolstering urban-rural partnerships and inter-municipal cooperation. This includes creating policy frameworks such as national urban policies and city development strategies that can enable such partnerships.

As noted, during the early 1990s, India adopted a constitutional amendment that decentralized powers to urban and rural local bodies. By the time of Habitat II, however, urban and rural governments had not yet acquired an identity of their own, and neither urban-urban nor urban-rural partnerships were being clearly envisaged. Further, with the economy just opening up, public-private partnerships were only just getting off the ground.

Twenty years later, the actual level of devolution still requires much work, although local bodies in both urban and rural areas clearly have matured as tiers of government. Over time, more funds and functions have been allocated to local bodies, which are now at the helm of implementing multiple federal and sub-federal programmes.

[See: The people power behind Mexico City’s new constitution]

On the one hand, then, India still has neither a national urban nor a national rural policy. On the other, several national policies do address issues faced in these areas and the interface between the two. These policies now are giving a growing role to local bodies, and are empowering state and local governments to conceptualize and approve projects.

Still, it is important to recognize that the decentralization of powers to local bodies has yet to be implemented in full spirit. More importantly, the planning function that was supposed to be devolved to the planning committees and urban local bodies continues to be performed by state governments.

Beyond big cities

India’s national report for Habitat III recognizes that the accelerated development of rural areas and stronger urban-rural linkages have been a key trend in the country’s urban growth and urban development strategies. Going forward, the country’s urban agenda also is being shaped through its efforts to find a balance between growth and equity between its urban and rural areas.

[See: Home to colossal urban population, India is ignoring Habitat III]

“India’s newly initiated regional planning approach can realize its true potential only by making small and intermediate cities an integral part of the planning process. The small cities need to be integrated with other small and big cities, as well as hinterlands in the region.”

Yet India will be able to achieve this balance only by according a greater role to local governments and looking beyond its big cities. The small and intermediate cities are literally the linkage between the urban and rural, and they hold significant potential in integrating urban and rural economies.

In India, such cities have been functioning as centres of trade, commerce, marketing, processing, transportation, distribution and communications. They also have been critical for the growth of small-scale industries and in generating employment. Yet while the country has been pursuing a scheme for development of small and medium towns for more than two decades, its overwhelming focus has been on providing infrastructure.

This approach now needs to be broadened to include holistic socio-economic planning. The country’s newly initiated regional planning approach can realize its true potential only by making small and intermediate cities an integral part of the planning process. The small cities need to be integrated with other small and big cities, as well as hinterlands in the region.

[See: In Uganda’s small but fast-growing cities, ‘one planner is not enough]

During preparations for Habitat III, the Cuenca Declaration on Intermediate Cities advocated for “development of a more balanced system of cities and human settlements through inclusive national urban policies and strategy frameworks, as well as an effective regional and territorial planning, to ensure a better distributed urban growth”. The Habitat III issue paper on urban-rural linkages likewise identified small and intermediate cities as a missing link and acknowledged that research on them is insufficient.

These now are recommendations that India would do well to follow. Only by embodying these principles along with those enshrined in New Urban Agenda will the country be able to take full advantage of its new region-based planning approach — and strengthen the links between its cities and rural areas to achieve balanced development once and for all.

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Tarun Sharma

Tarun Sharma is a co-founder of Nagrika Policy Research Foundation, an India-based indigenous organization researching urban India. Nagrika attended the Habitat III summit and has committed to produce and co-create new knowledge from and for small and intermediary cities.

Yutika Vora

Yutika Vora is a co-founder of Nagrika Policy Research Foundation, an India-based indigenous organization researching urban India. Nagrika attended the Habitat III summit and has committed to produce and co-create new knowledge from and for small and intermediary cities.