It is a rare privilege to see ideas that one talks about incessantly emerge from other strong voices. One knows then that there is a genuine resonance. Ideas are considered solitary products, but in fact they thrive best in communities.
For more than a year, in these pages, and elsewhere, I have argued that many major Indian cities have, in a sense, become unliveable—with crumbling infrastructure and ever rising populations, the quality of life they offered were either for the ultra-rich who lived in one or two tiny pockets and used their wealth to disconnect from everything else, or for people who are stuck in these cities, trapped due to a wide number of reasons. This conversation is often trapped in political biases, but every reasonable Indian realises that this is genuinely a political party agnostic problem—everyone has contributed to the issue, but few have done much to resolve it.
This essay began when I saw Nithin Kamath, the founder and CEO of online brokerage Zerodha, tweet, “While we all work together to figure out what we can do to help in the current situation, I think the only long-term fix is for as many of us to move away from large cities. This is the answer to many of India’s problems. And now is probably the right time to work towards it. Large cities are choking and will continue to break down every time we’re tested, Covid-19 today, could be water shortages, pollution, floods, etc. Moving to smaller towns and villages will also create livelihoods there and reduce carbon footprint. Also, a much better quality of life. The silver lining in these trying times is that people are more open than ever to move out of large cities.”
Kamath also shared, along with his tweets, pie charts showing the results of a survey that he had run within his company. The results showed that more than 49% of his employees would prefer permanent work from home or work from a remote location, and an even larger number, more than 67%, would prefer to work in a smaller town, or village. The big city life was not working, it seemed from the results, for most of them.
Kamath added that, “We are in the process of transitioning as many people as possible to permanent WFH [work from home] so that we can enable this move out of large cities for those who haven’t, and make it permanent for those who have already moved. We are also now hiring for permanent WFH positions for our customer support team and soon for other teams as well. I'm hoping that other businesses who can, will also move whatever jobs possible to permanent WFH and nudge their teams to make this transition.”
To this, Sridhar Vembu, the founder and CEO of tech major Zoho Corp., replied, “We have to decongest urban areas and create opportunity in rural areas. Our cities cannot grow any bigger.”
There are two visions of urbanism—one talks about loosely populated cities and a significant commute from the place of work to home; the other is all about densely packed communities with mixed use buildings and no concept of uptown or downtown, and where people can walk to work.
Densely packed cities are said to be more productive. But the point also is that they work only if urban design and municipal systems function well and issues like sewage, and hygiene, and waste management are efficiently taken care of. And housing is built in an equitable manner. For every good example of Singapore and Taiwan, cities like New York and San Francisco are in deep trouble—the inequity embedded in their very design is increasingly unsustainable (as seen from tech departures going on from San Francisco, for instance).
In India, there is a little hope that its major cities could be transformed to a Singapore, so the best possible scenario is decongestion. This has become even more critical as we face the apocalyptic scenario of Covid-19 as only the first of many pandemics to come in the near future, each one driven by environmental destruction, lack of cleanliness, and climate change.
The silver lining, if any, is that the availability of basics is improving in small-town and rural India. As the Bare Necessities Index (BNI) in the Indian Economic Survey 2020-21 shows, basics services like clean drinking water availability, sanitation, safe shelter, and basic food are improving steadily in smaller towns and rural areas. The improvement could be an important ingredient of decongestion.
As talented workers seek to move outside the big cities, they would take not only their money, but also their skills, their lifestyles, their needs, their cultures, and their ability to demand even better levels of governance.
This kind of decongestion—if it happens in a sustained way—is a definitive way forward for the future of Indian growth, a more equitable, decentralised growth that helps communities and not merely individuals prosper.
Views are personal. The author is a historian and a columnist. He is a multiple award-winning author of nine books.