Recent Traumatic Events Will Have a Significant Impact on the Pattern of Future Settlements in India

by Ranjit Sabikhi

RSA + R204 Design, India

As a resident of Delhi, I have been observing the changes taking place in the city and the surrounding areas over the last 60 years. In 1957, the first Delhi Master Plan 1961 was approved, and this outlined the framework of future urban development. Up to the end of the year 2000 despite the precise location and definition of Single Use Zones, District Centers, Zonal Shopping Centers and Local Shopping Centers, around which the Residential Areas were laid out, they all began to slowly change. This began with the infiltration of offices, banks, medical clinics, etc. into residential areas.

The carefully designed and detailed District Centers which were the main focus of demarcated zones consisting of a variety of uses such as shopping, offices, service industry, banks, restaurants, etc. became just a concentration of office units of different sizes. Space designated for shops remained empty as they were too expensive, and this space was occupied by offices and banks. Meanwhile major shopping centers came up in low-income residential areas occupying the ground floor of closely built residential units, and slowly spread out over vast areas. These became the major retail zones of the city.

This process of gradual change of use in response to actual need began to spread across the entire Delhi Urban Area as the city continued to expand in size with steadily increasing migration from the rural areas. Several changes were introduced in subsequent Master Plans but the planners, the administrators, and the politicians, never quite fully understood the organic process of change. They concentrated on extracting maximum revenue from the monetization of land. As a result, the needs of the urban poor that consisted of almost 60% of the population of 230 million were never recognized or catered for. As per the Master Plan housing for the urban poor, it took the form of one or two room units with an average plinth area of 250 m2 to 400 m2. The development of such units built at ground level with adjoining space for future expansion was discouraged, as this would involve more land and instead such units were to be incorporated in multi-story structures. This meant the concentration of large numbers of people on small areas of land with little or no support facilities like schools, health centers, meeting spaces, shopping centers, banks, police stations, etc.

This is the pattern of development that has been followed over the last 30 years. In such a situation, a large part of the urban population had no real link with the city and maintained a strong connection with the villages and rural areas from where they had come.

In early 2020, the first cases of COVID-19 infection were confirmed, and within a short time spread to several states across the country. On the night of March 24, the Prime Minister announced a nation-wide lockdown with less than four hours’ notice. All offices, shopping centers, and industrial units were closed, and all public transportation was stopped. Within days it became clear that India had plunged into an enormous human crisis. It is estimated that the lockdown resulted in 114 million job losses: 90 million were daily wage earners and 20 million salary earners. The livelihoods of the poor and marginalized were destroyed, and they were pushed to the brink of starvation. Over 25 million migrant workers headed for their homes in the rural areas. Little or no help came from the government. Some workers and their families managed to get on to trains or on to trucks and buses at a cost which they could barely afford, but the larger number walked from a few hundred kilometers to over 1,200 kilometers along the roads. They had no food or water except for what was given to them by welfare activists and concerned citizens who set up free food distribution centers in towns and villages along the way. No real help was provided by the concerned authorities, and in many places, they were subjected to undue harassment by the police and state authorities. After considerable publicity, a few free trains were run but this also was soon discontinued as they were not organized to cope with the massive demand. Large numbers of people lost their lives, but there is no proper record of the widespread impact on the lives of millions of migrants, emanating from this disaster. Despite the fact that conditions in the villages were worse, with no proper jobs and minimum earning capacity, most of them had no intention of returning to the cities.
As the COVID pandemic spread across the country from state to state, large numbers of people succumbed due to a variety of reasons including inadequate healthcare, lack of oxygen, and shortage of hospital beds. In the Delhi urban area 25,600 residents lost their lives. In the rural areas of all the states, conditions were much worse, and to date there is no proper accounting of the total number of deaths. Horrifying pictures of large numbers of funeral pyres stretching far beyond the confines of the cremation grounds, including half-burnt bodies floating in the rivers along rural areas, were seen in the media. The central and state governments were unable to control the situation and resorted to a denial of the reality to avoid increasing panic. The lockdown has now been lifted but there are still several COVID cases in some states. The total number of COVID deaths in the country to date is 475,000 plus.

The lockdown disrupted the lives of over three million people, a majority of which were part of the informal sector in cities. They had to leave their homes, their daily wage jobs, and their children had to leave their schools causing a break in their education. It is interesting to note that despite being reduced to conditions of extreme poverty many of them ensured that their children’s education continued. Children who were studying in private schools were transferred to government schools where education was free, and the enrollment in government schools in rural areas doubled. As schools were shut, a system of online education was started. Many migrants could not afford to take advantage of this either because of the absence of proper connection or because they simply could not afford it. Despite financial hardship, many of them bought new smart phones to enable continuity in their children’s education. Considering the seriousness poor migrants attach to their children’s education, the whole system of rural schools and online teaching needs to be upgraded as a matter of priority. The government and state authorities have yet to effectively met this need.

Before life had returned to normal, in June 2020, the government promulgated three new farm laws relating to the sale price of 17 farm crops. Farmers in the villages of Punjab soon realized that these laws would have a significant impact on the livelihood of small farmers, and a decision to protest soon spread to neighboring states and the nation’s capital. On November 27, farmers from around 6,000 Punjab villages led a protest march to Delhi. They were stopped at the borders, so along with their tractors, the farmers and their families camped along the roads and set up temporary homes. Over 2,500 temporary settlements were set up around the capital and several protest marches were led from there into different parts of the city. More than 400,000 tractors turned up at a protest rally on Republic Day – January 26, 2021. Temporary settlements that stretched between 15 to 20 km along the roads continued to function continuously until the Prime Minister announced a repeal of the farm laws on November 19, 2021. The protest lasted for 360 days, and 670 farmers lost their lives.

Although the above happenings may not be directly related to urban development the COVID-19 pandemic, the lockdown, the march of migrants to their homes, and the farmers’ protests will over time be viewed as major historic events, and this will have a significant impact on the pattern of future settlements across the country.

There are several important lessons that need to be learned from these events. First and foremost is the need to provide adequate space to all residents both in their homes and public areas. This will call for a different approach to planning that avoids steadily increasing the concentration of residents in urban areas. This is only possible with the development of new townships at a distance around major cities with adequate employment opportunities so that migrants may be diverted to the new settlements. In a country as large as India with its enormous population, it is possible to use this strategy to gradually develop the large rural areas. Settlements with manufacturing industries and industries related to agriculture, along with schools, health centers, universities, cultural facilities, centers for the development of local crafts, and tourist facilities related to monuments and natural features could help bring about enormous change over time. Such concepts, however, require a total shift from the current pattern of development, which seeks only to monetize land to extract maximum revenue, or blindly follow the pattern of enormous high-rise construction emulating the examples of Shanghai and other Chinese cities. There is much inspiration that can be gained from a careful evaluation of our own historic settlements.


Ahead of print of Ranjit Sabikhi (2022). Recent Traumatic Events Will Have a Significant Impact on the Pattern of Future Settlements in India. Journal of Biourbanism, IX/1&2

Cover image: Palam, New Dehli, photograph by Dr. Punit Sethi. Copyright Dr. Punit Sethi.