1991 census recorded the highest rates of urbanization in Northeast
India between 1981 and 1991. Against the average urban growth of
36.09 per cent in India, the seven Northeastern States notched up
49.79 per cent. The most spectacular growth was in Mizoram, where
the urban population almost doubled, and the number of towns almost
quadrupled, from six to 22, during this period. Yet, what has this
actually meant for the State? Today, there is unchecked and rampant
construction in Aizwal, an ecologically sensitive zone prone to
landslides, which has yielded utter urban chaos. The town, with
just 22.15 kilometres of roads, has 1,026 vehicles for every kilometre,
one of the highest motor densities in India, and the one, and seemingly
only, avenue for a decent livelihood is to find employment with
the State Administration. There are no industries, and, beyond traders
and service providers to the bloated bureaucracy and its dependents,
little potential for entrepreneurship or gainful work. And this
State, which has experienced almost 50 per cent 'urbanisation',
sees its capital city shut down at 6 pm sharp, by which hour it
is time for dinner and bed. The city abruptly morphs into a ghost
town, boarded up till dawn.
certainly did not arrive at its current level of urbanization through
a gradual process and is not the result of a rural economy naturally
giving way to an industrialized and prosperous modern conurbation.
In fact, the urban condition of the State is substantially the result
of completely outrageous and skewed decisions undertaken by the
Government of India: the 'reorganisation' of the districts of Mizoram
and the forced 'regrouping of villages' in a bid to deal effectively
with the insurgency of 1966-1986. Thus village populations were
moved en masse and regrouped into what became urban centres.
And the secret behind the six o' clock shutdown? The outcome of
two-decade-long curfew which forced a people to completely change
the way they lived.
today, the State gets categorised as the most highly 'urbanized',
since its various settlements fit into the census criterion of one
or another category of 'urban area'.
fact, however, is that, today, most towns and cites in the Northeast
are nothing but 'overgrown villages', or trading centres along surface
routes, with some administrative offices for rural development,
which, by virtue simply of the size of population, become 'urban
settlements'. Most of these towns and cities are like extended slums,
with no civic amenities, and no educational, health care, and modern
sanitary facilities. There is hardly any agricultural surplus to
sustain the urban life and social development, or any industrial
output to generate the employment that would ordinarily attract
migration into a city. Comparatively worse social and economic conditions
lead people to migrate to urban centres, where a majority lives
in abject poverty. Other contradictions compound these incongruities.
Mizoram, for instance, has the second highest literacy rate in the
country (after Kerala) - and the Northeast at large has a higher
literacy rate than the average for the country - but is unable to
provide gainful employment to its people.
has led to this state of affairs? The 'Northeast' comprises seven
states - Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal
Pradesh, and Manipur (Sikkim has now been added to these) - each
of which is endowed with a bounty of natural and forest resources;
between them they hold 37 percent of the country's river waters,
which account for 42 per cent of the entire country's hydroelectric
power potential; 20 per cent of India's hydrocarbon (oil and gas)
reserves, large quantities of low ash coal, limestone and dolomite
deposits, in addition to a number of other minerals that are yet
to be explored.
is a land crafted out of paradise, a true Eden on earth. On witnessing
the beauty of the region, Mullah Dervish of Herat, who accompanied
Mir Jumla, the Mughal Commander sent by Auranzeb to conquer the
Northeast, was moved to comment, "It stands outside the circle
of the Earth and the bowels of the enveloping sphere./ It has been
separated from the world like the letter aliph."
today this ancient and gentle land reveals a ravaged soul. Battling
several decades of malfunctioning administration, compounding the
disastrous impact of Partition that destroyed the natural economies
of the region, and of debilitating multiple insurgencies, all seven
States today find themselves on the brink. The per capita of the
Northeast region stands at Rs. 3,530, as against the national average
of Rs. 5,440. The region also lags well behind national averages
in terms of roads, railways, irrigation, per capita consumption
of electricity and fertilizers, and a number of other indices of
failure of the Northeast to emerge as an economic power centre is
rooted in the inability of planners to grasp and comprehend its
uniqueness. There has been a total failure to transform even existing
village economies into profitable urban industries. As an example,
take Bamboo - a material that has long been worked on in a large
proportion of the households in the region. Out of 90 million tons
of bamboo available for commercial utilization in India, the Northeast
accounts for 54 per cent, worth Rs. 5,000 crore in raw form. According
to one estimate, a modest value addition of a factor of two could
create an industry worth Rs. 10,000 crore. Yet, little has been
done to realize this enormous potential.
32 per cent of the population living below the poverty line, the
region is one of the least developed in India. Despite the poverty
and absence of industry and opportunities for employment in the
cities, the past two decades have seen astonishing rates of urbanisation.
Although the urban population varies significantly across the constituent
States, it totals about six million people in 254 urban centers
across the region. The State capitals are experiencing among the
fastest rates of expansion, primarily as a result of migration from
infrastructure-deficient rural areas. The skewed character of this
development is reflected in the fact that nearly 28 per cent of
the urban population is concentrated in just nine of the region's
largest cities. On the other hand, 185 towns account for just 35
per cent of the urban population.
of the tragedy of Mizoram repeat themselves with a saddening regularity
across the region. Acute housing shortages in Meghalaya, with teetering
concrete houses built along seismic faultlines, and without concern
about natural water channels or the stability of the hills, marring
the ethereal natural beauty, create conditions for a tragedy waiting
to happen; Shillong, located near the wettest place on earth, Cherrapunji,
faces chronic water shortages; Manipur, buffeted by an unfortunate
and bitter ethnic war, dealing with the twin problems of drugs and
AIDS, once had thriving urban centres, which have, today, degraded
into chaotic and patternless concentrations of people. Assam today
experiences the slow loss and disappearance of its Class One towns,
as urban infrastructure disintegrates. One by one, across the cities
of the Northeast we see vibrancy, vigour and fortitude give way
to helplessness and despair. The big towns and cities have not lived
up to their promise as centers of hope and productivity, but are
hopeless cul de sacs.
is time we set the whole warped notion of 'urbanisation' straight.
Numbers alone cannot provide the sole definition of the 'town' and
the 'city'. The patterns that prevail in India's Northeast are corrosive
and counter-productive; these are not reflections of a vision of
progress and prosperity; unplanned urban development is creating
an acute threat to fragile eco-systems; and there is, in the urban
rampage in the region, no sense of the emergence or creation of
a civilization freeing itself from the shackles of its past.
in The Pioneer, October 05, 2005