March of the cities

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SummaryIn Urban Villager, the writer elucidates how the push for urbanisation has led to as many challenges as the opportunities it has nurtured

One look at urbanisation in India and you would know that our cities seldom grow—they just spill over. Whether in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore or Bhubaneswar—or any major or even tier-II city—old-timers are increasingly wondering how the newest address in town came to be at a place, that they can only remember as a cluster of villages (the many that are now a part of the NCR), a minor tourist destination centred around a wetland and a lake (Hoskote in Bangalore), the fringe of a protected elephant reserve (Patia in Bhubaneswar) or even bits that were under the sea (Mumbai).

With India’s booming service sector being largely localised in cities, the decongestion of cities happening as a spillover has become inevitable. However, this push for urbanisation has led to as many challenges as the opportunities it has nurtured, with the people who have ceded their land to accommodate suburbs and new towns struggling to negotiate with the changing nature of their surroundings. Vandana Vasudevan, in her book, Urban Villager: Life in an Indian Satellite Town, explores the dynamics of these challenges from her vantage point as a resident of Greater Noida, a suburb of New Delhi, some 40 km from the capital.

Vasudevan begins with a full chapter on the oral history of the four blocks that form most of Greater Noida. Drawing from her many conversations with bureaucrats, community leaders, political activists, farmers and even snake charmers, she elucidates how the land owners’ anxiety over potentially missing out on the windfall from land acquisition is probably matched by the resentment they feel over being paid a fraction of the price the land ultimately sells for.

The most insightful sections of the book are the ones in which Vasudevan underscores how confronting values and lifestyles very different from their own are causing a churn in the former land-owning class in Greater Noida, mostly Gujjars. In one chapter, she details the spawning of an “education bazaar”—the villagers are keen on spending their new-found money on the education of their children. While money might mean entry into a GD Goenka School or a Delhi Public School (in Greater Noida), the urbane values and lifestyle of their peers are often in sharp contrast with what these children experience at home. The divide is reinforced if the environment at school remains non-inclusive. At the same time, there is a spurt in the number of one-room “B-schools”

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