New Frontiers of Urban Theory – A Global South Perspective

The literature on global cities is abundant but until recently most of it has been in relation to cities of the developed North.  Rapidly urbanising second and third tier cities of India have now, however, grabbed scholarly attention propelling a ‘Southern turn’ in urban theory. The massive urban transformations currently underway throughout such cities calls for new understanding that in turn will help expand the frontiers of urban theory. These cities respond differently to the homogeneising forces of globalisation, advanced capitalism and new modes of governance. The urban (cultural, spatial, economic and political) transformations witnessed in these cities are recent in origin and cannot be fully understood deploying existing urban theories.

India does not live in villages anymore. More than 370 million Indians now live in urban areas, with urbanisation increasing from 27.81% in 2001 to 31.16% in 2011.[1] This means urban India is adding almost four times the population of Australia every decade. It is expected that India’s urban population will be almost 600 million (40% of India’s total population) by 2030. The rate of growth is double that of the rural population and it is expected that India’s urban population will surpass the country’s rural population by 2039. [2]

Most of this increase in India’s urban population is due to migration and reclassification (56% of growth) rather than natural population growth.[3] Analysis by the Indian Town and Country Planning Organisation found that a rapidly growing number of rural areas are attaining urban characteristics and been designated as towns. Reclassification resulted in the number of towns in India increasing from 5161 towns (3799 statutory towns and 1362 census towns) in 2001 to 7935 towns (4031 statutory towns and 3894 census towns) in 2012.[4]

Clearly, the urban turn in India had happened. Small and medium towns (SMT) in India (often labelled interchangeably as second and third tier cities) are the emergent urban reality of India with growing levels of consumerism, widespread use of digital technologies and satellite communications, global linkages and growing aspirations.

For example, the Indian Government launched a Smart City Mission (SCM) in 2015. The SCM program was launched in second tier cities of India and envisaged a shift from the perceived ‘indiscipline’ and ‘messiness’ of existing cities to new technology-driven city utopias and imaginations. Technologies like artificial intelligence, internet of things, robotics, big data are deployed with a vision of a new type of city governed and run through constantly collected data.

The 2018 Union budget set out to build 100 smart cities using state-of-the-art systems and technology. This offered an urban transition opportunity for SMT cities that have previously been largely neglected in the urban narrative of India. The 100 smart cities declared under the SCM are promoted as imagined urban forms such as Smart Industrial, Smart Finance, Smart Heritage, Smart Eco city, all of which attempt to appropriate and shift the existing urban realities of these cities (only two of the cities were to be built from scratch). The selection of the first smart 25 cities showed an interesting pattern as most of them were projected to be part of large urban agglomeration in next few decades.

At the same time there has also been a cultural transition in consumption patterns in Indian SMT. India accounts for 10% of global smartphone sales and has a larger mobile app market than the United States.[5] Amazon report that more than 70% of their business in India comes from small towns, resulting in the company setting up dozens of new distribution centres.[6] Companies like Flipkart and other ecommerce companies are working out the intricacies of sending millions of shipments to customers in smaller towns and cities, chasing down the next 100 million internet users in small towns. Digital India and the power of the internet, satellite television and telecommunications are spreading new awareness and demands while also creating a new class of consumers.

SMT also now form the bulk of the audience of the Hindi television and entertainment industries. The success of films like Toilet Ek Prem Katha, Mukkebaaz, Tanu Weds Manu – all set in the ‘not-so-palatable’ SMT of India are an indicator of this trend. Consumption patterns and lifestyles of the hinterland are becoming important determinants of content for the entertainment industries tucked away in faraway big cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai.

This media trend has helped give the Indian SMT greater prominence in mainstream popular culture. The social groups and communities living in SMTs naturally want their entertainment content to be delivered in a language and format that is relatable.

The rise of a new generation of consumers with different educational backgrounds, increased disposable income and new cultural icons more rooted in the vernacular has led to massive changes in consumption of media.

It is evident that technology – especially digital technologies – are significantly altering India’s urban story in many ways. Yet tech-driven city utopias of the type encouraged by the SCM, coupled with rising changing consumer behaviour, opens a Pandora’s box of unanswered questions and contradictions. The SMT narrative stresses that each city must capitalise on its own strengths and uniqueness, while at same time putting them cities in competition with each other based on centrally determined parameters.

Governments might need to rethink current paradigms of urban planning in order to engage urban communities with India’s emerging urban realities, capitalise on new opportunities and highlight alternative cost-effective and sustainable solutions to growing urban challenges.

There is an imminent need for a new theoretical framework drawing from the experiences of this rapidly urbanising landscape discussed above. This landscape is generating new interest and possibilities for urban theorisation including peri-urbanisation, inner city regeneration, urban economies as spaces of informal enterprise, resilience, subaltern urbanism, and resurrection of place-based cultural identity.

Promising future urban pathways lie in embracing the local diversity of cities in the face of a universal model of globalisation, neoliberal capitalism, and technologically driven urban utopias. The sociocultural diversity and its spatial implications have economic and practical bases too, which influence it and in turn get affected. Local diversity demonstrates a much more complex microcosm, which renders the contemporary city as a place of constant vibrancy, innovation, and social change.

As published:

Author: Dr. Binti Singh

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