The outskirts of Dharuhera have seen high-rise buildings sprouting up as the property market booms in India.

© IRD - Marie-Hélène Zérah

As India urbanises, access to services is uneven

In her new book, Marie-Helène Zérah, Research Director at IRD and member of the Centre for Social Science Studies on the African, American and Asian Worlds (CESSMA), examines the great disparities in India in terms of access to water, sanitation and electricity services. In this country that has been growing steadily for a quarter of a century, she presents the huge range of different configurations to be found in these sectors, and an urbanism that is being shaped from scratch, between public policies and grassroots practices. 

IRD le Mag' : How would you describe "urbanising India"?

Marie-Hélène Zérah : Urbanisation does not stop on the doorsteps of India's big cities, although this idea is still very much embedded in the minds of the general public and even the decision-makers and researchers!  

Kullu, or the "ordinary" urbanisation of small towns around rapidly developing markets.

© Diya Mehra

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Often, and this is what I have done in my work, we start by looking at the huge cities with several million inhabitants, such as Delhi or Mumbai, before realising that other smaller cities have very different socio-economic realities. India is a very ancient urban civilisation with a whole network of smaller cities that continue to play important roles. The country is constantly changing. 

Dharuhera is a good example: this town had only 8,000 inhabitants in 2008 and is home to more than 50,000 today! Situated between Delhi and Jaipur in one of the country's economic corridors, it has rapidly developed its industry, erected buildings and informal districts have developed - today it is an important city for the Indian automobile industry, amongst others. This rapid sprouting of new cities is happening all the time, all across India. Similarly, in villages in some poorer states, such as Bihar, people increasingly have two occupations: the inhabitants are no longer just farmers, they are also setting up small shops selling SIM cards, pharmacies and transport companies at the same time. This is all part of the urbanisation of India: from large megacities to urbanised villages and medium-sized towns.

IRD le Mag' : Why did you use access to essential services, such as electricity, sanitation, water and healthcare, to report on urbanisation in India? 

M.-H. Zérah : Studying these essential services helps us understand how cities are “made”, how issues of democracy and power are played out there, what settlement dynamics are taking place, and so on. By looking at the operating rationales inherent in each of these essential services, we can notice different factors of inequality. If we take the example of drinking water, we can notice class processes at play. The wealthiest benefit from much greater access to water since they can afford to bypass the utility services, which are often lacking, for example by digging wells to access ground water.

In the shantytown on the banks of the Buckingham Canal and on the outskirts of Chennai, water is irregularly distributed from the public tap, and women wait for the water to arrive placing plastic pots on the ground.

© IRD- Véronique Dupont

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Meanwhile in poor neighbourhoods, people queue at public fountains and store water in containers. Between these two extremes, a whole range of solutions are being developed according to the socio-economic status of the users. The management of waste and sanitation tells the story of the historical relationship between urban services and social structures: since the 19th century, waste collection has been carried out at lower cost by people from the Dalit caste, the former "untouchables", who are considered of inferior status in Indian society. For example, in Aya Nagar, one of Delhi's urban villages, there is no sewerage connection, so a local organisation of lower castes has set up and bought trucks for emptying septic tanks, while continuing to be stigmatised and seeing their prices negotiated downwards by the higher castes. In general, these sanitation workers also tend to be treated badly by the government, which pays little attention to the very poor working conditions that are a blight in the sector.

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IRD le Mag' : What has the Covid-19 pandemic revealed about India's urbanisation and access to essential services? 

M.-H. Zérah : The announcement of a general lockdown and the mass departure of migrants from the major cities confirmed that urbanisation is based on complex networks between cities of various sizes and the countryside. Also, the very difficult health situation in these small towns revealed major weaknesses at local level, with poor local governments facing the epidemic, but also a lack of access to essential services in the poor regions and neighbourhoods of India. Difficulties in accessing water were particularly revealing of social inequalities in health: without water, you cannot wash your hands. This makes it impossible to implement preventative measures to counter the spread of disease in marginal groups of the Indian population.