With the provision of urban amenities in rural areas, mega cities, with all the attendant risks arising out of high population density, will cease to be necessary.

The recent cyclone near Chennai and the more horrendous one near New York should give our town planners cause to think. If these storms had moved a little away and hit the cities directly, the damage would have been unimaginable. Yet, recent thinking is to have more and more high-rise apartments and crowd more people into our cities.

As I have written in several of my columns, ours is not an overcrowded country. Countries such as Mauritius and the Netherlands, which have higher population densities than in India, are not building mega-mega cities. Virtually, all our political scandals have been centred on land, but only near cities. Our planners have forgotten that we have vast tracts of uncultivable land where urban development can take place.

Mitigating migration

PURA, or Providing Urban amenities in Rural Areas, is a scheme that aims to make rural areas attractive places to reside for all, particularly the middle-class, by offering access to virtually all the services that cities provide. However, PURA confines itself to providing secondary-level services only — the kind large towns and small cities offer. PURA has no ambition to provide tertiary-level services such as universities, speciality hospitals, wholesale markets, railway junctions, airports and the like. With such services as the base, PURA is expected to attract industry too and generate a virtual cycle that will produce and sustain jobs of the type that rural youth seek. That way, rural-urban migration is expected to be mitigated. Specifically, PURA is designed to offer the following secondary-level services that are normally expected in cities, but rarely, if ever, found in villages.

Municipal Services: Water, energy, sanitation

Social Services: Education and training for employment, health services

Transport Services: Roads and public transport

Other services: Housing plus communications, commercial services, governance services

Transport connectivity

Cities have large markets; they are also compact enough for any citizen to access services either by walk or public transport. Villages are too small for that. Hence, the first step that PURA has to take to simulate a city, is to link sufficient number of villagers in such a way that they have about the same population size as a small city or at least a large town. In other words, linking roads and (affordable) public transport is priority for any PURA.

In addition, the quality of the roads and of the public transport should be upgraded to urban standards — that is, minimum two-lane roads and transport every ten minutes or so during working time. Transport connectivity is truly the primary task of rural development, which leads to the ultimate consequence of job creation. It is not an accident that most cities of the world are along rivers, railways and road corridors.

In the US, universities such as Stanford and Michigan run public bus services absolutely free for all, but only on routes of interest to their employees and students. Should not PURA also do the same? Then, it appears best for the state to remove all taxes on public transport, including those on the vehicles that offer free services.

That will encourage the PURA authority to pay for the other costs — the same way Michigan or Stanford Universities do — on the specific routes that their commercial and social services need. If all those services are concentrated in a single circle, linking major villages/services, the bus service need not be more than 30-40 km long.

PURA has not been as successful as it was hoped to be. The problem is that PURA has been taken up as an exclusive project of the Rural Development Ministry.

Unfortunately, the Ministry has authority only over rural roads, housing, water and sanitation. Even on these, the funding cannot be up to urban standards, nor can it be subsidised for the non-poor. It is understood that even sanitation has been taken away from that Ministry.

Therefore, the support the Ministry can give is very limited; it certainly cannot offer any help in the crucial bus services. Hence, for any PURA to become successful:

PURA authority or private enterprise should treat running bus services (preferably free, the way American universities do) over a basic 30-40 km length, as part of its operational expense.

The state should offer all possible tax rebates for the bus service.

Above all, the state should be prepared to build at least one road that meets urban standards.

Quality schools, hospitals

Although not as essential as a free bus service, PURA should also organise quality schools and hospitals. With bus services in place, children and patients can travel.

However, the quality of the schools and hospitals should be good and be able to offer secondary care of high quality. It is estimated that schools and hospitals of this quality will cost Rs 5-Rs 10 crore each.

Once these steps are taken, industries should find PURA a cheaper place to locate themselves, and in such numbers to create a virtuous cycle in employment generation.

Industries are necessary because agriculture cannot sustain the existing population with modern services; and only industries can offer the exports needed to match the imports modern services require.

Free bus service is the crucial issue. That is likely to cost a few crores of rupees each year. The PURA authority may be able to run it, with some help from the Government.

However, a good road some 30-40 km long will cost ten times more. Build the road, run bus services free and then PURA can make high-rise apartments and mega cities unnecessary.

Can anyone persuade the State governments to do so?

(This is 341st in the Vision 2020 series. The previous article appeared on October 20)

(The author is a former Director, IIT, Madras. Responses to indiresan@gmail.com and blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

(This article was published on November 2, 2012)
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