"The future of India lies in its villages"

This famous statement by Mahatma Gandhi is being challenged by urbanists today who see a shining future for India in its cities. Architect Dhiru Thadani writes that Gandhi's vision of village life can apply to all levels of urban form.

"The future of India lies in its villages"

On two recent occasions I have heard references to this sage assertion by Mahatma Gandhi. The first reference was made by an Indian developer blaming this statement for the narcolepsy that politicians have displayed toward the value of Indian cities. The developer's underlying idea was that if politicians cared about the city they would eliminate height and floor-area restrictions on property in land-starved Mumbai.

The second reference was made by a fast-talking Harvard University professor of economics who declared that Gandhi was certainly wrong in making this statement and that India's future depended on its cities. The professor's thesis was that the unapologetic mass-construction of high-rise structures on every underutilized urban site would increase supply, and he presumes (erroneously) that this would reduce the cost of home ownership.

Troubled by these proclamations, one from business and one from academia, I decided to look deeper into the Mahatma's statement.

Although Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi struggled together to attain India's independence, it was believed that their visions for their homeland's future differed significantly. Both men had been deeply affected by the poverty and human degradation that they had experienced in rural India.

Prime Minister Nehru's vision for an independent India relied heavily on industrialization and the building of material prosperity. As a consequence, the city was the conduit for trading these material goods. Although well aware of the shortcoming shortcomings of the USSR's political system, Nehru believed in ending vested interest in land and instituting a new cooperative order based on socialistic ideals as the only solution to the eradication of poverty, unemployment, human degradation, and the prevailing imbalance in wealth.

Gandhi's walks through the villages of rural India endeared him with a profound love of the land and respect for the people who toiled in it. He came to believe that it was impractical for India's cities to accommodate the burgeoning population in a dignified way. He romanticized village life as self-sufficient, simple, free, non-violent, and truthful. To Gandhi, the qualities of village and rural life far surpassed that of the city, but he recognized that the playing field had to be leveled with both landscapes providing opportunities for personal growth and lifelong learning.

In a letter to Nehru, Gandhi admits that his proposed ideal village only existed in his imagination. His description of the village and its lifestyle can be interpreted as an ideal and harmonious community, or as an autonomous neighborhood.

The four characteristics embodied in Gandhi's idealized village would be: 1) access to an ever-expanding scientific and technical base in two areas, individual healthcare and assistance in food production; 2) respect and codes of conduct in human actions and toward natural resources; 3) a democratic political institutional framework; and 4) physical and electronic linkages between the village and both rural and urban areas.

Other ideal village goals which Gandhi intimated were the inclusion and provision for the full population range in demographics, a desire to diminish the divide in access to educational as well as economic opportunity, and a job-led economy rather than a capital intensive one.

I would speculate that Gandhi was in fact describing a community or neighborhood, which was reinforced in a later statement that he made to "put the village back into the city." He seemed to lament the difficulty of instilling the dignity of village life into the anonymity of the city.

My research leads me to dispute the notion that Nehru and Gandhi had differing visions for the future of India. Their visions were not mutually exclusive but rather they each chose to emphasize the two parallel futures of India, the city and the agrarian landscape.

In summary, Nehru wished to eradicate poverty through industrialization and urban commerce, whereas Gandhi idealized diverse self-governing communities in both the rural and urban landscapes. A robust community life is essential in the rural village as it is in any urban neighborhood, the building block of a successful city.

Dhiru Thadani is a practicing architect, urban designer, educator, and author of The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary. He is the recipient of the 2011 Seaside Prize, and has worked in North and Central America, Europe, and Asia.



It depends on what kind of future you want for India's people

Not all developers or professors are always right...

I would prefer to have faith in the words of Gandhi over a Harvard professor or for sure a developer.

Future of India lies in its villages

Mr. Thadani very succinctly summarizes the viewpoints of Nehru & Gandhi as “‘Nehru wished to eradicate poverty through industrialization and urban commerce, whereas Gandhi idealized diverse self-governing communities in both the rural and urban landscapes. A robust community life is essential in the rural village as it is in any urban neighborhood, the building block of a successful city.”

I have emphasized the view point of Gandhi by commending and propagating the organic evolution of “Dharavi” the so called slum in Mumbai and I have termed it as “the village of Gandhi’s dream”. The contribution of Dharavi to the economics of Mumbai illustrates vividly the analysis by Mr. Thadani that Nehru and Gandhi’s visions for the future of India. were not mutually exclusive but rather they each chose to emphasize the two parallel futures of India, the city and the agrarian landscape.

I do hope that the state government of Maharashtra having taken up the project for “redevelopment” of Dharavi will see the wisdom of “remodeling” it rather than “redevelop” and preserve this unique “model” of the fusion of Nehru-Gandhian views about development of Rural-Urban India.

Prakash M. Apte
Urban Development Consultant

India's economic future depends on urban decisions made today

The Mahatma was exactly right!

Thank you, Dhiru for pointing this out. Despite the enormous respect I have for Pandit Nehru, he was too enamored of Soviet-style large-scale government projects, which invariably mean top-down urban interventions. In this crucial aspect, Nehru's approach differed radically from Gandhi's essentially bottom-up approach. Many of my friends assert that India's present economic flowering is possible only because those state-centered mechanisms have finally been overcome.

As to the future of India's cities, which really means the future of India herself, we face a tremendous danger of arresting the recent explosive economic growth by making disastrous urban decisions. Those would include demolishing human-scale urban fabric (instead of fixing any of its deficiencies through careful urban micro-surgery), and replacing it with skyscrapers. Of course, there is an enormously powerful lobby pushing for exactly that. This lobby wishes to make huge short-term profits at the expense of the population and the long-term urban health of the whole country.

India's citizens need to resist the destruction of their homeland, and reject utopian promises that have failed repeatedly elsewhere. Just as hope in the countryside now relies upon self-help agriculture and the leadership of visionaries such as Dr. Vandana Shiva, urbanism can profit from human-scale models that are now being developed globally. One source of these ideas is Peer-to-Peer Urbanism, a project in progress with a free book available HERE. The political and social theories underpinning this movement are being developed by the P2P Foundation and by Global Villages.

There is power in a simple and profound saying by Mahatma Gandhi, and hopefully those who believe in his vision will find the necessary resources to keep indian villages and cities alive. Practical tools for urban regeneration are indeed available (though they are ignored by the mainstream media). Most important, the reasons why we should respect traditional urban scale, local materials, inherited socio-geometric patterns, "low-tech" climate adaptation, and connectivity are now more compelling than ever from the scientific and economic standpoints.

With best wishes,

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