In the first part of the interview, Partha – a Senior Fellow at CPR who leads the Initiative on Cities, Economy and Society – talked about choosing to work on policy in India, how being at CPR has allowed him to work across a wide range of subjects and why it is important to think about government policies as a combination of safety nets and spring boards. You can read the first part of the interview here.
In the second part, Partha describes how India could be an exemplar when it comes to urban policy, why governments ought to stay away from ‘magic bullet solutions’ and why younger scholars should always balance quantitative analysis with a more thoughtful approach to processes and outcomes.
If you prefer audio, this conversation is also available as a podcast here.
Tell us a little more about subaltern urbanisation.
The most striking story I always tell about policy change in India is of Vajpayee’s Prime Minister’s Task Force on Infrastructure, which essentially started off from his vision of building the north-south, east-west corridors, from Saurashtra to Silchar, Kashmir to Kanyakumari. In order to finance that and the Golden Quadrilateral, they started to levy this cess on fuel. There was a lot of pushback, especially from farmers who said ‘why should we pay for this extra money on diesel’? ‘We don’t use those fancy highways that you’re talking about. So what is in it for us?’
To me, it was an astounding act of political imagination from the then Prime Minister, Mr Vajpayee who basically said, ‘half, the money that comes in from the diesel cess will go to build rural roads’. That was the beginning of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, the Prime Minister’s rural roads programme. And now there are 700,000 kilometres of rural roads across this country and I think it has been the most transformative infrastructure intervention done by any government, definitely in the last 30 years, post 1991, in trying to ensure that this country grows together.
What that enabled, let’s say, for Gopalpur, a small census town near a place like Balurghat in North Bengal, with a small dahi making industry, is that it suddenly expanded its market. Now you could reach Malda, you could reach Balurghat, within an hour just because you had this extra connectivity. This changed the incomes of people. This builds up demands for transport, builds up demand for education, and varieties of other changes come in. [This] is what we call in-situ urbanisation, the transformation of work, where you are, without moving.
But it also enables somebody who is thinking, ‘should I take my chances and go off to Malda or Siliguri or even Kolkata or Delhi?’, it enables a person to take that leap because they now have enough of a surplus at home that if that bet doesn’t work out, they’re not going to be left completely high and dry.
Now we have come to a situation where only about 2/3rd of our people in rural areas are actually on the farm or maybe less. Half our rural income is from non-farm activities. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t move, because what we know from migration is that the guys who move are often at the upper end of the scale because mobility requires resources. What this does is push people over the threshold whereby they think it’s okay to try. So in-situ urbanisation and the old-fashioned urbanisation through migration, both are forces that could very well work in tandem, they’re not inimical to each other.
And it’s this kind of multifaceted process of transformation that is important for people to understand, because we often tend to think much more linearly in silos. At the level of the household, there are people trying out different strategies because it’s a complex world. We have a place like Tiruchengode, which is a small-town in Tamil Nadu which basically made its name making drilling rigs. They reengineered trucks, refitted them, strengthened them, turned them into drilling rig machines and they ended up not only building a drilling rig business across the region and across South India but, given the robustness of their technology and their cost, they became able to export to places in Africa and others looking for much more rugged, lower cost solutions. And this is out of innovation that happened in a relatively small town.
This is not unusual. If I look at China, you have exactly the same kind of thing. A major city like Yiwu, which is the beginning of the railway to Europe, is essentially a marketplace. The city aggregates a whole host of products across small businesses in that entire region, which then uses it as a huge mall. A lot of that excitement and energy and ability to build and innovate and deliver and manufacture is at a relatively small scale. The Foxconn factories in Shenzhen are the imagination of what one has of Chinese manufacturing, but the real transformation that has taken place in China is not just driven by those Foxconns, it is driven by these much smaller places spread out across a much wider range of smaller towns. These are the kinds of pathways to transformation and if you’re just focusing on the big guys, you’re missing out a lot of the action and that is something that one has been trying to convey.
Since your focus both on census towns and subaltern urbanisation, have you seen the conversation shift?
Census towns have become fashionable now. People would still say, ‘why don’t we just give them urban status?’ Actually, it doesn’t matter in many cases. This is another big issue: A lot of our schemes across India are separated into this urban and rural category, and that separation, to my mind, is often not very productive.
For example, one of the clever things that some states did when they were doing the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana for urban is they figured ‘this allows me to not just work in the urban local body, (which is the municipal limits) but I consider the area defined by the development authority, it allows me to sort of work in those places.’ So some states took that up and then suddenly you see all these Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Urban), in places that were not urban. This is because they fell within this development authority, which allowed them to bypass the restrictions, so some bureaucrats got clever and found ways around it.
In many cases, these bifurcations lead to inefficient use of resources. One of the sites that we worked in, there was a definite tension between the bazaar and the basti. The bazaar wanted to be urban, but the basti wanted to remain rural, because of the nature of work in these two kinds of places. In a place like India, where today’s rural will be tomorrow’s urban, you need to be able to have that flexibility and intertwining that allows local government to deliver whatever services it needs to. So urban transport may not be the most important thing for a village, but it may be incredibly important for an urban area. So you have district guys giving out licences for three wheelers that then act entirely as local transport services connecting villages and local towns and cities. But you’re making do, because you’re limited by the way the world is structured into separate boxes.
The other space where I think more action is happening is the informal and formal workforce. The figure that goes around is that 90 percent of India is informal. Once you start breaking that up, you realise that maybe it’s not as much – and much less, in fact. What is it that the formal sector worker expects to have? If you say these are benefits like health insurance, pensions and so forth then, even government pensions today are contributory and you’re opening that up to a wide range of people — that’s one of the things that the government has been doing. The second is to open up health insurance to a wider range of people. You realise that the distinction between what you called formal work and informal work starts to blur. Especially as in your own work, you will see the distinction between ‘formal 9 to 5 templated jobs’ and gig work. There are things that we need to sort of think about much more carefully rather than try to box them into these little boxes. The same is true for skilling, which is now, increasingly being recognised as something that is a lifelong process.
We have the opportunity to be at the vanguard of many of these changes because our workforce is one that’s transitioning into this new world of work and we don’t have to take it through the same pathways that the old world has gone through. We can leapfrog them, but whether or not we have the imagination to do that is something that we’ll have to see.
All these themes are related to transformations and the particular circumstances in which a country like India finds itself, and the excitement of actually being able to be at the forefront of policy. Though we often talk of ourselves being the vishwaguru, sometimes I don’t think we focus as much on what we can actually, seriously do that will be an exemplar to how the world sees itself both in terms of work and living.
Over the time that you’ve been able to observe urban policy, has the capacity of government, whether national, regional, local and the policy space to understand become linearly more complex? Do you see a vast difference from where it was 15 years ago, 20 years ago?
First, because there are a lot more resources and action in the states, there is more thinking and experimentation in states. This is similar to what China went through in its own reforms phase, and that I think is encouraging. But I get very worried when I hear the word one, so ‘one district, one product, one nation, one election.’ Because it’s great if that one is the right thing. But if it’s not, you have a heck of a lot to undo. And in an environment that’s constantly changing, you would expect that right thing to evolve and change and if you have 10 different things happening out there, you’re much more able to figure out which directions you might want to go to. That I think is what stood China in good stead between 1990 and 2005.
This is not just this government. This tendency of seeking uniform solutions is a characteristic of union governments, in general. The other thing that is constant and which is also worrying, is eventually, and especially in India, because our bureaucrats are fixed term, you tend to look for a magic bullet. There really is a magic bullet syndrome. Even when there is one, there are many other things that need to be done to make sure that the stuff works. That particular characteristic of searching for the magic bullet solution is something that is also consistent across governments over time and that’s I think where we in policy come across as dampeners and you might end up with some consultants who say ‘yes, we have it and here’s what we need to do’ and then eventually, the world settles down. We find our best interlocutors are bureaucrats who have been through that cycle and realised that this is a complex problem. That’s when I think institutions like ours add most value because you recognise what is it that they actually bring to the table.
In one of the pieces on subaltern urbanisation, you made the point that we need to go beyond urbanisation theories that were developed in the global north. You also mentioned that India can be an exemplar. What did you have in mind?
Agglomeration is the big theoretical insight that came through on urbanisation. Big cities, with what economists called ‘thick markets’. But one of the things we don’t know is, at what scale does it start to kick in? After all, million plus cities are not really that common across the world. It’s common in India. We have 50 plus. But if we are looking in Europe – Bordeaux is a big city by French standards – but it has less than a quarter of a million people in its municipal limits and a bit more than a million people in its metro area, right? At what level of agglomeration does the game start to slow down? That’s not a question that we’ve been able to answer very well.
There are some numbers out there. There are some who have said, Chinese cities are too small, they should have 50 million people. We’re not there yet – Tokyo-Osaka may be close. But one of the things that we’ve said is, let’s look at what is already happening, and at what scale. So if a place like Tiruchengode, what we call a Micropolis, can actually perform a lot of the functions that you’re looking for on a wholly different scale then perhaps you need to think about the way the urban transformation is happening.
I think our engagements on the way India worked out our hybrid annuity road model which is used both for our roads and highways and also our sewage treatment plants is actually an innovation that’s not that much elsewhere. We haven’t gone around making a case for it, both within the country and across the world. It is again one of those things which was introduced within the government, I think in 2005. At that time, there were other ideas on the table that people found more acceptable and exciting. It wasn’t until the highway sector and the toll roads projects collapsed, that this new government came back and said ‘what can we do to revive the sector?’ That’s how it came into being 8-9 years after it first went into the government system.
It isn’t as if ideas are not spreading because people are sitting in their haunches. There’s obviously inertia, but even when you recognise the need for change, there often many competing models for change and in different circumstances, different things get chosen. Which is precisely the point I was making earlier, that if you insisted on uniform models across places you would not realise whether or not one is the best way forward. One should recognise the value of diversity.
For example, I personally think that faecal sludge treatment plants are better than drainage-and-sewage-treatment, because to me it looks as if the current water and drainage systems take up too much water and too much energy to push the sewage across. Both energy and water are in short supply in a climate vulnerable world. Instead of cities doing sewage systems, we should be focusing much more like Metro Manila on doing a lot of septic tanks and faecal sludge treatment by design and not by compulsion. In a lot of places it still happens because they don’t have the money yet to move into a drainage system, but I’m saying don’t do it.
Some places, especially smaller towns, are taking it up very rapidly and that’s because people have invested in septic tanks and therefore the government is now responding by putting together some ways of servicing them and making sure they’re treated. How somebody treats shit sounds like a particularly boring question for policy, but it can actually be one of those big, sexy climate resilience questions that we all need to think about.
It’s a question of how this one is able to think through these processes, think about what is driving the incentives on the part of the government. Contractors will have the incentive of building large, huge pipes for the large construction contracts with lots of attendant benefits. Thinking about how people will respond, thinking about how the proposition is actually put forward, articulating the climate benefits properly – that’s the kind of dialogue that you want places to be immersed in and what engaging with people at CPR does is tell you that this is the kind of question you should be asking. We can help to answer some of them, there may be better people to answer others, but having this kind of structured thought process would hopefully lead to more sustainable and durable decisions going forward that you won’t have to unwind 5-10 years down the line.
What advice would you give to younger scholars who are trying to enter the policy space in India? Should they be focusing on their PhDs? Should they take the time to write?
Come work with CPR. We always love having smart young people around us. I think young people don’t realise how much time they actually have. Partly it’s the result of our parents, but they don’t realise that especially in places like CPR, a couple of years of investing in yourself will pay rich dividend and really doesn’t matter when you consider the fact that you’re going to have a 40-year career going forward. One of the things I will tell the younger generation is that it’s okay to take your time and explore a couple of areas that you’re interested in. You might find yourself getting excited eventually by selling soap, and that’s perfectly wonderful because somebody has to.
You might end up getting fascinated with how government works, how change happens, how people respond and are impacted by those kinds of changes. There is nothing better than spending time with institutions who are actually doing that before you settle on to whatever you want to do your PhD in. Our leadership at CPR, some of them do have PhDs, some of them don’t have PhDs, so it isn’t the sine qua non of being able to participate in these places.
For a curious mind like mine, I think it is a very useful disciplining experience to go through a PhD programme and that I think is valuable. But it may not necessarily be for everyone. But to try and figure out whether this kind of work is something that you would enjoy – and enjoy for a significant period of time in your life, not necessarily forever – is something that you can only decide if you spend time in it. I’ve had young people who have come while they were doing their undergraduate degree. I was very sceptical whether that would be a good decision. In a couple of instances, I was very, very pleasantly surprised and some of those people have ended up being great researchers. But definitely after you’ve done your masters in the discipline that you’ve liked, it’s a good place for you to come and check out whether or not you want to do policy work before you go out and acquire further academic qualifications.
I would strongly urge people to work before they commit to getting academic training in a policy area.
To narrow it may be a bit further than to your field – urbanisation, work, migration and so on – are there either areas of research or tools of research that you wish that you would point younger folks towards?
People tend to fall in quantitative and qualitative boxes and I think those are constraining boxes. It’s important for people to understand what data means and how that is analysed. Similarly it’s important for people who are working purely with data and numbers to actually be able to think through the processes that are producing those kinds of outcomes, to the qualitative structures. One area where I think there is a significant lack at this point in time is we still don’t have enough people who think spatially in the urban space. That’s important because in urban, location matters. We have enormous amounts of location data. Linking that to other forms of data and information and then trying to analyse what difference is the location of a particular kind of activity making is a question that, especially in India, could help with more researchers coming in. Because the people who get training in these kinds of places would be in hard geography or geospatial or geoinformatics labs where they’re just looking at it. They have the tools, but they don’t have the questions and other people have the questions, but they don’t have the tools.
Because eventually in any case, ChatGPT is going to do all your writing anyway. So what you need to do is to make sure that the empirical basis for what you are actually writing is supported.
For someone who has listened to or read this interview and is curious about your work, are there three things that you would point to – journal articles or op-eds or – that they can go check out next?
- The summary piece on subaltern urbanisation would be the one that’s come out in the International Journal for Urban and Regional Research, which is called ‘Subaltern Urbanisation: Indian Insights for Urban Theory’ with Eric Denis and Marie – Hélène Zérah
- There is more granular detail in the World Bank working paper titled Understanding India’s Urban Frontier: What Is Behind the Emergence of Census Towns in India? with Marie – Hélène Zérah; Gopa Samanta, and Augustin Maria.
- But the definitive collection is the book edited by my colleagues/co-authors, Eric Denis and Marie – Hélène Zérah titled Subaltern Urbanisation in India: An Introduction to the Dynamics of Ordinary Towns published by Springer
- A piece in Seminar on ‘Formality and Functionality in Indian Cities’
- The book, co-edited with Rob Jenkins and Lorraine Kennedy: Power, Policy, and Protest: The Politics of India’s Special Economic Zones, published by Oxford University Press
- A chapter titled ‘Beginning a Conversation on Chinese Urbanization. In Growing Cities in a Shrinking World: The Challenges of Urbanism in India and China, a book edited by Ashok Gurung, Brian McGrath, and Jianying Zha, published by Macmillan
- The Case for Direct Cash Transfers to the Poor with Devesh Kapur and Arvind Subramanian
And then there are the various committee reports!