A case for 'slow cities'

Farrukhnagar is a small town located beyond the shrinking marshes of the Sultanpur bird sanctuary, on the outskirts of the millennium city. Located 20-odd km from Gurgaon near Delhi, it is an unlikely name for a town in Haryana. Frozen in time, the town stands a silent witness to its glorious past and a mute spectator to its uncertain future, like many of over 4,700-odd towns with population between 5,000 and less than 1 lakh.

Named after Farruksiyar, the grandson of Emperor Aurangzeb, who ruled Delhi during the second decade of the 18th century, the town was founded in 1732 though the Sheesh Mahal was built as early as in 1711. Annexed from the Baloch rulers, the Mughals brought with them the tasteful elegance and grandeur that typifies the monuments and many buildings in the town. Why would such an obscure place matter to the mighty kingdom?

It did matter because it was not only a backyard blacksmithy for manufacturing guns but a place for producing salt too. Some 40 wells offered unending supply of brine that was dried in open plots for producing salt. At its peak, the town produced as much as 18,350 tonnes of salt during a year. However, these salt works were to dry down soon as the then government had acquired the much lucrative Sambhar salt works in Rajputana.

The town may have slipped into protracted oblivion but has sustained its identity with a small population of 13,513. Despite the presence of megacity Gurgaon and a growing Rewari in close proximity, this town continues to occupy a nebulous space between archeological history and a marketed modernity.

Categorised as Class III and IV towns, such towns with less than 1,00,000 people are where an estimated 68 per cent of India’s urban population lives. There are any number of such towns which have a distinct character and a rich heritage. Despite poor planning and inadequate infrastructure, small towns have been the backbone of urbanisation in the country. India is a country of small towns; megacities are anything but a demographic aberration.  

No wonder, the growth of population in the megacities has slowed down considerably in the decade ending 2011, with corresponding increase in the number of small towns. Adoor in Kerala, Maihar in Madhya Pradesh, Lohardaga in Jharkhand, Nandgaon in Maharashtra, Sirsi in Karnataka and Fatehpur Sikri in Uttar Pradesh are but a sample from thousands of small towns which, with little investment, could be turned ‘smart’.  

With threats of climate change looming large, the need is to invest in hundreds of small towns to make them ‘climate-smart’ and ‘sustainable’. Not only will such a move ease pressure on the limited resources like water and energy in the megacities, it will also absorb rapidly moving population in small towns spread across the country. Given the socio-economic reality, dispersed and decentralised urban development will serve the country better. 

Not only is a small town low on energy consumption but it also generates manageable urban waste, thereby promoting healthy living. Need it be said that the joy of slow and quiet living that is respectful of culture, traditions and heritage recovers the lost rhythms of life? More by default than design, a small town follows a ‘slow’ and rhythmic pace of growth. 

Local development

It is worth mentioning here that ‘slow cities’ has been an acknowledged concept, a model of local development that aims to protect cities from the homogenisation brought about by globalisation, as well as to carry local features and historical heritage into the future. Paolo Saturnini, past Mayor of Greve in Italy, is credited for launching this concept in 1999, which has now spread to 192 cities in 30 countries.

The idea of considering the town as-it-is and thinking of a different way of development based on improving the quality of life, had moved Saturnini to spread his thoughts all over the world. Though the ‘slow city’ movement has continued to grow, it has yet to catch the attention of urban planners and policy makers in India.

For the average citizen, slow city might seem an antidote to much-hyped move to develop hundred ‘smart cities’ in the country. However, there should be no reason to believe that a slow city cannot be a smart city. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has argued in favour of providing modern amenities to heritage cities under the Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY), as these can act as magnets for tourism.

Stretching the scheme to cover other Class III and IV towns would help small towns to go the distance in contributing to economic growth alongside preserving its identity and cultural diversity. Like Farrukhnagar, each small town has its own history, strength of its resources and skills of its inhabitants.

Only by promoting the concept of slow city can the existing resources and skills be put to its best use. Unless ‘slow city’ gets acknowledged as an idea of urban development and growth, the healthy succession of seasons and fascinating culture of traditions can hardly be understood.

(The writer is a researcher at The Ecological Foundation, New Delhi)

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