New Delhi._ The 21st century is often projected as one of Urbanity. Some go to the extent of even saying that if the hallmark of 20th century was the rise of nation states (and of welfarism), the current one will be that of cities, urbanity and ecology, and defined by struggles of millions to claim urban spaces and redefine urbanity, generating enormous challenges.
This is not hard to imagine, given what the world looks like in the early decades of this century. The United Nations Habitat Agency (UN-HABITAT) says a dramatic transition is underway in our world. With over 3 million people arriving in cities every week, the magnitude and pace of urbanisation seem surreal.
Also, should United Nations projections based on current trends see realisation, by the middle of this century, 68% of our world will be living in cities. With population shifts, economic activity will and is also shifting to cities. Currently, an estimated 70% of the GDP comes from cities.
Some celebrate these tendencies as signs heralding 'birthing of a new world', a planet of cities. Within some quarters, the notion of city states, is not outside of an imagery of this century. For others, it cannot be the future foretold; one which we wish for.
Is such a momentuous transition possible; or even desirable?
This article outlines the twin questions of city and countryside in the context of the challenges faced; outlining some elements of an imagery for thought and action.
Developments in agriculture in late 19th, and in the 20th century have placed countries of the global north firmly on a trajectory of industrial agriculture. By that it is meant agriculture as a hub of intensive production, mechanised, with minimal labour requirements, corporatised and fuelling engines of growth of non agriculture sectors, including a phenomenal growth of cities.
Replicating such trajectories, fully or even in a large measure in the global south, would simply imply that agriculture cannot provide home to over 3 billion or so small/family farmers who farm 75% of our planet's agricultural land (The number, size and distribution of farms, small holder farms and family farms worldwide. Sarah Lowder, Jakob Skoet & Terry Raney, 2016, in World Development). In several ways this displacement is already unfolding.
Let lose by variety of factors including a failure to carry out land reforms, gradual withdrawal of state support to peasant farming, agriculture research and development, and of course climate change, there is pressure on small amd marginal farmers to move out of agriculture.
Given that cities are projected as economic possibilities of hope, millions, variously 'pushed or starved out of agriculture' will continue to move to cities to look for possibilities for work there.
Let us remember that sometime in our industrial development, industry got inherently linked to urban centres and concentrated in cities. Development of services and economic growth concentrated in cities, makes the cities of today the hope for any employment for millions and directs their physical movement to look for work.
But is there work there that they can get in cities? And what kind of work? Some 2 billion people of our planet are already consigned to what is called 'informal work' (Work for a brighter Future, Global Commission on Future of Work, ILO, 2019), working in conditions of extreme precarity; and a billion plus who saddle both worlds as peasant workers (both landless labourers in agriculture sector, and wage workers in other sectors) battling similar conditions of difficulty and a bleak future. Further release of labour into a large reservoir of labour will mean opportunities for work will either need to expand dramatically, or else this will create a scenario of further impoverishment in the existing precarities.
Expansion of labour requirements in industry and services depend on the level of aggregate demand in the economy. On its own, any dramatic rise in demand needed to gainfully employ existing informal workers, is an impossibility under conditions we witness in early decades of this century. There simply are not enough jobs, and levels of unemployment climb every passing year. In the next one decade (counting those unemployed today) more than half a billion jobs will need to be created (Global Commission on Future of Work, ILO, 2019).
Historic challenges, ecological stress and massive transformations in the 'world of work', tied together with realities of technological advances such as artificial intelligence, robotics and automation further make it difficult to imagine expansion, let alone massive rise in labour recruitment, outside of agriculture. Technological advances, for instance, while creating new jobs will push out workers at the lower end of the value chains, present another challenge. Majorities of the workers from the informal sector, numbering approximately 2.5 billion (including over half a billion who are peasant workers) lie at the lower end of the value chain, deprived of fundamental rights and unable to make their voice heard.
Labour is not a commodity to be traded at the lowest price, or held up in the market as a placard of comparitive advantage. A truth of history, a never to die quest for equality, and one that has always challenged such ideas of accumulation and development, surfaces again with the recent rise of labour struggles across the continents. There remains little doubt that the current squeeze on labour's share in growth and development will be hotly contested by revolutions of all kinds, arresting options of any advances forcing the world in this direction.
Furthemore, this path is an ecological dead-end. Industrial food production conditioned on intensivity of use of inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides etc as well as gene modifications, definitely enhance production in the short run, eventually producing outcomes that erode the very basis of such agriculture.
The example of green revolution in north India in the 1970s is one among several such of unsustainable and soil damaging agricultural developments. On the other hand, and by the same logic, it is also clear that development of cities is a resource intensive trajectory too and unsustainable in that. Cities consume 75% of global primary energy, and emit between 50-60% of worlds greenhouse gases. This figure rises to about 80% if indirect emissions of urban inhabitants are considered (New Urban Agenda, UN-HABITAT, 2016)
The influx into urban areas across the globe has resulted in a whopping billion plus people living in squatter settlements, without basic facilities and services, in a life of insecurity, fear and indignity. Urbanisation of this kind has posed severe sustainability challenges on all fronts, and giving rise to deep speculations, contests and uncertainities about the fate of cities and urbanity. Urban futures with majorities squeezed up in corners in what are called slums and tenements and numeric minorities controlling major portion of city and living in greens, raise nightmares of inequalities.
If anything, 21st century cities represent theatres of contests of two interwoven struggles, both spanning across countryside and cities. The outcomes of these struggles, will no doubt define the future of our planet across all spatial dimensions. The first is a struggle of billions for work and survival; and the second a struggle for space and decent conditions of living for majorities of our world, rural or urban.
The future of urbanism lies therefore not in conjuring up smart imagaries of future cities in isolation, it lies in the conjoined development of countryside and city. It lies in chosing roads to social and economic justice and moving away from pathways that lead to catastrophic destinations and dead-ends.
Rural economy accounts for more than 40% of our planet's workers. The numbers are much higher in Asia and Africa. A large number rural workers are not owners of land, but merely informal workers in the agriculture sector. For the landless, secure land tenure rights and for the women land rights constitute the first step in reviving a strangulated rural economy, paving the way for a happy countryside. 3.4 billion people of our countryside must well see a life flourished and future proofed with investments in the rural economy and agriculture, including establishing mechanisms for fair and stable crop prices for food security. Upgrading and modernising peasant agriculture, and removing drudgery in subsistance farming will provide a headway into lifting people out of poverty and countryside out from the distress it faces.
A further step embracing both countryside and cities is a fundamental 'right to work' and to realise it, needed are policies to install universal labour guarantees. Limited employment guarantee schemes experimented in rural contexts in countries such as India, show potential in reviving rural economy and welfare and surely constitute ideas to embrace in the new world. These would therefore need to see expansion not just in what are promised as wages, but also see expansion for year round coverage, and into urban areas and adopted universally.
Welfare states stand at crossroads in this century, and must face this fundamental challenge squarely, else welfarism and human rights will only be remembered as hollowed out promises, vestiges of the past at the service of capital. Right to Work is a sure path which ensures dignity, security, and equal opporturtunities, expanding human freedoms and creativity.
For the 4.2 billion who live in cities, urban centres of this century must also be inclusive, happy and 'embracing'. These must be cities that embrace their 'majorities', the 'makers of cities' and their most vulnerable peoples - the destitute, the homeless and those discriminated and exploited such as the migrants, refugees, dalits, indigenous, minorities providing opportunities to them, and cities which enable women and children opportunities which their gender and social positioning did not allow in the past in city or in village.
The 'Right to the City' is a paradigm that provides an alternative framework to rethink cities and urbanization on the promise of 'Cities for All'. It puts together the idea of human rights, sustainable urbanization to develop a decent and full life for all urban people. The Right to the City provides an alternative framework to design and rethink cities and sustainable urbanization, one basis equality and justice. A right, which not only advances human dignity, while at the same time opening doors for right to housing and rebuilding of commons and affording protection against evictions and forcible displacements. The New Urban Agenda, 2016,outlines a vision of cities for all as'refering to the equal use and enjoyment of cities and human settlements, seeking to promote inclusivity and ensure that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, without discrimination of any kind, are able to inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements to foster prosperity and quality of life for all'
Responsive and responsible action to these fundamental challenges will define the future of urban in the 21st century. For these are key struggles for the vast majorities of our planet. And they matter for the future of our planet.
*The author currently Co-chairs the World Urban Campaign of UN-HABITAT,is Executive Director of ActionAid Association India, and edits Agrarian South:Journal of Political Economy.