My attachment to my city of birth, Mumbai, is huge. I love the city. But, last year, In the midst of the first Covid lockdown, I took a long, hard look at my life. I looked at an aging parent who needed full-time support and fresh air and I took a long, hard look at my life, as it existed, between traffic jams. With a supportive organisation, I relocated to a smaller city with a better quality of living – fresh air, greenery, space – and I am not the only one.
Across India, and the world, working professionals are taking the same call. A life that seemed impossible earlier is now seemingly within reach. We no longer have to choose between waking up to the sound of birds chirping and our ambition to work with the biggest firms in the world. A Gallup poll in the USA revealed that 48 per cent of those living in big cities would move to a small town or a village. Approximately 16 million Americans moved during the pandemic. Rentals in the big cities are crashing, as people move out of expensive matchbox-sized homes, into larger spaces in the interiors. In India too, with large service corporations going remote, the trend of the service sector migrant moving ‘back home’ has increased. Talk to realty agents, they will tell you there is a mini boom in real estate activity across small-town India.
Clean, green living space
One of the things that the lockdown has made apparent, is that many of us aspire for homes larger than matchboxes. We want a bit of greenery. Clean air and community life are becoming important. And, all of that is possible for large swathes of service workers, as more and more companies in India allow for large proportions of their workforce to work from anywhere.
And this allows the Indian government to rebuild better, after the pandemic. It will also give the economy a much-needed shot in the arm, in the form of an infrastructure stimulus. Three things that are needed to get us to decongest our big cities, and enable work from anywhere, are uninterrupted power supply, good roads that connect to big cities; and adequate drainage, healthcare and schools. If these are in place, everything else will fall into place.
Employment horizon expands
Also, this is not just about building infrastructure to accommodate big city people moving back to their hometowns, or smaller towns. A work-from-anywhere approach also allows you to recruit from anywhere. Suddenly it doesn’t matter to the employer if you live in Imphal or Begusarai. If you are qualified and competent – you have a shot at the job. This allows for smaller cities to stem their brain drain to the big city. As our talent pools become more diverse, as we hire from more diverse cities, and backgrounds – the possibilities are infinite. Building that infrastructure suddenly opens up the world to different communities that aren’t ‘megapolises’.
Much of the infrastructural development in India has been based around metros and the needs of metros. And development has radiated out from the big cities. This includes satellite towns like Navi Mumbai and Gurugram. It was assumed that people would move to big cities for the most opportunities and that explained the investment. The Covid crisis offers a unique opportunity to reimagine our cities, our infrastructure, and mobility.
There are enough and more studies showing that small-town India is really the driver of growth, as there is migration to this small town from nearby villages. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed out in Parliament, over 50 per cent of India’s digital transactions are taking place in ‘small towns’. Additionally, a large proportion of start-ups registered are from tier-2 and tier-3 towns. And, now, with city folk moving back, multinationals investing – it is likely that in 20 years, the nature of small-town living will transform.
President Joe Biden recently announced a $2trillion plan to rebuild the infrastructure of the USA. This is primarily focused around building roads, strengthening bridges, and replacing lead pipes with environmentally more efficient pipes. The US, in effect, is building for tomorrow. For India, we need to shrug off the fiscal handcuffs that are limiting the response to the pandemic.
Fiscal prudence and debt to GDP ratio are great measures when life is normal. But when you are in an economic free fall, the government has to act, and act in a concerted manner. For India, it is less of re-building, as much as systematic development of infrastructure - building a framework for development that lasts. The government has to bite the bullet on the deficit, and open up its purse strings to announce a concerted plan to build a better small-town India.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker