On Patrick Geddes

On Patrick Geddes
Gandhi, Kumarappa, Geddes and the Urbanism of Independent India

I read Ramachandra Guha's deft and instructive essay 'Making Indian Cities Habitable: The Legacy of Patrick Geddes' with great interest. Over the decades Guha has championed the work of a number of individuals. A recent tweet of his quoting Philip Spratt's comparison of Gujarat and Bengal raised hackles amongst India's ruling dispensation. One hopes that their distaste for the political import of Spratt's comparison will not put them off from grasping the urgent relevance of the work of Geddes to our present urban predicament.

The essay presents a number of elements of Geddes's views on urban planning in the Indian context which remain as germane as they were a century ago. However, in his prefatory remarks Guha evokes Mahatma Gandhi's championing of the Indian village and the subsequent trajectory of Indian environmentalism. While Guha does well to draw our attention to the concerns of urban ecology, it is not clear if its relative neglect derives from Gandhi's influence. Even in the context of rural India, while recognising a myriad 'varieties of environmentalism', the focus has been less on the village per se and more on the assault on ecosystems and livelihoods and the attendant crises including large-scale displacement and dispossession. In any event, it is fruitful to revisit Gandhi's position in this context.

For sure, Gandhi had consistently argued for a social organisation and an economy with a rural and agrarian basis. He also held strong views regarding the attributes of an ideal society. As he explained in his famous October 1945 letter to Jawaharlal Nehru: “The sum and substance of what I want to say is that the individual person should have control over the things that are necessary for the sustenance of life. If he cannot have such control the individual cannot survive.” Gandhi believed that the city was not a natural setting for this notion of human well-being.

But Gandhi was pragmatic enough to recognise that he could not expect others to accept the radical implications of his deepest convictions. His public advocacy of the village arose from the fact that the majority of Indians in his times lived in them and suffered greater disadvantages compared to their urban counterparts. Indeed, his arguments were primarily to set right the lopsided and exploitative relationship that existed between town and countryside. This does not preclude or deny the concerns of the urban setting. We may illustrate Gandhi's position with an excerpt from a speech in 1934:

“This cry of 'back to the village', some critics say, is putting back the hands of the clock of progress. But is it really so? Is it going back to the village, or rendering back to it what belongs to it? I am not asking the city-dwellers to go to and live in the villages. But I am asking them to render unto the villagers what is due to them. Is there any single raw material that the city-dwellers can obtain except from the villager? If they cannot, why not teach him to work on it himself, as he used to before and as he would do now but for our exploiting inroads?” (Speech at Gandhi Seva Sangh, On or before November 30, 1934)

As is well known, Gandhi was willing to imagine that a future India would maintain a close relationship with Britain, not as a colony but on equal terms as a free nation. Similarly, I believe, he would have accepted a pattern of development that accorded an equitable status to both the Indian village and the city. But such equity would imply a very different urbanism than our present form.

One may also add that many of the deep crises that plague our cities today are a consequence of large-scale migration from India's vast hinterland that has suffered from chronic neglect by successive regimes. That the working class in our cities are largely economic refugees from the villages was made starkly clear in the recent post-lockdown hijrat that was enacted all across the country. In other words, what we do to our villages is bound to affect lives in the cities as well. The numerous town plans and reports that Geddes wrote are indeed insightful, but to understand their reception we need to account for the context of their production. Geddes wrote these reports at the behest of a number of India's princes and municipalities. The overwhelming majority of the princes of India represented everything that was odious about India's traditional politics and were the sworn enemies of Indian nationalists. The municipal corporations were often the site of a number of running proxy political battles between the Congress and the Raj. It is little wonder that in such a charged political atmosphere, Geddes evoked little contemporary interest amongst India's leaders.

However, Gandhi himself was far more receptive. While he had opted for the village, Gandhi had no hesitation in arguing that the lived environment of the village was a dismal affair that needed to be addressed. He argued that “instead of having graceful hamlets dotting the land, we have dung-heaps”. The lack of attention to sanitation was "a great vice which is responsible for the disgraceful state of our village and the sacred banks of the sacred rivers and for the diseases the spring from insanitation." This, Gandhi argued was due to the “divorce between intelligence and labour [which] has resulted in criminal negligence of the villages”. (M. K. Gandhi, Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place, 1945, p. 12) While he said this about the village, Gandhi was mindful of the need for attention to urban dwellings as well. Indeed, it was Gandhi who tasked Geddes in 1918 with the challenge of designing “solid, yet cheap, homes for the poor”. (Helen Meller, Patrick Geddes: Social Evolutionist and City Planner, p. 178.) Gandhi's own response can be seen in the simple and elegant built environment at Sabarmati and Sevagram.

Another Geddesian connection can be seen in the work of Gandhi's colleague, the economic philosopher and environmental thinker J. C. Kumarappa. As a graduate student at Columbia University in the late 1920s Kumarappa had read Cities in Evolution by Geddes. Kumarappa went on to become the prime expositor of Gandhi's philosophy applied to economic questions and was a dogged champion of the agrarian economy. As a neophyte nationalist, in 1930 Kumarappa conducted a pioneering Survey of Matar Taluka that was a methodical excavation of the extent and nature of poverty in village India. Arguably, Kumarappa's systematic and rigorous examination of the problem in Matar taluka was congruent with Geddes's approach, albeit applied to a rural context. In 1939, as a reluctant participant in the proceedings of the National Planning Committee of the Congress, Kumarappa drew on Geddes directly, although he does not name the Scotsman. Arguing against the many approaches to economic surveying and planning being proposed at the time, Kumarappa argued for a 'diagnostic survey' that was designed to arrive at the heart of the problem and identify feasible remedies. The term 'diagnostic survey' is directly borrowed from the writings of Geddes.

The diagnostic approach is also evident in the industrial survey of the Central Provinces and Berar that Kumarappa conducted in 1939. In the context of minerals, Kumarappa argued that since any region or country had finite reserves, the only sensible policy was one of conservation. Borrowing from the colonial terminology for forest administration, he said that it would be appropriate to designate the head of the Minerals Department as the Conservator. On the eve of Independence, Kumarappa argued for prudence in India's mineral policy. Since India was not yet ready to make best use of its mineral resources through scientific prospecting, Kumarappa argued that the correct policy was to conserve the deposits to be “held in trust for generations to come”. He argued that it was unwise and prodigal to “merely dig up the ores and send them abroad”. This approach, echoing the Geddesian dictum 'To Postpone is to Conserve' has been flagrantly violated in recent times to the detriment of Karnataka's economy, environment and politics.

Indeed, the neglect of the wisdom that Geddes offered was not by the Gandhians but by those who championed urbanism in the aftermath of Independence. In the 1930s Jawaharlal Nehru, as Guha tells us, had written approvingly of Geddes's credo to his daughter. But evidently Nehru did not take all of Geddes's instruction to heart. Consider the case of that showpiece of newly independent India - Chandigarh. Strangely enough, Nehru tasked the American architect and armyman Albert Mayer with developing the blueprint for the city. Eventually, it was the celebrated Le Corbusier who took charge of the project. Parachuted into a country that he knew little of, Corbusier set to work. In “a small hotel on the road to Simla, the new plan for Chandigarh was drawn up in four days”. (Stanislaus Von Moos, Le Corbusier: Elements of a Synthesis, p. 216) Thus was a Hausmannian idea of rectilinear order imposed on Indian territory with great dispatch. Surely, inconsiderate of the merits of Le Corbusier's plan or one's views on Nehru's judgment, such an approach could scarcely accommodate the thoughtful attention to local traditions, culture and ecological conditions that Geddes advocated.

Chandigarh was no exception. Gandhi's thinking found little room in the fervid plans of the times. In Ahmedabad, a city with a rich urban history of its own and deep connections with Gandhi, it was imported architects such as Louis Kahn who were hired to build new establishments. Most incongrously, the entire grounds of the Mahatma's samadhi at Rajghat in Delhi were clad in austere granite in a manner that militated against the very message of his life. Clearly, in the headlong rush towards modern urbanism, India had little room for either Gandhi or the native wisdom that Geddes prized and advocated.

Venu Madhav Govindu, Bengaluru
The Limits of Geddes’ Work

Patrick Geddes’ conservatism and simple approaches to improve living conditions warm the cockles of every architect-planner’s heart. (Making Indian Cities Habitable: The Legacy of Patrick Geddes, Ramachandra Guha, June 19)

Nonetheless, Guha’s over-appreciation of Geddes’ works and strong recommendations of his ideas to the new generation of urban planners is problematic for the simple reason that the contexts since the pre-independence era have changed and are beyond the grasp of even most perceptive minds (or clairvoyants). Whosoever keeps abreast of the growing science of town and city planning and the unforeseen present-day challenges that it faces like of an overwhelming speed and volume of change, globalisation and the development of a spectrum of new technologies etc. would tend to disagree with Guha’s observation that

"[Many] of the social and environmental problems of a rapidly urbanising India were strikingly anticipated by Patrick Geddes […]."

However, Patrick Geddes’ unflinching interest in preserving and managing the peculiarities of different settlements (an anti-modernist stance) was commendable for its time and would find favour with urban designers and planners.

Anil S. Thakur, Melbourne, Australia
The Importance of Patrick Geddes

Ramachandra Guha has done well to bring Geddes' work to a public forum (Making Indian Cities Habitable: The Legacy of Patrick GeddesJune 19). The author points out how Geddes' work is still relevant. Being part of the planning fraternity I am embarrassed that post-independence India has not cared for Geddes' work and philosophy. The then planners largely followed an American system of city planning that is not relevant for India. More than seven decades have passed since Independence and we are still following the wrong path of urbanization and urban planning. There is a serious need to rethink the town planning programmes being taught in our universities.

Since the Indus Valley civilization, people-oriented activity and land use distribution of Indian cities has been mixed and intimate. However, in urban planning we have followed a philosophy of segregation that does not work for India. Second, decentralization as propagated by Gandhi, Tagore, and also Geddes is falling apart in India and needs a revival. A century ago Geddes suggested simple but effective ways to fight plague in Indore. We have not learnt lessons from such an efficient and insightful strategy by Geddes.

Guha in his article describes Geddes’ work as 'obscured, neglected, forgotten and in conventional terms a failure'. I would like to add that it is the collective failure of Indians forgetting the work and philosophy of greats like Geddes and he is not the only one. The current curriculum in universities focuses on western planning and not on the work in India’s past. In that sense, Geddes with an insight into the Indian context, was more Indian than any Indian planner living today. In the contemporary literature of urban planning, I don't see a comprehensive history of Indian city planning. Ironically the last comprehensive work I find is from 1925 by B. B. Dutta who wrote Ancient Town Planning of India. The book, with a preface written by Patrick Geddes, remains a fundamental read.

Uttam Kumar Roy, Assistant Professor, Department of Architecture and Planning, IIT Roorkee
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