New Delhi: Aromar Revi is the director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, or IIHS, a proposed national university that is to come up on 54 acre in Bangalore and and it has a partnership with the University College of London. It recently got a Rs 50 crore grant from Nandan and Rohini Nilekani.
Revi discusses the vision for the university that hopes to create a new class of professionals called “urban practitioners”. An Ashoka fellow and alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, Revi also discusses urbanization trends in India and the country’s preparedness to cope with it. Edited excerpts:
How was this university conceived?
We’ve been working on this for three years but the idea is very much older. If I trace it back, the idea goes back to the mid-1970s, where a number of people who were involved in setting up the IIHS were (then) involved in setting up New Bombay. So one of the things that they learnt in that experiment was that to do transformative work in India you have to learn to work in interdisciplinary teams. Then there were other people in the private sector, like Deepak Parekh (of HDFC), and then there have been people in government who’ve been working for almost 35-40 years like Rakesh Mohan, Vijay Kelkar—who’ve been working on the inside. We are where China was in the early 1990s and it is well recognised that what we are today is not what we’re going to be in the next 20 years, and we need a huge number of people to help address that. We neither have the capacities nor the (work) culture to help address that.
So how did you get involved in this?
I came into this about 4-5 years back. There was already a proposal to create an independent institution that would look into the social sciences and technology. There was a discussion that opened between IIT Bombay and TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) at that time. I came in to review the proposal. We looked at it and realised that it was a great idea, but the problem is that our current institutions found it very difficult to reach out to people in large numbers, and the idea of interdisciplinary engagement is something that is only still taking root in the country. That’s the big difference that we are going to bring.
How is this different from institutions such as the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology or School of Planning and Architecture?
Most importantly, we’re building a national university (unlike these schools). So this is, I guess, in the kind of scale and vision of what happened about a 100 years ago when the Indian Institute of Science was built, the BHU (Benares Hindu University) was built, and later Shantiniketan was built. The idea is that a new generation of entrepreneurs and change-makers has to be built who can enable the transformation of this country.
Is it to create the next generation of architects and urban planners?
No, no. The idea is much wider. We are not an architecture, management or planning school, but all of these issues will be addressed. It’s a new profession that we are creating and we’re calling it urban practitioners. They are people who work on the ground to make change... We are also trying to bring an understanding of law and governance, and centrally, the social sciences, politics and history. We have to address the questions of “why” and not merely “how”, and this is important if they have to learn how to innovate. That’s why we have some of the best people in the world working with us to help answer these questions. So we have colleagues from the School of Planning and Architecture, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), University College, London, Brazil and South Africa.
Is urban transformation in India similar to, say, China’s in the 1970s and 1980s, and Europe’s during the Industrial Revolution?
Oh, it’s fundamentally different. For one, we are urbanizing at a much slower rate. We are about 30% urbanized now and it should’ve been much higher by now given the level of development. It’s been a conundrum for academicians as to why this is happening. One thing is that our cities aren’t working for most of the people (who migrate) and they are highly excluding. They (cities) are not creating jobs in the formal sector and we have half deindustrialized our cities. We’ve focused almost entirely on the metropolitan cities and forgotten that the place(s) that are really changing are the smaller towns... Two-thirds of our GDP (gross domestic product) comes from cities and the employment is asymmetrical. There’s a structural problem that we have to address. The interesting opportunity that India has is that by the mid-century when the population is hopefully stable at 1.5 billion, we’ll have about 15-20,000 cities but we’ll still have lakhs of villages. Never before has such a thing happened anywhere in history (these absolute numbers).
So as our cities and villages change, do you think clones of the underground metro rail, or bus rapid transport systems will take shape in these places? Or will they build on existing systems?
It depends on how you plan for it and have enabled your cities to grow. Even when you step out of a metro in Delhi you usually go on to a rickshaw or walk. So you are going in from an early 21st century technology to something early 1900s. We may be going back, but it’s a great opportunity to improve the rickshaws—they provide last mile connectivity, employment to people, etc.
It’s said that Indian administrators have great plans but are poor on execution. Will your institution address this?
Yes, we’re putting our money where our mouth is. So we are creating the world’s first programme on urban practice and while they may specialize in economic development, they’ll deal with practice. We don’t need more people today who are only building theory—that’s important and it should be done—but the key thing is to be able to effect change on the ground.
The foreign faculty apart, what innovative teaching methods do you plan to apply? Who are the students you expect?
We’re going to have a lot of people who have hands-on practical experience in managing systems. Inclusion is a very important part of what we’re all about. If we are going to try and educate 50,000-100,000 people on campus, we would absolutely have to reach out to small towns and villages, and not necessarily people in some top 0.5% percentile of the population who perform in some examination.
Recently you got a Rs 50 crore grant from Nandan and Rohini Nilekani. Will this be the model of funding you will depend on—of private philanthropy? Or will the institute be government funded?
No, no, we’re going to raise our resources, at least our capital resources, almost entirely out of our own pockets. We want to create an institution that is independent of the people who endow it, an institution that is independent of state control; because we are trying to build something that will last not 10 or 20 years, but will last in the hundreds. That’s what great universities are all about.