Building for Billions: Shifting the Focus to Rural India
India recently overtook its sub-continental neighbor, China, to become the most populous country in the world with a demography of over 1.4286 billion people. As data from the United Nations also estimates an annual population growth rate of 0.7%, the country’s built environment is set to interact with a new discourse of demography and present its own perspective on how to build for billions. It is set to engage with new challenges of infrastructure, transportation, and adequate housing, which on the surface will force cities to constantly expand as a response to these dynamic needs. However, a critical look at the population distribution within the country reveals that the majority of Indians still live in rural areas as it caters to 65% of the population despite increasing rural-urban migration. This suggests a nudge in a different direction. One where the design and development of the rural areas take precedence over the cities. One that explores architecture in rural areas, its relationship with the cities, and its future as a primary framework to house the exploding population.
“The soul of India lives in its villages” is a famous quote by Mahatma Gandhi that still deeply resonates with the demographic landscape of the country. It speaks to the vast cultures, arts, and traditions that are still nurtured in rural areas, as well as the scenic natural resources like lands, minerals, and rivers that make up the countryside, and the economic foundations of farming, fishery, and forestry still practiced by traditional villages.
However, development in terms of infrastructure, architecture, transportation, and other areas has been focused more on urban centers, leading to heavy migration away from rural areas. This leaves a dense population at the mercy of scarce resources and incurs many issues, such as an increase in slums, poor waste management, pollution, and pressure on communal facilities. As the constant increase in population also increases these challenges, it’s time to ask new design and urban planning questions. What does the design of rural life entail? How can we design sustainable relationships between rural and urban centers that can curb constant migration? What are the architectural and infrastructural elements needed for rural areas to adequately house this growing population? How do we introduce development and technology to aid rural practices while retaining culture and traditions? These questions are complex and will require incremental implementation, interaction, and feedback of ideas in the search for sustainable solutions.
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The concept of what constitutes a rural area is based on a combination of factors, including geographic location, population density, and a way of life. While the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) defines a community as rural when its population density is below 150 inhabitants per km², the cultural character of the setting cannot be ignored. The design of rural life is one tailored to the urban performance of sparsely populated villages, traditional building typologies, and people’s connection to their agricultural landscapes. It requires architects and designers working in these areas to respond contextually, engaging local materials, and traditional building practices, preserving natural landscapes, and reflecting local customs.
In rural India, vernacular architecture is widely recognized for its deep roots in history and its responsiveness to the local climate and cultural nuances of different regions. For instance, the thatched roof houses in Kerala, known as tharavadu, feature sloping roofs made of coconut palm thatch, which makes them suitable for withstanding heavy rainfall and humid conditions. Another example is the Bhungas, vernacular circular houses made of mud and thatch, commonly found in the Kutch region of Gujarat. Their shape and materials help control the interior climate, while decorative motifs of the Kutchi people adorn the exterior. These are just a few examples of the vast and unique vernacular templates that can inspire modern solutions for the design of rural life.
Building on India’s Vernacular design is an initial step, but complementing rural areas with infrastructure is what can attract populations from urban centers and sustainably cater to them. In the article “Why Architects Need to Shift Focus From Cities to Rural Areas,” Anamika Mathew notes that many rural areas in India have poor living conditions due to a lack of infrastructure such as roads, electricity, hospitals, adequate housing, farming structures, waste management, and digital infrastructure. These are the issues that require immediate attention through design and policy. By building infrastructure using a contextual rural life template, we can explore and create a more dynamic rural setting that not only caters to an increasing population but also retains the cultural character of rural areas.
In an effort to focus more on rural infrastructure, architecture practices in India are exploring new concepts. Mumbai-based firm Architecture Brio, for example, is constructing community toilets and infrastructure for local dairy farming in Konchur, Karnataka, while recently completing the first prototype of the BillionBricks home in Math Jalgaon. These projects aim to improve living standards in rural areas, create more job opportunities, and provide a built environment for an increasing population. The BillionBricks Community is a carbon-negative solar home community built with an indigenous prefab assembly technique that makes it easy to assemble in remote locations. It combines the harvesting of clean energy and social housing into a single entity while offering an ecosystem of facilities for education, jobs, healthcare, and recreation.
The Government of India (GOI), a major player in this discourse, has initiated critical schemes for the upliftment of rural infrastructure. These include the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY – Gramin) scheme, which aims to provide permanent houses and basic amenities for many rural communities by 2024, and the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) scheme, which aims to improve rural connectivity by providing all-weather roads connecting eligible habitations in rural areas. As infrastructure in rural areas improves, infrastructural connections between rural and urban areas become paramount. Rural areas cannot function alone and need better forms of connectivity with cities across all sectors, including transportation, agriculture, and power, to be efficient.
Engaging in rural development always requires all stakeholders to tread carefully. Digital and physical development can sometimes conflict with the cultural character of rural areas. Rem Koolhaas alludes to this in his research exhibition titled “Countryside, The Future.” It acknowledges developmental interventions in the countryside that slowly negate the primary position of people and culture. For example, hi-tech tractors capable of being controlled from an iPad impacted the cultural rural relationship to farming in Europe. If rural areas are the cradle of culture, it is of utmost importance that development and technology must be applied in ways that preserve it. The European network for rural development also initiated the orientation of smart villages in 2018. It highlights careful strategies for implementing digital infrastructure in rural areas, which includes working with local people, and local organizations and implementing digital skills alongside infrastructure.
As India marks this new height in demography, it is a call to shift the focus of design, planning, and development toward rural areas. To challenge existing urban norms as solutions to population growth by seeking new developmental strategies within the countryside. To understand that rural communities in India hold immense significance in preserving cultural identity, promoting sustainability, and fostering communal cohesion, which can be templates for catering to this new population. By addressing the unique needs of rural settings, in terms of contextual designs, communal infrastructure, and continuity of culture within developments, we tend to create sustainable and attractive rural communities. India’s rural template building for billions is set to be one that not only inspires other countries with growing populations but also developing countries with vast rural demography in Africa and the global south.
This article is part of an ArchDaily series titled India: Building for Billions, where we discuss the effects of population rise, urbanization, and economic growth on India’s built environment. Through the series, we explore local and international innovations responding to India’s urban growth . We also talk to the architect, builders, and community, seeking to underline their personal experiences. As always, at ArchDaily, we highly appreciate the input of our readers. If you think we should feature a certain project, please submit your suggestions.