The Times of India speaks of Cittaslow: "Big idea for small towns"

R Balakrishnan lives in a little piece of heaven. In the verdant hills of Kodaikanal. "Our house is set on a oneacre piece of land, where we grow the most amazing organic fruit and vegetables imaginable," he says. It's a far cry from his jet-setting life a few years ago, when he was a "regular guy in a regular IT job" in Mumbai and then Dubai. He opted to leave all that to start a farmhouse homestay, 'Cinnabar', in the hill town.

"The loads of travel and hence very little time at home" were factors that made Balakrishnan veer off the fast lane. What he loves about small-town life is that it "makes you learn to live with yourself. You have the time to just sit and admire a beautiful sunrise or sunset. You get time to read a lot. If you like the outdoors, like we do, you can go on great hikes, play a lot of sport and enjoy life in a small community."

In a world that celebrates speed in the way we work, communicate, travel and even eat, there are many like Balakrishnan who choose to quit the rat race. But it's not just individuals who are trying to resist the dominant culture of speed; entire cities have been rethinking the growth paradigm and experimenting with lifestyles that have no room for the latest SUVs, fast food chains, mega malls, multitudes of flyovers and expressways. The Cittaslow or "Slow City" movement, born in Italy in 1999, is one such growing network of cities that wants to improve the quality of life of their people, resist the homogenization and globalization of towns, protect the environment, promote cultural diversity and uniqueness of individual cities and a healthier lifestyle. It grew out of the Slow Food movement in Italy as a way of promoting sustainable ways of life in cities. To date, there are more than 150 towns in 24 countries that have been certified as "slow cities", including nearly 70 in Italy. Late last year, a village of 20,000, Yaxi, was designated China's first "Slow City" by Cittaslow International. But no Indian city has joined the network so far. Pier Giorgio Oliveti, director of Cittaslow International, says, "We don't look for new members; it's the towns that approach us. We wish to start in India... it would be a good idea to find one or some villages or little town in India to create a new national network along with us."

However, Mili Majumdar, director of Sustainable Habitat division at the NGO, TERI, in Delhi, believes that "it would be impossible to have slow cities in India because of the way our cities develop. Slow cities means individual hubs which are self-contained, have smaller population, lesser dependence on the outside world for food and which focus on the nuances of life." She says while the concept is good, it's impractical. "Do people want to be cut off from the rest of the world? Also, the context of Europe (where the movement began) is different from India; their livelihoods are different. Cities there don't have so much rich-poor divide. There, the basic needs of people are met," she says.

The benchmark for joining the Cittaslow movement is for a city to have a population of 50,000 or less. In India, these would be tiers 3-6 towns. But it's these very smaller cities that are becoming boomtowns for industry sales and investment from carmakers to computer firms, from hotels to cell phone manufacturers. About 70% of new mall space will reportedly be in the nonmetros. With purchasing power and aspirations in their pockets, people in semi-urban areas are drawn to the high life, rather than their old, unhurried lifestyle.

Balakrishnan agrees that there are a lot of positives about urban living. "Great theatr e in the cities, music shows, sporting events, good dining options are all aspects of life that we have to give up when we make the move to a small town." But he adds, "The problems are the long travel times for short distances, high noise levels, scarce resources that everyone is fighting over." Add to that pollution, demanding jobs, lack of personal space, stress and other lifestyle-related diseases and loneliness.

Utopian as it may seem, slow living has been the norm in smaller cities traditionally. Sociologist Amita Baviskar of the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi, says, "Places like Bhopal, Udaipur and Bilaspur still have a quietness about them; Lucknow still has a slow pace and charm; Mysore and Bangalore were peaceful cities, though now the new corridor between them is threatening Mysore's character of being a former princely state with a quiet contemplative air."

There are probably scores of such towns in India where people are not racing against time; where they pause to cook and share a meal instead of buying fast food; grow fruits and vegetables rather than buy them from supermarkets ; and cycle or walk instead of driving. But can the idea of slow living catch on in India regardless of an onslaught of 24X7 ads in media, MNC supermarkets, fatter paychecks and the growing aspirations of a young workforce? Balakrishnan says, "I wish I could say yes, but the real answer is no."

Skewed urban planning only makes it more difficult. Baviskar says, "The disparities in our bigger cities are so bad that it's difficult to evolve a common vision - all classes of people cannot be on the same page. The poor want a secure place to live; the middle class wants malls, faster traffic, the metro and a glittering, glamorous space to live in; on the one hand, it also wants safe neighbourhoods, where you know your neighbours. And, the 'world class' vision we have for our cities is about the vision of a group of builders and developers." Activist Vandana Shiva, whose Navdanya network promotes slow food in India adds, "Every old city in India would qualify as a slow city, like Varanasi and Jaipur. But the government is hell-bent upon destroying every city. They want to build highways and malls. India takes pride in its 9% rate of growth. But rivers are being polluted, mining is killing forests and tribal livelihood threatened. Walmart is being pushed into a country that has a sabziwala in every corner. We can't build a future based on destructive activities."

It's a difficult choice, between one view that equates slowness with weakness and stagnation, and the other that sees it as a life-enhancing quality.

Journalist: Saira Kurup