India’s urbanisation dilemma

What is a city, anyway?

Charrlotte Adelina

Development, Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Asia, South Asia

5 July 2018

As India develops, the lines between its villages, towns, and cities are becoming blurred. This has important implications for policy and planning, writes Charrlotte Adelina.

We are purportedly living in the ‘urban age’ without agreeing on what the ‘urban’ is in India. First, the extent of the ‘urban’ India is under-estimated based on a stringent definition. Second, what is governed as urban is different from what is counted as or planned as urban. Finally, there are complex inter-dependencies between cities and their surrounding regions, known as the ‘peri-urban’ regions, which are not captured by the simplistic urban-rural dichotomy.

These problems are crucial to policy-making in India, where various schemes and funding function on these terms and hinge upon these very definitions.

According to the 2011 Census, 31 per cent of India’s population is urban, consisting of 4,041 Statutory Towns (STs) and 3,894 Census Towns (CTs). The STs are defined as areas being governed by an urban local body, be it the Municipal Corporations, Municipalities or Town Panchayats.

Census Towns, on the other hand, are recognised as urban for their urban-like features, demographic and employment characteristics. The three criteria are size (population of at least 5,000), density (at least 400 persons per square kilometre), and the non-farm nature of the workforce (at least 75 per cent of males work in the non-farm sector).

This definition of urban CTs in India is extremely stringent. Most countries usually use only one or two of these criteria to identify the urban. In addition, the bar for the workforce and population criteria in India is set much higher when compared to most other countries.

Various estimates show that India is anywhere between 40 and 70 per cent urbanised if these criteria were relaxed. This implies that the projection of becoming 60 per cent urban by 2050 could well be an under-estimate. This is crucial, as policies and solutions for tackling urban challenges or providing rural welfare are targeted based on these estimates.

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It is the state governments that decide the administrative status of settlements and the setting up of urban local bodies in CTs could be arbitrary. Census Towns that have urban characteristics will not be planned or governed as such, even if they are a part of an Urban Agglomeration.

For example, Chattarpur as a Census Town will not have a ward council or receive municipal budget allocations, even though it is recognised as part of the contiguous National Capital Territory of Delhi agglomeration and has urban-like demographics.

The reclassification of villages into Census Towns accounted for almost 30 per cent of the urban growth in the last decade as per the Census. This is described as “unacknowledged urbanisation” given the fact that the number of CTs almost tripled between 2001 and 2011, while the number of STs increased only ever so slightly. These CTs are governed as rural, their slums are not enumerated and are ineligible for urban schemes.

Simply put, this results in a vast difference between what is governed as urban and what is counted as urban.

As peace is defined by the absence of war, so the rural is defined by the absence of the urban. This kind of simplistic categorisation undermines the realities of complex spaces such as the urban villages, peri-urban regions, satellite towns and other settlements along industrial corridors.

Academia has been quick to deconstruct the false dichotomy of urban versus rural. Aromar Revi has argued that in growing countries like India understanding the interdependencies, flows and overlaps between the urban and the rural is important to frame inclusive development trajectories.

For instance, urban sprawl in Chennai plays an important role in the development of the Sriperumbudur industrial corridor, which in turn affects the employment pattern and land-use of Oragadam, a village about 60 kilometres from the city.

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Demographic, occupational and commuting patterns, pollution, and real estate dynamics, are a few of the positive and negative externalities of urbanisation in which the deep and complex interplay between the city and its peripheral regions play out. In many theories and policies, however, the rural and urban are posed as two ends of a continuous spectrum, where the rural evolves along a linear continuum to reach the end goal of becoming ‘urban’.

Sociologists Christian Schmid and Neil Brenner reject such conceptualisations as dualisms or even the idea of a continuum. They argue that urbanisation is a “planetary” phenomenon impacting the entire world in “variegated and uneven ways”. Though there are criticisms of this approach, understanding the dynamic and varied socio-economic features in different spaces helps us offer grounded policies that go beyond the urban/rural opposition.

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Policies and schemes should acknowledge that definitions, at best, help us understand and simplify the world. They are useful cognitive maps, but not sacrosanct self-evident entities.

We need to refine our definitions to capture and adapt to the fast-changing, urbanising landscape in India, while at the same time strengthening our state governments’ capabilities to establish urban local bodies in Census Towns.

In addition, while certain policy issues are distinctly ‘urban’ due to the concentration of population, risks and opportunities, a balanced and complementary approach for certain policy problems could be regional. This would entail pursuing a model of development that is non-normative, grounded and pluralistic; one which taps into the local opportunities and challenges, notwithstanding the walls that we have built around our cities.

This article represents only the personal views of the author.

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One Response

  1. Dr.Louis jesudass says:

    Article is good. Urbanisation in India is in dilemma? Yes. Planning is good but when execution comes it is not upto the level. Anyhow I congratulate the author for his excelle t writing with datas and references.

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