An Introduction to the Forum on the State of the Cities: India Report (SOCR)

By Bharat Punjabi (University of Toronto)

Editor’s Note: On March 26, 2021, UAR Co-Editor Yue Zhang participated in the webinar “How Urban is Contemporary India?”, organized by the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. The panel provided critical commentary on the State of the Cities: India Report (SOCR) published by Om Prakash Mathur and his colleagues. This forum is a collection of essays written by the panelists based on their remarks at the webinar. The forum starts here with an introduction of the webinar event by Bharat Punjabi, followed by an overview of the SOCR by the lead author of the report, Om Prakash Mathur. The following essays by Jan Nijman, Richard Bird, Partha Mukhopadhyay, Yue Zhang, and Shahana Chattaraj provide reflections on the SOCR and India’s urbanization from an interdisciplinary perspective. The forum concludes with Om Prakash Mathur’s response to some of the questions raised by the panelists. In publishing this forum, we hope to invite more scholarly debates on global urbanization, especially the drastic urban transformation in the Global South.

Om Mathur and his colleagues have done us a great service by publishing the State of the Cities: India Report (SOCR) where they have developed a grounded empirical framework to answer some of the most interesting puzzles around India`s urbanization in the last three decades. The SOCR has answered questions that have been around for some time but had to wait for the authors’ deft combination of experience in the Indian urban policy context, their knowledge of census data sources and the depth of understanding of India’s urban trajectory to provide us with insightful answers to some very interesting but complicated questions on India’s urban system.

These questions range from the paradox around the nexus between economic growth and India’s urban system to the varied pace of the country’s urban transition that is described as rapid, moderate, slow, messy, and hidden all at the same time. Why, for instance, has the country witnessed an acceleration in the pace of urbanization under conditions of low economic growth? Why has there been a moderation in the pace of urbanization under conditions of rapid economic growth? Why has there been a fall in the rate of growth of in the urban share of gross domestic product at such a low level of urbanisation, especially the GDP accruing from the manufacturing sector? To all three questions, the SOCR has responded through a wealth of data analysis and unique insights into the workings of policies at the national, state, and local levels. The interplay of demographic variables and migration trends, and their influence on the evolution of the country`s urban system in the policy context of liberalization comes in for particular focus in the report.

Our panel of experts who first met at a virtual event at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto in March 2021 provided critical commentary on this report and their consensus view was that the  report not only confirmed some of their own experiences and findings researching India’s urban growth, but also led to further questions on whether Indian policy makers have so far underestimated the influence that politics and governance, culture and geography have played in the lacklustre growth of India’s urban places post-economic liberalization? The lead author, Om Mathur’s response to this in the report and forum is the confirmation of all these factors but is also qualified by his findings on the growth of India’s census towns and secondary cities. Using Neil Brenner’s critiques of urban theory, Mathur points out to the variegated and complex nature of Indian urbanization where a lot of recent urban growth has been experienced in places that have escaped the focus of social science and policy inquiry. At the same time, Mathur also acknowledges the lack of creative urban policies where several Indian cities and metropolitan regions have been stymied in their potential for economic growth and a better quality of life by their lack of political agency.

This forum provides a window into the report and all four panelists from disciplines such as economics, political science and public policy and geography did an excellent job parsing through the report and its empirical data. As we look forward to the post-pandemic urban future in India and elsewhere, the report provides us with a useful anchor for shaping policies for the future. It was also the panel’s conclusion that India’s political trajectory will matter as much as its economic choices. The report’s insightful quality also makes the implicit case that policy makers in New Delhi and state capitals should take the future of India’s cities as seriously as their preoccupation with economic growth and international trade policies. The SOCR report provides us with unique insights into India’s urban growth that will be useful for researchers and policy makers for years to come.

Bharat Punjabi

Research Fellow, Global Cities Institute, University of Toronto;
Lecturer, Asian Institute, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto

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