From the State of the Cities to the Future of the Cities

By Yue Zhang (University of Illinois at Chicago)

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 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.

It is exciting to see the publication of the State of the Cities: India, an excellent and timely report compiled by Om Mathur and his team on India’s urbanization. Based primarily on the Indian Census and other sources, the report provides an in-depth analysis of India’s demographics, economy, and infrastructure in the urban transformation. One of the major contributions of the report is that it questions the meaning of “the urban” and demonstrates the complexity in the measures of urbanization. From large cities to urban peripheries to census towns, the different forms of spatiality have different logics of growth and present different answers to the central question: How urban is India? 

Another compelling feature of the report is that it places India in a comparative framework with other emerging economies, most notably China. As two of the largest developing countries in the world, China and India are drastically different in many aspects including history, culture, social structure, and regime type. However, the two Asian giants have shown parallel trajectories of development in recent decades as they have both experienced rapid urbanization alongside robust economic growth. I find the comparison between the two countries fascinating. It not only provides a reference for better understanding each country, but also sheds light on the challenges and opportunities facing both countries and the developing world as a whole. In the rest of the essay, I discuss three issues in the report through the perspective of India-China comparison.

First, as the report points out, rural-urban migration is an important driving force of urbanization and economic growth in the developing world. According to Bogue and Zachariah (1962), “a discussion of urbanization in India is fundamentally a discussion of net rural-urban migration and an analysis of the migration-stimulating effects of the various demographic, economic and social factors that are at work.” Despite that migration is a salient phenomenon in India, the rural-urban migration is a small proportion of the overall migration in the country. The report shows that, while there was a total of 142 million migrants in India in 2011, only 31 million, or approximately 22% of them, are rural-urban migrants. In China, by contrast, the National Bureau of Statistics reports over 290 million rural migrant workers as of 2019. The relatively low level of rural-urban migration in India needs further explanation. It makes one wonder whether the economic potential of rural-urban migration is adequately recognized by policy makers, and whether effective policies are in place to foster such a trend. 

On the other hand, migration is relevant to a series of urban policies, such as housing, healthcare, job training, and education. It is important for the government to manage migration in a more comprehensive policy framework and integrate it into a full urban agenda. A couple of questions are worth the consideration for both researchers and policy makers. For instance, what is the social welfare policy for migrant workers? Are they able to get adequate healthcare and housing in cities where they work? What is the voting behavior of rural-urban migrants and how do they affect the function of democracy at both the national and local levels? And, how have the India Government’s COVID-19 responses affected the work and life of migrant workers?

Second, land is a major resource of urban economic development. Land management and planning have substantial impacts on the nature and mechanisms of urbanization. In China, urban land is publicly owned by the Chinese State while rural land is owned by the village collectivities. The central government made a policy in 1994 to allow municipalities to lease out land to developers and collect land transaction fee; it also allowed local governments to expropriate rural land and converted it into urban land. As a result, a large amount of rural land has been expropriated by city governments for urban development. Land financing becomes a major source of local government revenue in China. It has also driven the infrastructure boom and real estate development nationwide, causing a land-centered urbanization (Lin 2007). There was a significant increase of urban built-up areas in all major Chinese cities from 2000 to 2015 (Liu and Zhang 2020).

While land is not a specific focus in the report, I would like to see more analysis of the land regime in order to develop a more complete picture of India’s urbanization. Issues like the role of land in India’s urbanization, and whether there is similar land expropriation in India as in China, are of particular interest.

The third issue is governance. A critical dimension of urban governance is the distribution of power between cities and other levels of government. While cities have limited jurisdiction and resources, decentralization reform has taken place in countries of both the developed and developing world and increased the capacity of municipal governments. China launched the decentralization reform in the early 1990s, through which the power over many urban policy issues has been devolved from the central and provincial levels to the municipalities. Specifically, the tax sharing system created in 1994 gives the local governments both heavy responsibilities and significant discretion to generate their own revenue, which is considered fiscal federalism in a unitary state.

In India, the central government has initiated various programs to empower local institutions in recent decades, including the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act of 1993 that formally established municipalities as a third tier of government. However, a number of studies argue that the real impacts of the decentralization reforms are limited because the state governments are reluctant to give up their power (Patel 2007). An updated account of the capacity of the local governments, including their administrative and fiscal capacities, is crucial for understanding urban governance in India. 

A related issue is where cities are placed on the national policy agenda.  In China’s 8th Five Year Plan (1991-95), urbanization was first identified as a policy priority while the size of large cities was still under control. The 11th Five Year Plan (2006-10) adopted a transformative perspective by embracing urbanization and the growth of large cities as key to the national economic success. Is urbanization a priority on the Indian Government’s agenda? Do different political parties have different preferences and policies about urbanization? Answers to these questions not only will explain the state of cities but also may help us envision and improve the future of the cities in India and beyond.


Bogue, Donald, and K. C. Zachariah. 1062. “Urbanization and Migration in India.” In India’s Urban Future, Roy Turner eds., Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lin, George C.S. 2007. “Reproducing Spaces of Chinese Urbanisation: New City-based and Land-centred Urban Transformation.” Urban Studies, 44(9): 1827-55.

Liu, Shouying, and Yue Zhang. 2020. “Cities without Slums? China’s Land Regime and Dual-track Urbanization.” Cities, vol. 101, pp. 1-13.

Patel, Sujata. 2007. “Mumbai: The Mega-City of a Poor Country.” In The Making of Global City Regions: Johannesburg, Mumbai/Bombay, São Paulo, and Shanghai, Klaus Segbers eds., Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 64-84.

Yue Zhang

Associate Professor of Political Science and Global Asian Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago

7 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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