How Is India Urban?

By Jan Nijman (Georgia State University & University of Amsterdam)

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.

Let me start by congratulating Om Mathur and his team on the launch of this very useful report, State of the Cities, India. It provides a comprehensive overview that synthesizes, analyzes, and debates pertinent data from a wide range of sources. One of the strengths of the report is its reach across the urban continuum, from megacities to the rural-urban transition, and as such it offers an even-handed reading of India’s urban world. It also dedicates considerable attention to the relationships between urbanization and economic development, a matter of vital interest to India’s future.

This brief commentary raises two questions and offers one critical comment. Both questions relate to the notion that India’s urbanization is markedly slow; in comparison to most other countries, but also in view of India’s substantial economic growth of recent decades. This notion is, and has been, contested, in part on the basis of claims that the Indian census underestimates urban growth (Van Duijne and Nijman 2019; Mukhopadyay et al 2020) but even then, according to most accounts, urban growth is at best modest. The report concurs, and it expresses justified concerns. My questions probe a better understanding of the reasons behind India’s slow-paced urbanization.

The first question concentrates on the low share of rural-urban migration to overall urban growth. The report cites long held views (often by non-Indian scholars) that Indian culture seems to be prohibitive of spatial mobility but it does not clearly endorse or contest such views. If cultural barriers impede movement, this would mean not only that there is little one-way rural-urban migration by entire households; it could also explain ubiquitous male circular labor migration, whereby the family remains in the village and remains part of the village community. Such views seem to suggest a primacy of culture and, indeed, invoke somewhat uncomfortable (to some) notions of Indian exceptionalism – even if there is a ‘pull’ from the cities and a dire lack of economic opportunities in rural areas, one-way migration would be impeded). What is the significance of this cultural argument?

On the other hand, perhaps India’s slow pace of urbanization is mainly a matter of economics (which the report emphasizes), and it can be attributed, at least in part, to the lack of employment opportunities in cities. If so, and this is my second question: what of the argument that India, presumably as a matter of historical contingency (including its relatively shielded position in the world economy until the late 1980s), is skipping stages in traditional models of economic development? Specifically, this refers to the idea that India is bypassing the developmental stage of labor-intensive manufacturing, and heading straight into the information economy which is also urban-based, but not as labor-intensive (Nijman 2015; Rodrik 2016). The notion of skipping stages could also apply to India’s high levels of outward Foreign Direct Investment (as a share of GDP or compared to inward FDI), relative to the country’s overall level of development. To illustrate: within about 25 miles from where I am writing this commentary, in Amsterdam, Tata Steel employs about 13,000 people and Tata Consulting has another 600 on the payroll. The impressive foreign investments and acquisitions of big Indian companies is well noted but, in the meantime, urban employment opportunities in India (especially in formal sector manufacturing) are exceedingly scarce. If we do acknowledge this particular sectoral makeup of the Indian economy, is it not time that we turn our attention away from the problems of lackluster manufacturing to the potentialities of the digital economy (including policy strategies in the realm of education)?

Finally, let me turn to my critical comment, which is of a more theoretical nature, and refers to the title of this commentary. The leading question at the basis of the report, and the title of Chapter 5, is “How urban is India?” I would suggest the more pertinent question is “How is India urban?” This is not a matter of semantics. On the contrary, it goes to the heart of recent theoretical debates about the nature of ‘the urban’ and about the portability of urban theory beyond the western experience (e.g., Brenner and Schmid 2015; Nijman 2015;). The Indian experience is of particular interest in this regard. The question “how urban is India” presupposes a singular understanding of “urban” and the possibility of measuring its extent in comparison to experiences elsewhere. On the other hand, the question “how is India urban” opens the door to an appreciation of variegated expressions and meanings of what is urban (Prakash 2016; Simone 2020). In State of the Cities, this implicit approach to a singular conceptualization of urban is reflected in the recurring deployment of the rural-urban dichotomy. For example, the report cites a World Bank paper, noting that in recent decades there has been a net transfer of formal employment from urban to rural areas (p. 68). This is hard to fathom. It seems more plausible that employment has shifted to rapidly urbanizing, and peri-urban, areas that have assumed urban traits much faster than reflected in, for example, census designations of what is rural and urban.

It is, of course, difficult to avoid old conceptualizations of the urban that pervade currently available data from the census and other sources, and the report acknowledges the limitations of existing data. There is an enormous need for primary data collection across India’s urban system, which is in itself a daunting challenge. The State of the Cities is an outstanding effort to synthesize and interpret what information presently exists, and its attention to India’s urban economic challenges is right on target.


Brenner, N. and Schmid, C. (2015) Towards a new epistemology of the urban? City 19: 151-182.

Mukhopadhyay, P., Zérah, M., and Denis, E. (2020). Subaltern urbanization: Indian insights for urban theory. IJURR 2020.

Nijman, J. (2015). The theoretical imperative of comparative urbanism. Regional Studies, 49(1), 183-186.

Prakash, G. (2008). Introduction. In G. Prakash & K. M. Kruse (Eds.), The spaces of the modern city (p. 1). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rodrik, D. (2016). Premature deindustrialization. Journal of Economic Growth, 21(1), 1-33.

Simone, A. (2020). Cities of the global south. Annual Review of Sociology 46: 603-622.

Van Duijne, R. J., & Nijman, J. (2019). India’s emergent urban formations. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 109(7), 1978-1998.

Jan Nijman

Director and Distinguished University Professor, Urban Studies Institute, Georgia State University & Professor, Department of Geography, Planning, and International Development Studies, University of Amsterdam.

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