Some Reflections on State of the Cities: India

By Om Prakash Mathur (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 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.

“Contemporary urban research stands at a crossroads. As scholars struggle to decipher current forms of urbanization, they are forced to confront the limitations of inherited approaches to urban questions, and consequently, to face the difficult challenge of inventing new theories, concepts and methods that are better equipped to illuminate emergent spatial conditions, their contradictions and their implications at diverse sites and scales around the world. The result of these efforts is an intellectual field in disarray”. 

-Neil Brenner. “Introducing the Urban Theory Lab”, in Neil Brenner. 2013. Critique of Urbanization: Selected Essays.  Bauverlag, Gütersloh-Berlin.

This essay is meant to sum up and bring the forum on the State of the Cities: India Report (SOCR) to a close. The previous essays have introduced the SOCR and complemented it with observations and perspectives of a distinguished panel of international experts, made initially at a webinar held under the auspices of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy (University of Toronto) and subsequently scripted for the Urban Affairs Forum. The panel’s engagement with the SOCR – its scope, the data base, approach, methodology, and outputs, as readers would have noted – is encyclopedic, insightful, and strategic. The thematic span of panelists observations is extraordinarily wide. The panel has used fresh analytical instruments, offered alternative hypotheses, and raised a string of new questions, often buttressed by the panel’s own research, for addressing many of the issues contained in the SOCR. In some ways, the panel’s urban narrative complements the SOCR; it simultaneously reopens the discourse on India’s urbanization and resets the urban research agenda.

Two sets of larger questions emerge from the discourse. The first set is concerned with the pace of India’s urbanization which – contrary to what is generally held – has been slower in comparison with other large emerging economies as also with rural to urban migration whose role in the process of India’s urbanization has, at best, been modest. The questions that have arisen are: what factors explain the modest role of rural-urban migration? Are the factors social, economic or political? Are there structural impediments to rural-urban migration? What implications would these have for India’s urban future? Should India’s urbanization be looked at outside the rural- urban framework, given that it plays a modest role in the process of India’s urbanization and development? Are there alternatives to the rural-urban migration model for spurring urbanization?

The second set draws on Chapter 5 of the SOCR that deals with the question: “How urban is India?”. The question that has surfaced is: Is “How URBAN is India?” the right question? Would questions such as “What is urban about India”, and “Are Indian cities adequately urban”, not provide a better understanding of India’s urbanization? Such questions have led the panel to describe the characteristics that urbanization should be associated with – social emancipation, political agency, and economic progress – and to ask: Do Indian cities comply with these characteristics? Has India’s urbanization precipitated the changes that are expected in the social, political, and social spheres?

Additionally, comparisons have been drawn between India’s urbanization with that of other large, emerging economies, especially China which has in recent decades registered a phenomenal increase in its urban population rising from about 20 percent in 1978, comparable to that of India, to 52 percent in 2012. One feature that distinguishes China’s urbanization is its policy of land expropriation that allows its local governments to expropriate lands for developmental purposes, including for urbanization. According to Zhang and Xu, between 2000 and 2010, the built-up area of PRCs cities increased at a compound annual rate of 6 percent; in comparison, China’s urban population (permanent residents) increased by an annual rate of 3.78 percent, indicating that local governments promoted land–based urbanization1. The question that the Panel alludes to is: Does the China model of land-based urbanization hold a potential for India, given that urban lands in China are State-owned but are private properties in India?

The panel has also brought into discourse urban theories as these have evolved over time, implicitly to explore if the pattern of India’s urbanization bears any approximation, for instance, to Louis Wirth (1938)2 for whom three characteristics of cities – large population size, social heterogeneity, and population density are basic to an urban way of life; or to Arthur Lewis (1954)3 who, in his two-sector model, demonstrated that it was possible to shift out one-fourth of agricultural labour in India to the urban areas, without a decrease in agricultural output or a rise in rural or urban wages – thus establishing a base for push factors; or to scholars such as Neil Brenner4, who have begun to advocate eschewing a distinction between rural and urban for studying the emerging patterns of urbanization. The question is: do these theories display any sensitivity to the India is  urbanization that is messy and hidden? 

This concluding essay does not make any attempt to address the above-stated wide-ranging questions; it however, briefly dwells on two issues that prima-facie have long-run relevance.

Rural-urban migration in India’s urban-development trajectory

There is enough in literature that visualizes rural-urban migration to be a disruptive factor and a phenomenon associated with development. No country has achieved high incomes or rapid growth without substantial urbanization, 40-50 percent of which is made up of rural-urban migrants5. In India, the share of rural-urban migration has ranged between 20-25 percent over the past several decades. According to the SOCR, there are structural impediments to rural-migration, manifest in religion, caste, language and culture. Rural population in India is said to be too strongly tied to its village origins by bonds of religion, caste, language, and centuries of in-living to be easily diverted to the comparative insecurity of the city. “So widely has this viewpoint been accepted that urbanization has come to be regarded as being inconsistent with the Indian way of life”6. The panel holds that India’s exceptionalism in this respect may well be a suspect; the reasons for its modest role could be in the domain of economics, for example, low urban demand for rural labour or in technologically-linked economic growth that India is committed to.

Let me revisit the question: what motivates people to move out of agriculture? The phenomenon of rural-urban migration has been studied and examined in development literature, with references dating to the latter part of the 19th century where attempts to explain it were made in terms of population pressures, food scarcity and famines, somewhat akin to what later came to be known as push factors (Ravenstein)7. The orthodox economic theory as advanced by J. R. Hicks (1932)8 suggested differences in wages as the main factor explaining rural to urban migration. Since the 1950s, development economists have made important contributions to the understanding of the phenomenon of rural- urban migration. In his seminal work on the theory of growth, Arthur Lewis9 put out a two-sector model of an economy, and demonstrated that as the capitalistic sector expanded and developed, it drew labour from the non-capitalistic, agricultural sector. Lewis’s formulation rested on the assumption that there were large quantities of labor in the rural areas which, if transferred out to the urban areas, would cause no loss to the agricultural output. The Lewis model was superseded by the most outstanding contribution of Michael Todaro10 who incorporated labour market imperfections into the migration model, and suggested that (i) the decisions to migrate were based on expected income maximization objective and not on wage differentials between rural and urban areas, and (ii) noted that rural-urban migration under conditions of overt urban unemployment represented an economically rational choice on the part of individual migrants. Oded Stark11, on the other hand, postulated that there were other factors that shaped the decision of the potential migrants to move to cities. He argued that migration decisions were usually taken in a larger context, i.e., the households, where people acted collectively not so much to maximize income, but to minimize risks. Migration was a means to spread risk rather than a manifestation of risk- taking behavior on the part of migrants.

What then is the balance sheet – the economic pull of urban areas represented by wage differential and income maximization goals or social push symbolized in risk minimization? As this question opens up to empirical work, the panel has provided anecdotal evidence on narrowing down of rural-urban differences, adding another dimension to determining the future of India’s urbanization.  

What is urban about India?  Are Indian cities adequately urban? 

The question “what is urban about India” is fundamental and requires a reference to the SOCR which visualizes urbanization as a phenomenon that signifies a demographic shift assessed in terms of scale, pace of growth, distribution of population between cities of different sizes, its form, spatial spread, and connectivity across spaces; urbanization is equally about what urban areas produce in terms of GDP and what they consume. Urbanization is also associated with higher (compared with rural areas) level of infrastructural services, innovations, and knowledge. Cities also present negative externalities, slums, poverty, spatial inequities, and unmanaged urban expansion. How urban is India represents such characteristics.

Quoting Louis Wirth, de Coulanges (1866)12, and Glaeser (2011)13, the panel envisions urbanization in terms of “social emancipation, political agency, and “economic process”, and suggests: “It is for these qualities that the process of urban transformation is imbricated with not just growth but with development”. The panel presents survey evidence on each of these three macro matrics, and conclude and I quote: “on all three metrics, social, political and economic, it would appear that the potential of Indian cities as transformative spaces is not high. One is thus tempted to conclude that Indian cities are not particularly urban, a telling indictment of the fractured nature of Indian society, its constricted Constitutional and political imagination and the surprisingly weak economic advantage provided by its urban environment”. The story continues — “India’s urban citizens have fewer rights to govern themselves, influence policies that shape their lives and environments and hold decision-making institutions accountable in comparison not just to other democracies but also to citizens of  rural India”.

These descriptions of urbanization reaffirm what the SOCR states: urbanization is a complex process and it stands dominated by multiple narratives. As the world urbanizes, moving from the current level of 55 percent to about 68 percent by the year 2050, it will encounter newer challenges and be confronted with significant conceptual and methodological issues. The task is to continue to undertake studies for deciphering the changing landscapes and geographies of urbanization.

Tributes and Dedication

As the forum on the State of the Cities: India Report (SOCR) comes to a close, we consider it necessary to register our tributes to Dr. Richard Bird, Emeritus Professor, University of Toronto for his participation in and contribution to the webinar organized to discuss the SOCR. Dr. Richard Bird, a global specialist in fiscal federalism and urban governance, and mentor to many including the lead author of this study, suddenly passed away in June 2021. He will be remembered for his contribution to the forum.

It being the final essay of the forum, let me put on record my appreciation to the Editorial Board of the Urban Affairs Review (UAR), especially Dr. Yue Zhang for assigning its space for a discussion on the State of the Cities: India Report (SOCR). The forum stands dedicated to the panel of international experts who have displayed extraordinary ingenuity in reviewing the SOCR, and providing its perspectives. Thanks are equally due to Dr Bharat Punjabi (Munk School of Political Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto, Toronto) for taking the initiative of organizing the webinar.

End Notes

  1. Li Zhang and Xianxiang Xu. “Land Policy and Urbanization in the People’s Republic of China”, in Guanghua Wan and Ming Lu. 2019. Cities of Dragons & Elephants. Oxford University Press. United Kingdom.
  2. Louis Wirth. 1938. “Urbanism as a Way of Life”. In American Journal of Sociology, 44(1). University of Chicago, Chicago.
  3. Arthur Lewis. 1954. “Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour”. The Manchester School (22) pp 139-192.
  4. Neil Brenner. Ibid.
  5. Patricia C. Annez and Robert Buckley. “Urbanization and Growth: Setting the Context”, in Commission on Growth and Development. 2008. The Growth Report. Washington D.C., World Bank.
  6. Donald J Bogue and .K. C. Zachariah. “Urbanization and Migration in India”. In Roy Turner (Ed). 1962. India’s Urban Future, University of California Press. Berkeley.
  7. E.G. Ravenstein 1885. The Laws of Migration. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society.
  8. J.R. Hicks. 1932. The Theory of Wages. MacMillan. London.
  9. Arthur Lewis. Ibid. Lewis showed that one-fourth of agricultural labour in India was surplus or redundant to requirements.
  10. Michael Todaro. 1969. “A Model of Labour Migration and Urban Unemployment in Less Development Countries in American Economics Review (59).
  11. Oded Stark. 1991. The Migration of Labour. Basil Blackwell. Cambridge.
  12. de Coulanges. 1866. The ancient city: A study on the religion, laws and institution of Greece and Rome. Paris.
  13. Edward Glaeser. 2011. Triumph of the City. London. The Penguin Press.

Om Prakash Mathur

Chair, Urban Studies.  Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, and Non-resident Senior Fellow. Global Cities Institute, University of Toronto, Toronto.

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