State of the Cities: India Report

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.

It may indeed be both the best of times and the worst of times to be studying cities, for while there is so much that is new and challenging to respond to, there is much less agreement than ever before as to how best to make sense, practically and theoretically, of the new urban worlds being created.

-Edward Soja. 2000. Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions. Cambridge. MA. Blackwell.

The Context

The State of the Cities: India Report (SOCR) has come in at a time when the world is close to 55 percent urban and is projected to be 68 percent by the 2050 year. This transition, observed across the developing and developed world, is accompanied by an extraordinarily important shift in the world’s vision and perspective on the phenomenon of urbanization. In 1969, Robert McNamara, then President of the World Bank in his address to the IBRD Board of Governors observed and I quote: “Our knowledge of how best to deal with the whole issue of urbanization remains primitive1. Lester Brown’s report on Partners in Development (1969) perceived the growth of cities in terms of “unemployment and increase in social tensions”2. The world community has since come a long way in recognizing the potential gains and transformative and disruptive attributes of urbanization and cities and discerned in the process a close link between urbanization, growth, and several macro-economic parameters. As urbanization has advanced and deepened, its form has undergone a structural shift, having witnessed across countries what Christian Schmid calls, “the implosions and explosions of the urban at all spatial levels”3.

India has been an integral part of this global process and transformation. From a stage where much of the formal thinking on urbanization in India focused on how to control and regulate urbanization and develop small and intermediate–sized towns (India’s Fourth and Fifth Five Year Plans), now envisions urbanization as an “engine of economic growth” (Planning Commission), “integral part of economic development” (NITI Aayog), and one that will define the trajectory of India’s future development (Economic Survey, 2016-17) 4. For India, it has been a long journey, far from smooth, ambivalent having to often counter notions that India was in the midst of rapid urbanization and that it was driven by rural-urban migration; at the same time, the changes over the decades have been phenomenally instructive, shedding light on the dynamics of urbanization and how it has unfolded itself and translated into public policy responses over the decades.

The SOCR is prepared in this context. It examines with evidence drawn from the formal datasets comparable over time, three key facets of India’s urbanization, viz., its demographics relating to the scale, pace, composition, and distribution across city-sizes and spaces; its economic foundations manifest in gross domestic product (GDP), urban consumption and urban employment; and the status of urban infrastructure and environmental services. A larger question that underlies the examination is: what has made India change its perception about urbanization, involving a break from the long-held adage that “India lives in villages” and moving on to one where urbanization is seen as an important condition for growth and development. The purpose of this article is to present select features of India’s urban transition which, prima facie, represent a departure from the past and which, interestingly, has led the World Bank to brand it as ‘messy’ and ‘hidden’, and others to enter into a debate whether the current definition of “urban” which places India’s urbanization at 31.2 percent (2011) is able to adequately capture its scale, level, and distribution.

India’s urbanization transition

Urbanization – irrespective of how it may be defined, interpreted, or perceived, has acquired a “space” for itself in India’s development trajectory. Consisting of 7,933 cities and towns of different population sizes and a population of 377.1 million persons (2011 census) – comparable to that of China for that year – India has the second largest system in the world. At current urban population growth rates, India’s urban population, according to the United Nations, will reach a high of 857 million by the year 2050 AD!  What is more, population growth in India, the same source indicates, will wholly be an “urban story”  from about the year 2027 when its rural population will begin to decline in absolute numbers.  Karl Polanyi calls it the “fatal irreversibility of urbanization” in has seminal book ‘The Great Transformation’5

India’s urban transition has taken place combining decades of high urban population growth with decades of low urban population growth, with a peak annual growth of 3.79 percent in 1971-81 and a low of 2.74 percent in the decade of 1991-2001. While such variations are not uncommon, what has lent significance to this decadal behavior is that high urban population growth has taken place under conditions of low economic growth as indeed was the case in 1971-91, often identified as a push phenomenon; the decadal behavior, likewise, shows that low urban population growth is not necessarily an impediment to high economic performance. The relationship between urbanization and overall economic performance is thus complex.

India’s urban system has expanded phenomenally in the most recent census decade adding 90.9 million persons to the 2001 urban population base. The expansion is not just in numbers – it is a significant expansion for the consequential changes it has brought about in the pattern of urban population growth and on its impact on the composition of GDP. The changes are spotlighted in the following paragraphs.

Rise of the census towns as a factor in India’s urbanization. The reclassification and incorporation of rural settlements into urban and likewise, declassification of urban settlements into rural forms part of a phenomenon that is commonly observed across countries. Reclassification is regulated by a set of pre-determined criteria, fulfilment of which enables a settlement to acquire the status of an urban settlement; likewise, urban settlements are declassified when they fail to meet the laid-down criteria. The 2011 census witnessed an unprecedented surge in the numbers and population of such settlements, called census towns. The numbers increased from 1362 to 3894 between 2001 and 2011, and the population from 21 million to 54.3 million, provoking urban scholars to signal it as a new emerging phase in the country’s urban transition. It has simultaneously sparked questions on what precipitated the reclassification of so many settlements into urban in just one decade. Questions have been asked if their development is synonymous with sub-urbanization, or peri-urban development, or is it just a sprawl. Is there a trade-off between rural-urban migration and census towns? Has geography come to play a greater role in defining India’s urbanization process? Is India’s urbanization a demographic transition or a geographical change?  Significantly, apart from the increase in numbers and their population size, little is known about their economic contributions and effects on productivity and economies. The reluctance on the part of State governments to assign such settlements, particularly those that are within the hinterland of large cities, a statutory status, combined with a tepid growth in the population of statutorily defined towns and cities, present an uncertain outlook for the future of India’s urbanization.

A modest role of rural-urban migration in India’s urban transition. Rural-urban migration is a universally observed phenomenon in the developing and emerging economies. In 1962, Bogue and Zachariah observed that “rural-urban migration is by for the major component of urbanization and is the chief mechanism by which all of the world’s great urbanization trends have been accomplished”. In India, the share of rural-urban migration over the past three census decades has ranged between 20-22 percent, a trickle compared to most large economies. The macroeconomic changes that India has witnessed in recent decades have barely made any impact on this aspect of the urban process. At the same time, urban to urban mobility has risen noticeably in the most recent decade of 2001-2011, providing a strong indication of the future course of migration and urbanization trends. Eighty-five percent of movements are, however, intra-state and would attest to the position that Bogue and Zachariah had advanced, stating that social movements form the pre-dominant raison d’etre underlying rural-urban migration. The economic potential of rural-urban migration is neither adequately recognized nor has it been fostered as a part of urban policy in India.

A spurt in the growth of urban agglomerations (UAs). UAs (consisting of a core city and several other settlements – ubiquitously referred to as periphery) with a population in excess of one million and their hinterlands similar to what may even be called “conglomerates” are an important aspect of India’s urbanization. In 1991, the number of such UAs was 23 and their share in urban population, 32.8 percent.  In 2011, the numbers rose to 52 and their population share to 42.3 percent, heralding what is seen as one of the most significant changes in the pattern of habitation in the country. Given the existing size distribution of cities in different size categories and there being no evidence of a self-regulating mechanism that would regulate city-size, India is likely to witness the emergence of many more such cities, estimated at 78 by the year 2035! Only recently have cities and UAs of these sizes been conceptualised as a distinct phenomenon, deserving special attention. There are, however, interesting patterns of growth differentials of the cores and peripheries, some having growing cores and declining peripheries; others declining cores and growing peripheries, and still others, declining cores and declining peripheries. Scholars point out that the growth rates of such UAs are a function of the dynamics of the economy, where the identification of the core and the periphery cannot be static. A continuously rising share of these UAs has often been used to suggest that large cities in India have a tendency to post higher growth rates compared to cities in intermediate and smaller sizes — the undertone being that such trends may need to be slowed down in order to have a “more balanced city-size distribution”. 

Declining growth rate of the urban share of GDP. The phenomenon of urbanization has in recent decades been associated with economic growth, and is commonly portrayed with a regression line between the level of urbanization and per capita incomes. An important development observed worldwide is the weakening of the historical association between urbanization, manufacturing, and growth.  Somewhat similar trends are observed in India as well. The urban share of GDP/NDP has risen from about 41 percent in 1980-81 to 52.3 percent in 2001-12, the increase being significantly lower than 60-65 percent perceived to be the urban share. The annual growth of rural NDP has almost caught up with the growth rate of urban NDP. Moreover, the urban shares of NDP have declined across sectors including manufacturing (exceptions being electricity and trade, commerce and community services), giving an edge to the rural share which has correspondingly risen. That these trends have emerged at such a low level of India’s urbanization have cast a long shadow on the linkages between urbanization and economic growth

Increasing informality in the urban areas. Tracking employment trends is an important component of any exercise designed to assess the performance of an economy. In India, estimation of the work force, nature of work and its sectoral composition are complex undertakings made complex on account of the multiple sources which collect employment data. Two features of the urban work force that are often the subject of discussion are (i) formal-informal division of the work force, and (ii) the gender dimension of the work force. It is often pointed out that 60-70 percent of the workforce in the urban areas is informal; likewise, the composition of the urban workforce is male dominated. Facts tends to support this assertion; showing a dip in the percentage of main workforce and a sharp rise in the marginal workforce. On this phenomenon, Glaeser and Josh-Ghani observe: “In Indian cities, the informal sector is increasing in size relative to the formal sector. One interpretation of the increase is that density is more valuable in the informal sector then in the formal sector”. The gender dimension is male dominated, accounting for 72 percent of the urban workforce; at the same time, the ratio of female workforce is seen to be increasing from 14 percent to 20 percent over the decades 1991-2011. A lower growth rate for main workers and a higher growth rate for marginal workers are important features of India’s urban labour market.   

Continuing high infrastructure gaps will hamper economic growth. Development of urban infrastructure is an activity that is concomitant to the process of urbanization. As a result, urban infrastructure has historically been a part of the central government’s urban initiatives and Missions and has posted a significant improvement over the years. At the same time, when measured against the newly emerging global benchmarks, for instance, the Sustainable Development Goals, significant gaps are witnessed in respect of most infrastructure indices. On the benchmark of “no one to be  left behind”, proportions of households without access to basic services are significantly higher. Countrywide, 46 percent of urban households do not have access to tap water within premises, 19.6 percent of households have no access to toilet facility within premises, and 7.6 percent have no access to electricity. Inaccessibility of households to basic services on such scales is a major impediment for India to improve its rank in the human development index and to make its cities and towns livable, inclusive and productive.

What then are the urban directions?

Urbanization in India, as the State of the Cities (SOCR) shows, is a complex process and is taking place under very different circumstances. There are several narratives, each with important implications. These narratives raise fresh questions, especially in relation to the tepid growth of population of statutory cities and towns, refiguration of urban space on account of the outward spread of urban activities, low level of concern for the economic potential of rural–urban migration, and the emerging complexities with respect to the pattern of growth of metropolitan cores and peripheries. 

There are questions with respect to the productivity of cities and towns, as also the falling shares of GDP accruing from such sectors as manufacturing, financial services, and real estate. Questions about the scale, composition and informalisation of the urban economy and trends toward formalisation of the rural economy have surfaced as newer concerns for in-depth examination. Further, urban scholars have advanced certain rules of the game with respect to the processes of urbanization, for instance, the process exhibiting a pattern in which the rate of change is slow at first, then rises steeply as the early stages of industrialisation are reached and tapers off gradually when the population begins to reach a saturation point. Examination of such questions together with the impact of technology and digitisation and artificial intelligence on agglomeration economies are an integral part of coming to grips with the process of India’s urban transition.

The 2019 report of the Government of India on population projections has estimated India’s urban population at 469.9 million in 2021, yielding an annual exponential population growth of just 2.2 percent over the 2011–21 decade. Such a low growth in urban population presents a major issue for the future of country’s urbanization. Although this estimate is based on the urban–rural growth differential method (URGD) under the assumption that the URGD for the period 2001–11 will remain unchanged up to 2036, it draws attention to the likely pace of urbanization and linked questions; for example, what might explain the likely dip in the rate of urbanization in the 2011–21 decade after posting a marginal recovery in the previous census decade of 2001–11? Is this setting a new trend? Is it connected with the recent (post-2016) economic slowdown in the country? What implications and impact would it have for the future urban policy? This SOCR is a work-in-progress.

End Notes

1.Robert McNamara. 1969. Address to the Board of Governors. Washington D.C.

2.Lester Brown. 1968. Partners in Development: Report of the Commission on International Development. New York. Praeger.

3.Christian Schmid. 2014. “Networks, Boarder, Differences.  Towards a Theory of the Urban” in Neil Brenner (Ed). Implosions/Explosions: Towards A Study of Planetary Urbanization. Berlin. 

4.Government of India. 2017. Economic Survey. Vol II pp 221-224. New Delhi.

5. Karl Polayani. 1944. The Great Transformation. Beacon Press. Boston

* We regret to announce the death of Professor Richard Bird, University of Toronto, one of the panelists in the webinar on the State of the Cities: India held on March 26, 2021. Comments made by him in the webinar are published in this forum.

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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