By Shahana Chattaraj (World Resources Institute, India)
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.
Our understanding of Indian urbanization is as amorphous as the sprawling megacities, mofussil towns and quasi-urban rural settlements that constitute it. Characterised simultaneously as too fast and too slow, as ‘messy’ yet dynamic, ‘hidden’ yet self-evident, urbanization in India is assumed to be transformative yet found to be insufficiently so. What’s actually going on here?
The State of the Cities: India (SOTC) Report, the most comprehensive analysis of post-liberalization urbanization published in recent years, disentangles the data underlying these seemingly contradictory narratives, bringing a welcome degree of clarity and specificity to a complex phenomenon. That the Report does so without glossing over the inherent heterogeneity and multivalence of Indian cities, and the fact that much remains unaccounted for and obscured in the available data, is an admirable achievement.
The study’s findings highlight significant divergences in India’s urban trajectory following liberalisation reforms, from theoretical models as well as popular wisdom. I will focus on just one of these in my commentary – the link between urbanization and economic growth. India’s urban transition is widely seen as an inevitable and necessary pathway to economic and social development. But the SOTC’s analyses, examining data from multiple sources over time and across states, finds that economic and urban growth are weakly related in India. Furthermore, urban-rural distinctions in productivity and formal employment growth are relatively small, and less profound than differences between states and between urban regions. These findings call into question the oft-repeated maxim that India’s cities are ‘drivers of growth and productivity,’ and suggest also that rural India is far more dynamic than we commonly understand to be.
How do we explain this unexpected finding? Some part of it, as the authors explain, has to do with how urban and rural areas are officially categorised. If the data reflects administrative rather than morphological/spatial and economic criteria for urbanization, a significant share of growth produced by and in urban India – in officially ‘non-urban’ census towns and municipal outskirts – will be missed.
But there may be something important missing in how we understand, characterise and measure what is ‘urban’ in India – critical factors that undergird the relationship between urbanization and development that neither administrative, spatial or demographic parameters capture, conceptually or empirically. Cities and urbanization historically have transformed social relations and created new sorts of institutions, factors fundamental to their ability to spur innovation, growth and improvements in human well-being. It is not clear that urbanization in much of India has brought about these social transformations – declining female labour force participation in urban India, for instance, suggests that cities do not necessarily free Indian women – even educated ones – of gender-based constraints and enable their participation in economic life.
While urban theory has emphasized the link between cities and democratic governance, the important question of how Indian urbanization is related to political and democratic development, citizenship and citizen-state relations remains neglected in Indian urban research. Marked variations in access to urban infrastructure and services across Indian states documented in the Report point to the important role of state and local governance arrangements and capacities. Weaknesses and vacuums in municipal government as well other sorts of civic institutions in much of urban India mean that urban citizens and firms cannot count on the better availability of public goods and services that cities typically provide, such as public health and education to water and transport. Other than in a few states, India’s urban citizens have fewer rights to govern themselves, influence the policies that shape their lives and environments, and hold decision-making bodies accountable in comparison not just to other democracies, but also to citizens of rural India.
These factors may explain why urban-rural differences matter less than state and regional differences in India, and also why in some parts of the country, places categorised as ‘rural’ may have more of the features and qualities of an urban/ urbanizing society – openness, entrepreneurialism, market-orientation, enabling local institutions and local public goods provision – than towns and cities areas elsewhere. This is not entirely unusual – China’s growth story after all began with rural town and village enterprises.
Work in Indian cities is highly informalized, and in the absence of a viable and inclusive urban welfare regime, the transition to urban jobs will not be as productivity, welfare and development-enhancing as predicted in development models. Rural-urban migration is, as the SOTC shows, already far lower in India than in comparable countries during similar high-growth periods, and for large numbers of workers associated with extreme precarity.
These problems, made starkly visible by the Covid crisis, are compounded by differentiated and unequal rights of ‘urban citizenship’, wherein migrants, informal workers, minority and Dalit communities and women remain excluded, de jure or de facto, from equal participation in economic, political and social life of the city. The problem is not that Indian cities have too much migration or that they are growing too fast, but that they are unable to provide broad-based opportunities for economic and social mobility, the rationale that justifies the channelling of scarce public resources into new ‘Smart Cities’ and urban mega-projects.
Like good empirical work should, the State of the Cities: India report sharpens understanding and challenges preconceptions, while raising new puzzles and questions for research and policy. Its findings demand a re-thinking of the assumptions undergirding urban policy in India, and call for deeper research and better data on the political economic, social and institutional dimensions of Indian cities. Looking at these questions at the state and regional level, rather than national, will be more useful in a country as large and heterogenous as India. A planned second volume of the SOTC Report, focused on governance and planning, will provide essential insights but will be a more complicated undertaking that requires new data collection.
Indian urban research, whether rooted in economic development theories or ‘critical urban studies’ has perhaps been too driven by universal and grand theories of urbanization and ‘the city’ – Arthur Lewis at one end, ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘planetary urbanism’ at the other. Neither of these frameworks help us understand the messiness, variation and contradictory elements of urban India and the processes that produce and shape it. In order to do so, we need both empirical research and new theoretical perspectives. Other large diverse countries such as the United States, Brazil and China have bodies of urban research and theory rooted in their own social, political-institutional and historical circumstances. These literatures are useful both for comparative work and to inspire more contextually and empirically-rooted theoretical approaches to urban India. For better, more grounded urban research and policy, as the SOTC report shows, we need to look at urbanism and cities less as reified concepts but as multifarious, dynamic and emergent empirical forms and processes.
 City-level variations are not captured due to data limitations but are also likely to be notable.
Director, Research Data & Innovation, World Resources Institute (WRI) India