Last updateSat, 22 Jul 2017 6am

You are here: Home | Agenda | Urbanisation | Urban territories, rural governance

Urban territories, rural governance

By Gopa Samanta

West Bengal has the highest number of census towns among all the Indian states -- with 528 villages reclassified as such in the last decade -- but only 127 urban local bodies. The slow process of municipalisation means that most census towns, especially those with fast-growing industry, mining and commercial enterprises, are urban areas governed by gram panchayats. Such urban territories can become unregulated free-for-alls, with low taxes but haphazard development and poor infrastructure and services

Many census towns, few ULBs

The pattern of urbanisation in West Bengal has taken a new turn in the first decade of the 21st century. Indeed, the rate of urbanisation in existing towns as well as growth of new census towns has changed remarkably in the last 10 years. Presently, West Bengal has 780 census towns -- the highest among all states in India (second highest is 461 in Kerala, and third highest is 376 in Tamil Nadu, according to the 2011 census) -- and 127 statutory towns. The growth rate of census towns is also very high as, of the 780 census towns, 528 have been added only in the last decade. In 2001, the number of census towns was 252, of which only four were recognised as urban local bodies (ULB) in the decade, indicating an extremely slow process of municipalisation (recognising a census town as a statutory town or ULB) in West Bengal. Thus, the slow process of municipalisation and underreporting of actual urban territorial dimensions (discussed later) together contribute to the high level of 'non-recognised' urbanisation (urbanisation in areas outside ULBs) in the state. As a consequence, most census towns, especially those experiencing fast economic growth in the form of development activities such as industries, mining and commercial enterprises, represent urban areas with no effective government mechanism.

Changing patterns of urbanisation

West Bengal is a densely populated state with a population of around 91 million, of which around 29 million live in recognised urban areas; the percentage of official urban population reached 31.89% in 2011. The state also has the highest urban population density of 6,789 persons per sq km. Since Independence, the overall pattern of urbanisation in West Bengal was highly concentrated in and around Kolkata and the Durgapur-Asansol urban-industrial agglomerations of the state. This pattern has started altering with new urban growth coming up in areas away from metropolitan dominance, which can be defined as 'subaltern urbanisation' (Denis, Mukhopadhyay and Zerah 2012). The available literature on the broad pattern of urbanisation (Guchhait 2005) and city size distribution (Sarkar 1995, 2012; Mitra 2010, etc) in 20th century West Bengal supports the view of metropolitan and big city dominance. The Kolkata Metropolitan Area (KMA) alone accounted for around 64 to 58% of the state's urban population in the 20th century (Table 1).

Table 1: Urban profile of West Bengal, 1971-2011
Year Urban population (%) Growth of urban population (%) Number of census towns Number of statutory towns Urban population in Kolkata Metropolitan Area (KMA) (%)
1971 24.70 28.41 48 83 64.11
1981 26.50 31.73 89 87 63.64
1991 27.48 29.49 148 106 58.92
2001 28.03 20.20 252 123 58.88
2011 31.89 - 780 127 48.44
Source: Samanta, 2012

These new trends are not only visible in the case of development of new census towns but also in the district-level spatial pattern of urbanisation. The proportion of the state's urban population in KMA areas has sharply declined from 58.88% in 2001 to 48.44% in 2011. The growth of small and medium towns became more pronounced and the percentage of urban population in Class I towns decreased from 81.7% in 1991 to 75% in 2001. The maximum growth has taken place in districts outside existing metropolitan areas (1). Out of 780 census towns in West Bengal, only 195 (25%) are located in urban agglomerations of more than 1 lakh and above. Around 75% of new census towns have come up in districts with a dominant agricultural economy, far away from urban-industrial regions. This agro-based urban trend was earlier predicted by Chakraborty and Dasgupta (2011). The new urban growth in the districts may be attributed to agricultural surplus and consequent movement of investment from the farm sector to the commercial-based tertiary sector in the small town category. Some studies (Roy 2012; Banerjee 2012) have proved this connection in their research on the growth of small and medium towns in West Bengal. According to Chaudhuri et al (2012), although there was a fall in primary and secondary sector growth in West Bengal in the last decade, its tertiary sector grew at a very fast rate of 9 to 11% which may have led to this higher level of new urbanisation in the form of small market and service centres and consequent growth of non-recognised urban territories in West Bengal.

Slow municipalisation and denied urbanisation

Presently, West Bengal has 127 ULBs including six municipal corporations, 118 municipalities and three notified area authorities. In addition, there is one IT township called Nabadiganta Industrial Township located on the periphery of Kolkata metropolis. The criteria for being declared an urban local body (ULB) in states are often more stringent than what is required by the census. According to the West Bengal Municipal Act (Section 3), it is as follows:

  • Population size of 30,000. By comparison, the threshold for Andhra Pradesh is 40,000, for Maharashtra 25,000 and for Karnataka 20,000.
  • Density of 750 persons per sq km, again considerably more than the census standard.
  • Non-agricultural population of 50% or more of the adult population (as compared to the male workforce in the census).

Even if a settlement satisfies these criteria, the declaration is not automatic. The state of West Bengal was famous for its decentralised governance process even before the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment bills were passed in India in 1993 and 1994. A decentralised process is also practised in the formation of ULBs in West Bengal. The demand to transform a settlement from a census town to a statutory urban one has to come from below. The local gram panchayat, in consultation with the local community, requests the local block development office. The block development office then verifies the eligibility criteria. If the concerned settlement satisfies all three threshold criteria, then the block development officer (BDO) forwards the application to the district magistrate (DM) of the respective district. The district magistrate sends the application to the department of municipal affairs, Government of West Bengal. The minister-in-charge of the municipal affairs department (MAD) discusses the proposal with other cabinet ministers and takes the final decision to make a settlement statutorily urban.

The slow process of municipalisation can in part be explained by this decentralised process. The demand to declare a statutory town should come from the local community, which sometimes is difficult. As soon as the town comes under ULB status, rules and regulations become strict and taxes become higher for the local people, which they might not want. Due to the slow process of municipalisation, the dimension of a 'non-recognised urban territory' (census town) is increasing at a fast rate in West Bengal. Out of 780 census towns, 528 (contributing a 57.9% share of the urban population in CTs) have been reclassified from villages, and these reclassified settlements forming new census towns in 2011 contribute to 66% of the urban growth in West Bengal (Pradhan 2012).

Invisibility of actual urban dimension

The reported urban population living in both census and statutory towns do not represent the actual urban dimension in West Bengal. The problem lies in population counting in census towns which does not take into account the settlement agglomeration beyond the revenue area of that particular settlement. However, in reality, the actual built-up areas of most census towns have expanded much beyond their physical limit and have taken the shape of settlement agglomerations with an urban character. Field-level observations from selected census towns such as Barjora (Bankura district) and Singur (Hugli district) show that there is a big gap between actual urban expansion (agglomeration) and reported urban expansion (census town) in these places. Singur census town includes the area and population of Singur-I gram panchayat (GP) whereas the actual development of Singur has extended over eight villages beyond the physical limit of the census town which covers two other gram panchayats. Similarly, the census town of Barjora represents the population of only one revenue village, that is, Barjora, whereas the actual urban spread covers 12 villages located in five gram panchayats of the area surrounding Barjora, giving the entire stretch the shape of a settlement agglomeration. The actual size of urban population living in those settlement agglomerations is much greater than the minimum threshold of 30,000 required to be a statutory urban town in West Bengal. This creates challenges for the rural gram panchayats that are not capable of managing diverse development activities such as mining and industry in these census towns.

Why urban recognition?

The above discussion makes it clear that in West Bengal the recognised urban population living in 127 ULBs and 780 census towns is lower than the actual urban population, and the level of non-recognised urban territories is increasing at a quick pace as a consequence of the slow process of municipalisation as well as invisibility of territorial urban expansion.

Why is recognition as a statutory urban territory, that is, ULB, important for a settlement? Three arguments may be advanced to answer this question.

First, the level of overall development accelerates with increasing urbanisation. The 2011 census data of districts in West Bengal clearly shows that there is a positive relationship between level of urbanisation and people's socio-economic condition, access to water and sanitation, and housing conditions.

Second, the urban administrative system is better equipped to provide basic infrastructure and services to settlements. In West Bengal, the new census towns, being peripheral in their location outside existing urban-industrial regions, have poor infrastructure and services as they are governed by gram panchayats that are not capable of providing services at the level of existing ULBs. There are wide gaps in the allotment of government funds to ULBs and GPs. The absence of specific funds for census towns makes the provision of basic services difficult. Constituting a municipality can generate more taxes from town inhabitants which facilitate better provision of infrastructure and services.

Third, haphazard growth in built-up areas can be checked with municipal building rules. The rules and regulations for constructing buildings are more stringent in ULBs; GPs do not have fixed rules and regulations. Neither do they have the capacity to plan and govern the emerging economic landscape.


In the present-day globalising economy, development activities in India such as mining, industry, real estate and construction mostly take place with private capital or under public-private partnerships. These activities usually take place in peripheral locations, either in special economic zones (SEZ) where generous subsidies from the government are enjoyed or in locations beyond the urban limit such as the suburbs of big cities and 'non-recognised' urban territories.

The preference for non-recognised urban territories stems from the lack of control and policing measures under poorly-equipped rural local governments. Because of the absence of regulation, under the existing governance structure non-recognised urban territories are becoming areas of anarchism. Areas experiencing increased industrial activities are often characterised by high levels of pollution and consequent degradation of the local environment. New mining activities in these areas find land acquisition and displacement issues much easier to handle. The absence of a proper governance mechanism is leading to bizarre land transformation in these new urban areas. In the process of keeping their status 'rural', local citizens suffer numerous problems, from pollution and dubious land speculation to utter neglect of basic services and infrastructure such as roads, water, sanitation, health and education.

How long can we deny urbanisation and leave non-recognised urban territories in this state?

(Gopa Samanta is Associate Professor, Department of Geography, University of Burdwan)


1 The highest level of increase (above 6%) in urban population has been experienced by districts such as Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, Malda, Murshidabad, Nadia, Haora and South 24 Parganas. Most of these districts, except Haora and South 24 Parganas, are located outside the Kolkata Metropolitan Area


Banerjee, A. 2012. 'Impact of Transport Link in Regional Development', Baramohan Singh, unpublished dissertation, Department of Regional Planning, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi
Chakravorty, S and Dasgupta, M. 2011. 'Some Aspects of Urbanisation in Eastern India', Discussion Paper, 35(2), Centre for Urban Economic Studies, University of Calcutta
Chaudhuri, B, Mazumdar, M, Teachout, M, and Marimoutou, V. 2012. 'Growth, Regional Disparity and Convergence Clubs in India: A Sectoral-Level Analysis and Decomposition', paper presented at 32nd general conference of the International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, August, 5-11, Boston
Denis, E, Mukhopadhyay, P, and Zerah, M H. 2012. 'Subaltern Urbanisation in India' Economic and Political Weekly, 47 (30): 52-62
Denis, E and Marius-Gnanou, K. 2011. 'Towards a Better Appraisal of Urbanisation in India', Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography 569
Guchhait, S K. 2005. 'Population Explosion in West Bengal: An Enquiry into its Geographical Reality', unpublished PhD thesis, Department of Geography, University of Burdwan
Khasnobis, R. 2008. 'The Economy of West Bengal', Economic and Political Weekly, 43 (52): 103-115
Mitra, S. 2010. 'Urban Settlements in West Bengal: Twentieth Century and After', Asian Studies, 28(28): 57-65
Pradhan, K C. 2012. 'Unacknowledged Urbanisation: The Census Towns of India', CPR Urban Working Paper 2, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
Roy, A. 2012. 'Transformation of Urban Agglomeration in an Agricultural Belt -- Malda', unpublished dissertation, Department of Regional Planning, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi
Samanta, G. 2012. 'In Between Rural and Urban: Challenges for Governance on Non-Recognised Urban Territories in West Bengal', Jana et al (eds), West Bengal: Geo-Spatial Issues, University of Burdwan, pp 44-57
Sarkar, A. 2011. 'Urbanisation and City Size Distribution of West Bengal', Indian Journal of Regional Sciences, 43(1): 9-16
1995. 'Urban Growth and Urban System Development in West Bengal', Geographical Review of India, 57(1): 56-69

Infochange News & Features, August 2013