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Size matters

By R B Bhagat

Size clearly matters in the hierarchy of urban agglomerations. Most programmes including JNNURM are directed at the big cities. Basic civic services including electricity, sanitation and clean drinking water for the poor in small cities and towns are abysmal, and hardly better than rural areas. The widening gap in income levels between rural and urban areas cannot be bridged without developing small cities and towns

The relationship between urbanisation and human wellbeing has been a matter of intense debate, with over-urbanisation evoking a negative response in spite of the fact that it has no empirical basis (Sovani 1964). Since the start of the Eleventh Five-Year Plan, however, urbanisation has been recognised as a positive factor in India's economic development. This is because about 60-65% of GDP accrues from urban areas (Planning Commission 2008). In the Twelfth Five-Year Plan (2012-17), the urban transition is being considered a major challenge requiring massive expansion in urban infrastructure and services (Ahluwalia 2011).

With increasing urbanisation human wellbeing should have been rising, but it is not. Our urban areas are known for poor provision of civic amenities like water and sanitation, and are burdened with air pollution, traffic congestion and electricity failures. Small cities and towns suffer most.

In this respect, former President Abdul Kalam's suggestion of PURA (Providing Urban Amenities to Rural Areas) -- focusing policy and programmem on small cities and towns -- assumes significance (Kalam 2003).

There are around 8,000 cities and towns in India varying enormously in size and pace of growth. Their growth potential differs according to economic base, employment opportunities and living conditions. The Mumbai Urban Agglomeration comprises 18.4 million people according to the 2011 census whereas the smallest town has a population of less than 5,000. It would be interesting to learn how civic amenities vary in the entire spectrum of urban space and the consequent challenges to urban development. This article questions the extent to which civic amenities differ among the urban poor by urban hierarchy.

There is no doubt that the big cities have benefited more through the agglomeration economy. Most programmes flow to the big cities, while small cities and towns have been relegated to the background. This clearly ignores the fact that better rural and urban linkages can be established only by developing small cities and towns. There has been a serious lack of vision regarding small cities and towns, where the urban poor are severely deprived of civic amenities. The information presented here pertains to NFHS 3 (National Family Health Survey 3) for the year 2005-06 which assessed a variety of household assets and amenities by size class of cities and towns. In NFHS 3, cities and towns are classified as mega city (more than 5 million), large city (1-5 million), small city (1 lakh to 1 million), large towns (50,000 to 1 lakh) and small towns (less than 50,000).

Access to civic amenities in small cities and towns

India's 8,000-odd cities and towns have varied economic bases and ability to generate resources from tax and non-tax sources. Big cities have higher employment in the organised sector compared to small urban centres. In many small urban centres, a sizeable proportion of the workforce is also dependent on agriculture (Kundu, Bagchi, Kundu 1999). Thus, size as a measure of urban centre not only reflects population concentration but also its economic strength. The provision of civic services is expected to be directly related to the size of the urban centre. An earlier study showed that civic amenities like access to electricity, drinking water, clean fuel (LPG), and waste water outlets were positively associated with the size class of urban centres. However, this was not true for toilet facilities because of the large presence of slums in big cities (Bhagat 2011). But when we look at more recent data and take only flush toilets, the disadvantage for small towns and cities is distinctly evident. There is substantial variation in toilet facilities, with mega cities showing 96% access to any flush toilet compared to 64% for households with access to flush toilets in small towns. The same is true for LPG (see Table 1).

At the state level, the situation remains unchanged. Small cities and towns in poorer states like Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh show much lower provision of civic services compared to small cities and towns in better-off states like Punjab, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka. Thus, within the same size class, inter-state disparities continue to manifest (Bhagat 2011).

Table 1: Percentage of households with access to selected civic amenities by size class of urban centres, 2005-06

Electricity Flush toilet Improved source of drinking water LPG Sampled households
Mega city (5 million and more) 99.1 96.2 89.7 75.2 7,672
Large city (1 million to 5 million) 95.9 87.4 97.0 70.4 16,166
Small city (1 lakh to 1 million) 93.6 80.9 95.0 57.9 7,759
Large town (50,000 to 1 lakh) 90.2 79.6 96.3 53.4 4,116
Small town (less than 50,000) 89.2 64.6 92.3 46.2 14,511
All urban areas 93.1 78.7 94.1 58.7 50,224
Source: National Family Health Survey, 2005-2006

The poor in small cities and towns

While households in small cities and towns have low access to civic amenities, poor households living in them are much worse off. The NFHS also provided data on civic amenities by wealth index, to measure the economic status of households. The wealth index was constructed using household assets and housing characteristics. (The NFHS 3 wealth index is based on the following 33 assets and housing characteristics: household electrification; type of windows; drinking water source; type of toilet facility; type of flooring; material of exterior walls; type of roofing; cooking fuel; house ownership; number of household members per sleeping room; ownership of a bank or post-office account; and ownership of a mattress, pressure cooker, chair, cot/bed, table, electric fan, radio/transistor, black-and-white television, colour television, sewing machine, mobile telephone, any other telephone, computer, refrigerator, watch or clock, bicycle, motorcycle or scooter, animal-drawn cart, car, water pump, thresher, tractor, etc, [International Institute for Population Sciences and Macro, 2007].) The sample is then divided into five quintiles, that is, five groups with an equal number of households in each group. Access to civic amenities for households in the lowest two quintiles (the bottom 40% of households), who mostly constitute the urban poor, are presented in Table 2.

Table 2: Access to civic amenities among urban poor (bottom 40% in wealth quintile) by size class of cities and towns, 2005-06
Size class Electricity Any toilet facility Improved source of drinking water LPG
Mega city (more than 5 million ) 75.6 51.8 97.0 1.3
Large city (1-5 million) 49.6 38.1 96.8 2.0
Small city (1 lakh to 1 million) 52.8 24.3 86.3 1.0
Large town (50,000- 1 lakh) 43.0 20.9 94.3 0.0
Small town (less than 50,000) 51.8 20.5 89.8 0.6
Source: National Family Health Survey, 2005-06

One-fifth of the urban poor in small towns have access to toilet facilities whereas this increases to more than half of households in mega cities. The gap in access to electricity among poor households across size class is also huge. About 75% of poor households in mega cities have access to electricity compared to about 50% of households in small towns (see Table 2).These two indicators distinctly show that the poor in small cities and towns are hugely deprived of access to certain civic amenities that are essential for a good life and survival.

The reason for the extreme deprivation in small cities and towns in general and the urban poor in particular lies in their poor economic base, lack of planning and resources and support from state governments. Many of these small towns are still governed by rural local bodies like panchayats (Bhagat 2005). Thus in actual practice, both administratively and economically they are not treated differently from villages, although demographically small cities and towns are growing as fast as big cities due to their higher natural increase (Bhagat and Mohanty 2009).

The poor in small cities and towns are no different from the rural poor in terms of access to healthcare. Several studies have shown that out-of-pocket expenditure among the poor is huge in India (about 70%), keeping them in a vicious circle of poverty (High-Level Expert Group on Universal Health Coverage 2011). The spatial exclusion of urban poor leading to their concentration in small cities and towns seems to be a logical outcome of the forces of development as well as exclusionary urban policies and programmes that were followed more specifically during the last two decades of neo-liberalism.

Conclusions and suggestions

The evidence suggests that access to civic amenities varies in accordance with the size categories of cities and towns. Small cities and towns fare the worst in access to civic services like electricity, LPG, flush toilets and improved sources of drinking water. The small cities and towns located in low-income states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh show poorer access to civic amenities compared to small cities and towns in high-income states like Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Further, the urban poor living in small cities and towns are hugely deprived of access to civic amenities compared with the urban poor living in big cities. India's urban policies and programmes, which are mostly sponsored by the central government, focus on big cities. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), a flagship programme of the UPA government, is one such example. India's numerous small cities and towns that are close to rural areas have enormous potential to work as catalysts for rural development. Ironically, urban development in the country is a state subject and state governments have neither the resources nor the vision to develop small cities and towns in synergy with rural areas. On the other hand, centrally sponsored schemes are partly responsible for thwarting the state's agency and perpetuating their dependence on the central government both in terms of vision and resources.

It is time to implement the strategies of PURA to boost rural industrialisation and opportunities for off-farm employment for the large number of rural unemployed youth in order to raise income levels of the rural populace who constitute two-thirds of India's population and contribute a mere one-third to GDP. There is a widening gap in income levels between rural and urban areas that cannot be bridged without developing small cities and towns.

(R B Bhagat is Professor and Head, Department of Migration and Urban Studies, International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai)


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Infochange News & Features, August 2013