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Transition towns

By Kalpana Sharma

The 74th constitutional amendment has on paper devolved power to urban local bodies. But even a cursory look at small towns reveals that elected representatives have little knowledge of their powers or responsibilities, cannot read or frame budgets and fail to generate local resources for planned development. Many of these towns are still transitioning between large village and town, with even basic public services absent, particularly for the poor

As India continues to urbanise, it is its small towns -- whose population is typically around 1 lakh or less -- that should become the focus of new research. This is the ‘other’ urban story, one located outside the metropolitan and larger cities that draw most of the attention and funds both in terms of development and research.

Many small towns are transition points between the urban and the rural. The process of moving from rural to urban throws up unique challenges that require more than standard solutions. This article, based on visits in 2009 to seven small towns in north India -- Madhubani in Bihar, Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan, Rajnandgaon and Janjgir in Chhattisgarh, Sehore in Madhya Pradesh, Narnaul in Haryana and Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh (1), attempts to set out the challenges of governing such small towns, and limitations of the existing system.

Jhunjhunu, where mohalla samitis have worked well
Jhunjhunu, where mohalla samitis have worked well

The definition of small towns used here is urban settlements with a population of less than 1 lakh although both Jhunjhunu and Mirzapur had populations exceeding 1 lakh. The Census of India differentiates between larger urban agglomerations/towns with populations in excess of 1 lakh and statutory towns and census towns. Statutory towns are places with a municipality, a cantonment board or a notified town area committee. Census towns, on the other hand, are defined as any settlement with a population of at least 5,000, a density greater than 400 persons/sq km, and with over 75% male workers in non-agricultural occupations. These would be large villages that are, in effect, transition towns. The provisional figures for the 2011 census have 4,041 statutory towns, 3,894 census towns, 475 urban agglomerations/towns and 981  outgrowths (defined as areas contiguous to a statutory town but outside the town limits, such as a railway colony, or a university area) (2).

Largely due to imperfect implementation of the 74th amendment, most small towns confront common problems. These include a finance gap that happens because of a lack of capacity at the local body to raise revenue, inadequate transfer of funds from the state or central government, and the inability to attract investors.

There is also lack of planning because the urban local body lacks the capacity to undertake land use and other forms of planning. In any case, urban planning continues to be centralised with decision-making powers vested in the central and/or state governments.

One consequence of these two shortcomings is the increase of urban poverty in small towns, with the poor being deprived of basic urban services. At the same time, the finance gap also affects the delivery of all urban services and affects poor and rich alike.

Finance gap

The 74th Constitutional Amendment Act of 1992 was meant to devolve power to urban local bodies. Yet even a cursory look at the situation in numerous small towns reveals that this has not happened uniformly. On paper, urban local bodies with powers granted under this amendment exist. But, the people elected to them have little knowledge of their powers or responsibilities.

Even where greater political autonomy was granted nominally, it has not translated into financial autonomy. Urban local bodies in small towns are usually unable to collect the few taxes they are entitled to collect such as property tax, water tax, commercial tax, vehicle tax, etc. They simply do not have the manpower for the task. As a result, they depend almost entirely on grants from the state government or centrally sponsored schemes to finance even the delivery of basic services. In turn, the poor conditions prevailing in small towns and dismal urban infrastructure deter private investors from other parts of the country from bringing fresh investment into such towns (3).

Additionally, in many urban local bodies, elected representatives are unable to read budgets. Even in a town like Mirzapur, which in 2009 had one of the most highly educated municipal bodies with four practising lawyers and several post-graduates, elected representatives were unable to formulate projects for their constituency to submit to the urban body (4). As a result, the chairperson of the urban body -- who is either directly elected or chosen by elected representatives -- and the bureaucrat, the executive officer, take most of the decisions including formulating the budget.

Centralised planning

The 74th amendment has also devolved power to urban local bodies to undertake planning for their respective urban settlements. But they face several constraints. First, they do not possess the institutional capacity to undertake local planning. Secondly, the power to plan lies in centralised bodies at the central and state levels.

While state governments have planning bodies that determine the way urban areas grow, at the Centre there is the Town and Country Planning Organisation (TCPO). This is a top-down structure under the Union Ministry of Urban Affairs, which is described as ‘an apex technical advisory and consultant organisation on matters concerning urban and regional planning strategies, research, appraisal, and monitoring of central government schemes and development policies’, (5).  Set up in 1962 after the merger of the Town Planning Organisation (TPO) established by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1955 to develop the first master plan for Delhi and the Central Regional and Urban Planning Organisation (CRUPO), which was tasked to plan for the Delhi region as well as steel towns, river valley projects, etc, TCPO became a part of the urban affairs ministry. TCPO also works with state governments and assists them in policies relating to ‘urbanisation, town planning, urban transportation, metropolitan planning, human settlement policies (and) planning legislation’ (6).

While this is being done as expertise is not easily available everywhere, particularly in smaller towns, a top-down centralised system does not necessarily serve the needs of small towns where there is no uniform pattern of growth, where there are different historical reasons that determine the way a town has developed, and where the ability to generate local resources for planned development vary. Many of these towns are still in transition between large village and town and hence do not fit into established norms of urban planning.

As required under the provisions of the 74th amendment, district planning committees comprising elected representatives are supposed to have been formed. They are expected to formulate and lay down norms for land use, amongst other things. In fact, it is rare to come across a small town -- barring a ‘company town’ such as Bhilai in Chhattisgarh -- where land use has been planned. Many small towns do not even possess an accurate town map.

The absence of planning is especially visible in the handling of urban poverty. Small towns are the first stop for many rural migrants. For many it is a transition point to a bigger city. As in larger cities, rural migrants set up base on any available open land within the town limits, or just outside. In the course of time, some of these settlements get formalised with the residents receiving land pattas. Others are shifted to the outskirts of the town. But in the majority of cases, even if some basic services like water and electricity are provided, the town’s infrastructure does not plan to accommodate these poor. Often, the poor live outside the network of underground sewerage -- if and where it exists at all -- or the electricity grid. Other services, such as removal of solid waste, also extend only partially to these areas.

Urban poverty

The incidence of poverty in small towns is often higher than in the big cities due to a combination of lower per capita income, lack of opportunities in the organised sector and fewer secondary activities. According to studies (Kundu 2001) (7), the graph for the incidence of poverty seems to follow the population size of urban settlements -- the smaller the population, the higher the percentage of people living below the poverty line. There is also evidence that along with poverty, the percentage of households without adequate access to basic amenities like drinking water, toilets and electricity increases in proportion to population as the size of the town decreases.
Thus, poor management of municipal affairs, linked to finance but also to the capability of those running the urban local body, affects poor communities most. Services such as sewerage or water supply are skewed in favour of the privileged. Most slum settlements are underserved, or not provided with any of these basic urban services.

The contrast is particularly stark in older towns that have a colonial history. Here the deliberate division between the company town and the kasbah remains entrenched despite the end of colonial rule. Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh for example is typical of such towns. The old city is a maze of extremely narrow roads while the sarkari area is neat and orderly with prized locations overlooking the river reserved for the bungalows of government officials. Sewerage lines in this part of the town skip the areas where the poorest communities live. An estimated 29% of Mirzapur’s population of 205,264 (2001 census) is poor, living in one of the 51 listed slum colonies. Many of these colonies have no water or electricity.

Delivery of services

Another consequence of poorly managed finance is the failure of municipal bodies to deliver basic urban services. The management of solid waste in small towns is a particularly useful indicator to judge the efficiency of urban local bodies. Metropolitan cities are better provided with both water and solid waste management systems than other urban centres. In fact, only one-third of Class I cities and one-fifth of small towns have sewerage systems. Clearly, as investment levels are higher in the former due to concentration of population, their residents are better served (8).

For efficient solid waste management (SWM), considerable capital investment is needed. In metros, motorised transport is used to collect and dispose of solid waste. There are funds to ensure that these vehicles are well maintained. Some small towns might have vehicles but more often than not these cannot be used because of poor maintenance. As a result, they are dependent on manual collection or using cycle rickshaws.

Many municipal bodies in small towns do not have the funds to transport solid waste to dumps outside the urban area. As a result, waste is dumped within town limits. Hence, while in Mirzapur you see piles of garbage alongside the temples that dot the banks of the river Ganga, empty plots within town limits inevitably become garbage dumps in other towns.

Experiments in local democracy

Despite the apparent failure of urban local bodies and the crisis in the delivery of services, many smaller towns are throwing up interesting experiments in local democracy. In the 74th amendment, the concept of citizen involvement in running urban areas has been incorporated within the idea of ward committees. However, while ward committees are mandatory in towns with a population exceeding 3 lakh, small towns such as the ones mentioned above do not have to follow this rule. As a result there is no formal mechanism for citizen participation or consultation. 

A number of non-governmental organisations working in small towns have tried to organise people at the neighbourhood level through mohalla samitis. The results have been mixed. This writer observed some of this variation during visits to the seven small towns, where a clear sense emerged of where neighbourhood organisations worked and could be sustained, and where they did not.

In Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan, the mohalla samiti experiment has worked quite well in middle class housing colonies. Here, even though the residents are not a homogenous group in terms of caste, they are largely Hindu and from the upper and middle castes. They also are in the bracket of people who are able to buy their own homes.

With the municipal body unable to keep the neighbourhood clean, a number of localities in Jhunjhunu have set up their own mohalla samitis that pay extra to the municipal sweeper to clean the open drains. In some neighbourhoods, people have turned vacant plots that had become garbage dumps into gardens. The municipal body has now adopted this by contributing 70% of the cost, expecting the neighbourhood group to raise the remaining 30%.

In poorer areas, the mohalla idea has worked where there is already an established group that has come together on an issue. For instance, in Narnaul’s Nai Basti, Nari Network, a women’s self-help group, already existed. This group has now extended itself to dealing with solid waste and water problems in the neighbourhood. The women’s determination has yielded some results, but they are limited by the fact that decisions, such as extending the water network to their mohalla, or laying sewerage lines that exist elsewhere in Narnaul but have not been laid here, are outside their remit. 


There is a lot of untapped potential in small towns. Many of them are the exact size where interventions that are designed to meet their specific needs could transform these urban settlements into ecologically sustainable models of urban development. But for this to happen, research must precede the formulation of urban policies. For instance, ideally, town plans for small towns should be the result of consultation and involvement with all classes of residents. Through such a process, backed by adequate research, a more useful and sustainable town plan could emerge instead of the current tendency of adapting generic town plans for each location.

Another area that needs to be explored is whether and how the 74th amendment is being implemented in small towns, and how the efficiency of the urban local body can be enhanced. Such research should specifically address the question of the financial health of urban local bodies and how they can generate more income, thereby reducing their current dependence on state and central grants.

Lastly, the efficacy of the provision for citizen participation in the 74th amendment needs a closer look. Has the provision been implemented? Has it worked? Have citizens felt that their voices have been heard? The examples above suggest that for citizen initiatives to be sustained, a system of consultation between the governed and those who govern needs to be put in place. In the absence of such a system, only a few groups -- more often than not middle class and educated -- will persist while others will inevitably give up.

(This article is an abbreviated version of a paper that appeared in the Review of Urban Affairs in the Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLVII No 30, July 28, 2012,

(Kalpana Sharma is an independent journalist, columnist and media consultant based in Mumbai. She writes a fortnightly column in The Hindu titled The Other Half. Until 2007, Kalpana was Deputy Editor and Chief of Bureau of The Hindu in Mumbai. Environmental, developmental and gender issues are her special areas of interest. Kalpana has also followed and commented on urban issues, especially in the context of Mumbai's development. She is the author of Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia's Largest Slum (Penguin 2000))


1 These visits were facilitated by PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia) for a monograph by the author, ‘India’s Small and Medium Towns: A Story of Lost Opportunities’, March 2009. The purpose of the study was to look at implementation of the 74th amendment, whether elected representatives were aware of their rights and duties, whether local community groups were satisfied with their performance, and whether these groups had tried to intervene in the delivery of basic services such as solid waste disposal. This paper goes beyond the largely descriptive documentation of the small towns in the monograph and attempts to suggest an agenda for future research that would contribute towards formulating a policy for small towns
2 Census of India 2011, ‘Provisional Population Totals Urban Agglomerations and Cities’
3  K C Sivaramakrishnan, Amitabh Kundu, B N Singh in Handbook of Urbanisation in India, Oxford University Press, 2005, page 52
4 In an interview during the visit, the commissioner of Mirzapur, Satyajit Thakur, IAS, said: “Ward members are supposed to formulate projects and submit them. They should generate some income. They do not even use the resources that they have. They are highly politicised and discriminate on that basis. They are not even collecting the taxes that they can. They keep on hoping that the government will help. It is not as if they do not have the money. They cannot even pay their employees.” (Mirzapur, February 27, 2009)
5 (accessed May 2012)
6 (accessed May 2012)
7 ‘Industrial Growth in Small and Medium Towns and Their Vertical Integration: The Case of Gobindgarh, Punjab, India’ by Amitabh Kundu and Sutinder Bhatia. Management of Social Transformations-MOST.  Discussion Paper No 57 (accessed May 2012)
8 ‘Status of Water Supply and Solid Waste Management in Urban Areas’, National Institute of Urban Affairs, June 2005

Infochange News & Features, August 2013