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The ‘other’ urban India

By Partha Mukhopadhyay

The most vibrant, people-driven process of urbanisation is occurring outside the large metropolises which dominate popular imagination. It is not directed by the state, as in Chandigarh and Bhubaneswar, nor developed by the private sector, as in Mundhra or Mithapur. It is the result of decisions about livelihood and residence made by thousands of individuals that coalesce to transform a ‘village’ into a census town

BKC and the bazaar

The imagination of the new urban India is dominated by the clumps of glass and steel that have sprung up seemingly overnight in Gurgaon, near Delhi. Pieces of this fantasy also litter the periphery of Bangalore, the IT corridor of Chennai, the sterile bubble of Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) in Mumbai, in the improbably named locality of ‘Cyberabad’ in Hyderabad, and many other aspiring locations around the country. This imagination knows no political boundaries. In West Bengal, the desperation of the erstwhile Left Front government’s attempt is evident in the name it chose for Kolkata’s shiny little corner -- Nabadiganta (new horizons).

Attracted by these shiny new facades, the people of rural India are supposed to migrate in their millions to the large cities that generate an increasingly larger share of our national income, much as the millions of Chinese have done, from the Sichuans to the Shanghais and Shenzhens, powering the inexorable Chinese growth machine that our decision-makers envy.

The fact that they are not doing so in large enough numbers causes much handwringing about the slow pace of urbanisation in India and some secret (and not so secret [1]) relief that our overstretched large cities have not yet been called upon to accommodate this horde. Ergo, the frenzied investment in urban infrastructure, qua JNNURM, and the new cities sought to be incubated in private ‘special’ economic regions like Lavasa, Mundhra, Sri City and the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor -- a throwback to the times when public sector townships like Bhilai, Bhubaneswar, Chandigarh, Durgapur and Salem were to be the new urban India.

This imagination is far removed from the bustling, chaotic, commercial frenzy of the Indian bazaar evoked by earlier characterisations of urban India. Yet, the janta who brought the bazaar to life continue their determined march, unseen by the media that remains, with few exceptions, dazzled by the light reflecting off the shiny glass facades of this new urban India.

In the last 10 years, the reclassification of settlements from rural to urban is responsible for almost a third of the growth in urban population, while migration appears to account for less, about a fourth, with the rest being the normal natural increase in pre-existing urban areas. The character of this change challenges many preconceptions, especially simple equations of urbanisation to migration.

Is India’s urbanisation undercounted?

The Census of India’s three-fold definition of urban settlements, by size (more than 5,000), density (more than 400 persons per sq km) and especially structure of economic activity (more than 75% of male workforce in non-farm occupations) is unique. Indeed, only six countries use economic activity as a criterion for defining an urban area (none of the other five also use size and density together). This matters, because in 2001 around 56% of India’s villagers lived in settlements that were denser than 400 persons per sq km and 22% of the rural population was in villages of more than 5,000 persons. By contrast, less than 8% of the population lives in rural settlements that meet the economic structure criterion. Thus, the low level of urbanisation in India can partly be attributed to the definition used by the census, in particular the economic criterion.

Further, since the census decides on which settlements are urban before the actual census is conducted, it is possible that the ex-ante and ex-post classification of settlements can differ. It turns out that in 2001, 28.1 million people (about 10% of the urban population at that time) in 2,375 settlements were urban, but were not recognised as such by the census. So, by the census’ own criteria, the urbanisation rate in 2001 was actually 30.5% instead of 27.8%.

The use of criteria other than that of the census can change this perspective considerably. Uchida and Nelson (2008) measured the proportion of people living within an hour’s travel time of large (more than 50,000 persons) urban settlements. They found that, in 2001, this turned out to be 52% of the Indian population, as compared to China’s 36%. So, by this measure at that time, India was more urbanised than China. Another approach, by Denis and Marius-Gnanou (2011), measured the share of population living in contiguous (defined as less than 200 metres apart) built-up areas of more than 10,000 people, based on satellite images matched geo-spatially with the population of settlements from the census. They found that 37% lived in such closely built-up settlements, as compared to 26% measured by the census (2).

How urban is a settlement that is an hour away from a large town or a settlement of more than 10,000 people living in a closely built-up area? If such settlements are seen as urban, there will be many more small towns in India as compared to those currently acknowledged by the census. But, the census is liberal compared to administrative definitions which ignore about one in seven urban residents that continue to live under rural administration -- in census towns.

Do settlements want to be urban?

It would be inaccurate to suggest that the lack of urban status is solely a result of denial by the state. There is a reticence in becoming urban, which becomes evident when there is resistance to change in status, for example in Vasai-Virar, where 29 villages protested inclusion into the new Vasai-Virar Municipal Corporation. They were taken out by the government but this exclusion was challenged in the courts by the Vasai-Virar Municipal Corporation. Similarly, in Tamil Nadu, when the urban status of over 500 town panchayats that were previously reclassified into villages was sought to be restored, 28 settlements wished to remain villages (they were not allowed to do so). In addition to incentives to remain rural such as lower taxation, cheaper power and the absence of urban by-laws and regulations, mentioned by Bhagat (2005), there is also the change in political configurations that occur as panchayats are subsumed into municipal corporations. These relate to the change in the personal influence of specific political leaders and the relative autonomy of local government in rural (possibly more) and urban areas (possibly less). There may thus be specific cases where locally powerful elements would prefer the settlement to remain rural.

Census towns

Census towns are administratively rural settlements that manage to satisfy the three-fold definition of the Census of India referred to above for being urban but are not recognised as urban by the government for administrative purposes, that is they are still governed by a gram panchayat. In the last 10 years, their share of urban population doubled from about 7% to around 15%. Nor was this growth around the large cities. Figure 1 shows that about two-thirds of the population in the new census towns that were recognised in the census of 2011 were not near even a Class I town (population of more than 100,000). Indeed, only 13% of the population in such towns was near large cities of over a million.

Almost the entire growth in urban population in Kerala, which saw its share of urban population rise to 48%, can be attributed to the recognition of new census towns, and while Kerala may be dismissed as an exception given its unique desakota form of settlement, new census towns are responsible for much of the urban growth even in states like Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal. Census towns are responsible for almost all of the growth due to reclassification over 2001-11. Unlike statutory towns, where about a fourth is more than 50,000 in population (almost three-fourths of the urban population lives in these larger statutory towns, a proportion that has declined in the last 10 years), few census towns are that large, though some are. But, since they are sites of spontaneous growth related to the market economy, it is likely that some of these can become quite large, quite soon.

Figure 1: Share of population of new census towns by proximity to large cities

Source: Based on Pradhan (2012)


Small beginnings of large cities

The share of cities that already had more than a million people in 2001 decreased slightly from 25.6% to 24.8%, implying that these settlements grew a little slower than the rest of urban India. However, new million-plus cities emerged and the share of such cities overall grew to 30.7%. A few other cities on the threshold, like Bareilly, Tiruppur, Sholapur and Gurgaon, are likely to cross over soon if they have not done so already. Many of these towns started small. Settlements like Nashik and Aurangabad in Maharashtra, Surat and Vapi in Gujarat and Miryalaguda in Andhra Pradesh have grown by over 10 times in the last 50 years. Such small towns are proto-large towns.

However, not all small towns need to grow in order to be successful and functional. Gobindgarh, a Class II town in Punjab, has functioned as a successful commercial hub of mini-steel mills while small in size (Kundu and Bhatia 2002). Similarly, Harda in Madhya Pradesh has functioned effectively as a market hub while staying a similar size (Krishnamurthy 2011).


The process of urbanisation reflected in the growth of small towns and census towns is not directed by the state, as in Chandigarh and Bhubaneswar, nor developed by the private sector, as in Mundhra or Mithapur. Instead, it is the result of decisions about livelihood and residence made by thousands of individuals that coalesce to transform a ‘village’ into a census town. These settlements are important because they embody a vibrant people-driven, market-centred process, in contrast to the many derelict state-promoted industrial estates that dot the countryside.  Many of them will grow into large cities and others will provide quiet but significant support to India’s transformation. Ignoring them will not only diminish our understanding of this change, it will also keep our urban policy reactive, rather than proactive, anticipating sites of change and movement.

As urbanisation spreads through the Indian countryside, it will take a myriad such forms, many of them repugnant to the regulations of the town and country planning laws and the visualisations of bureaucrats bedazzled by the orderliness of western societies where urbanism has not just matured, but is well on its way to gerontocratic gentility. They will, in despair, try to hold on to the threatened neatness of Chandigarh and turn to the promised beauty of the Lavasas and such townships, premised on a gated exclusion. At such times, they would be wise to turn for advice to the architect, Le Corbusier. When confronted with the changes that residents had made to his housing project at Pessac, he said (Boudon 1979: 2): “Vous savez, c’est toujours la vie qui a raison, l’architecte qui a tort.” (You know, it is always life that is right and the architect who is wrong.) 

(Partha Mukhopadhyay is with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)

1 Delhi’s population growth rate has fallen from over 4% per year in the last four decades to less than 2% in the last 10 years, but one of those still openly worried about migration is its chief minister, Sheila Dikshit. At the 57th meeting of the National Development Council, she is reported as saying: “Delhi's burgeoning population trend is further exacerbated by the continuous and unbridled influx of people from all over the country. Higher wages, better educational and healthcare facilities, more employment opportunities are some of the factors responsible for the continuous influx.” (Times of India, December 28, 2012) Last accessed December 28, 2012 at
2 This is the share of population living in urban settlements of more than 10,000 people, as distinct from the total urban population share of 27.8%

Bhagat, Ram B (2005). ‘Rural-Urban Classification and Municipal Governance in India’, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 26 (1): 61-73
Boudon, Philippe (1979). Lived-in Architecture: Le Corbusier’s Pessac Revisited (translated by Gerald Onn). MIT Press, Cambridge
Denis, Eric and Kamala Marius-Gnanou (2011). ‘Toward a Better Appraisal of Urbanisation in India’, Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography, 569
Krishnamurthy, M (2011). ‘Harda Mandi: Experiencing Change in an Agricultural Market in Central India (1980-2010)’, doctoral thesis, University College, London
Kundu, Amitabh and Sutinder Bhatia (2002). ‘Industrial Growth in Small and Medium Towns and Their Vertical Integration: The Case of Gobindgarh, Punjab, India’, Management of Social Transformation Discussion Paper 57, United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, Paris
Pradhan, K C (2012). ‘Unacknowledged Urbanisation: The Census Towns of India’ CPR Urban Working Paper 2, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
Uchida, H and Nelson, A (2010). ‘Agglomeration Index: Towards a New Measure of Urban Concentration’, Working Paper 2010/29, United Nations University-World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER), Helsinki

Infochange News & Features, August 2013