Last updateSat, 22 Jul 2017 6am

You are here: Home | Agenda | Urbanisation | Exclusionary cities: The exodus that wasn’t

Exclusionary cities: The exodus that wasn’t

By Amitabh Kundu

Yes, the urban population increased more in absolute terms during 2001-11 than rural population. But, no, this is not because distressed agricultural workers are pouring into cities. It’s because census activism has tripled the number of urban centres in Census 2011. In fact, exclusionary policies are discouraging the inflow of rural poor into the mega cities

An innocuous fact that urban population during 2001-11 has increased by a larger number than rural population in absolute terms has led to speculation about an alarming pace of urbanisation and distress migration from rural areas to towns and cities in India. The underlying data and emergent concerns need immediate contextualisation and clarification.

It is indeed true that the phenomenon of incremental urban population being higher than that in rural areas has not before been witnessed in the history of India, except during 1911-21. This period was indeed unique as urban population grew at a very low rate of 0.3% per year and yet the increase in population was higher than that in rural areas since both rural as well as total population registered a decline. This has been attributed basically to a virulent influenza epidemic between 1918 and 1920 which killed millions, particularly in rural India, and led to an exodus from there. Besides, World War I killed thousands of Indian soldiers, contributing to the decline in population.

Can one attribute the increment in urban population being larger than rural population during 2001-11 to an equally catastrophic tragedy -- the collapse of livelihoods in agriculture and related occupations? The emotional appeal of the thesis of a despair-driven exodus from rural areas is so very strong that it has found immediate acceptability among progressive writers concerned with society (Sainath 2011, Patnaik 2011), without much probing into the empirical issues. It would also be important to determine whether there is indeed a rural exodus, which class of cities is absorbing these migrants, and what the vision for future urbanisation is.

Components of urban growth

The annual exponential growth rate of ur­ban population during 2001-11 works out to 2.76%, which is higher than the figure of 2.73% recorded in the preceding decade, only in the second decimal point. Urban growth remaining constant and even registering a marginal increase, against the projection of a decline in growth by the registrar general and census commissioner, has prompted experts to attribute this to an accelerated pace of rural-urban (RU) migration. Unfortunately, they have neither analysed the evidence on migration available or derivable from sources like the National Sample Survey and population census nor have they probed the contributions of the four components of urban growth: (a) natural increase, (b) migration, (c) emergence of new urban centres, and (d) expansion in municipal limits and urban agglomerations, before advancing the thesis of distress-induced urbanisation.

The marginal increase in urban growth cannot be attributed to a spurt in natural growth in population as the latter has declined more or less uniformly both in urban and rural areas during the last couple of decades. In 2006, Census of India projected a deceleration in urban growth until 2020 based on past trends and indications of a continuous fall in natural growth (birth rate less than death rate) from Sample Registration System data -- from 17.4 per 1,000 in 1999 to 15.2 per 1,000 in 2009 -- since the decline in birth rate has been sharper than that in the death rate. Understandably, the annual growth rate in population in the present decade is 1.62% only, going down from 1.95% in the preceding decade. The increase in natural growth of population can thus be dismissed as an explanatory factor for the rise in urban growth.

Data from the 45th and 64th rounds of the National Sample Survey suggest that migration due to economic compulsions has reduced among rural-urban migrants. Also, the share of adult male migrants in the corresponding adult male population in urban areas has declined from 32% in 1999-2000 to 31% in 2007-08. These undermine the possibility of migration to existing urban centres being a factor in the growth of urban population.

The ‘impetus to urbanisation’ has undoubtedly come from the last two components of growth noted above, manifest in an increase in the number of new census towns and urban agglomerations in 2011. It may be observed that the total number of urban centres in India has increased sluggishly, at a rate much slower than the urban population, during the 10 decades of the last century. The number had gone up by only 2,541. However, now, in just one decade, the number has shot up by 2,774. The jump in the number of census towns from 1,362 to 3,894 is unprecedented and is being attributed to census activism, as the office of the registrar general has been under tremendous academic and administrative pressure to review its methodology for collecting data on urban centres (Kundu 2011). The last component of urban growth -- emergence of new agglomerations, comprising continuous urban spread over adjoining towns, villages and their outgrowths, too, has contributed to the growth. The number of such outgrowths had not gone up, according to the 2001 census, partly due to the application of a slightly stringent criterion for their identification. In sharp contrast to this, the 2011 census reports 90 new agglomerations that include a large majority of new towns, particularly in the states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Decline in demographic growth in mega cities

The most significant trend emerging from the district- and city-level data released so far from the 2011 population census is that mega cities with a population over 4 million have not grown at a rapid pace. A press release from the Ministry of Urban Development, dated November 30, 2011, suggests that cities with a population between 1 and 4 million have grown at a rate 50% higher than that of 4-million-plus cities. The census, unfortunately, is yet to report the growth rates of different cities and towns during 1901-11, after making adjustments in the base year population for the inclusion of new towns. It is nonetheless possible to draw inferences regarding select large cities based on population figures at the district or regional level. Two predominantly urban regions, the national capital terri­tory of Delhi and the union territory of Chandigarh (with over 90% of their population living in urban areas) have reported their lowest growth rates in history during 2001-11. The decline in demographic growth in districts that fully or partly fall within metro cities or agglomerations further con­firms this hypothesis. Mumbai district, com­prising the island city, has reported a decline in population in absolute terms by 0.6% per annum during 2001-11, implying substantial out-migration. Mumbai suburb dis­trict also records a decline in growth rate from 2.5% to 0.8%. The story is similar in Chen­nai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Kolkata and other mega cities, as their central districts have re­corded the lowest growth since Independ­ence. Lucknow and Kanpur too report a de­celeration in growth rates compared to the preceding decade. The only notable ex­ception seems to be Bangalore. The high demographic growth here has been attributed to sub­stantial area expansion and the rapid growth of the high-tech industry.

The drastic reduc­tion in population growth in most mega cities sug­gests that the process of ‘formalisation’ has discouraged in-migration of the rural poor. The thrust of demographic and economic growth can be seen as shifting, to an extent, from mega cities to second-tier cities with populations of between 1 and 4 million and even smaller cities with over 1 lakh population, although the growth rates of the latter too have declined in recent years. The growth rate of population in cities with a population of between 0.1 and 1 million has declined from 2.96% during 1981-91 to 2.76% in 1991-2001 to 2.45% during 2001-11, but that is less than the decline in mega cities.

Factors constraining growth in large cities

A process of ‘sanitisation and formalisation’ seems to be discouraging the inflow of rural poor into many of the million-plus cities, resulting in exclusionary urban growth. This has come in the way of the poor in deprived regions using migration as a window of opportunity to improve their economic wellbeing. In the new system of urban governance, civil society organisations, particularly resident welfare associations, have become active and vocal, with the objective of ensuring the safety of their residents, better delivery of public amenities and more efficient management of development projects. In the process, these organisations, mostly representing the interests of better-off formal colonies, have tried to sanitise their neighbourhoods by removing encroachments, slums, squatter settlements and petty commercial establishments. The courts have taken a serious view of public interest litigations filed by these organisations and other concerned individuals, and have often directed local authorities to remove ‘undesirable forms of urban growth’. Such measures have led to an improvement in the quality of life in formal colonies but, in turn, have accentuated disparities in the level of amenities across colonies in cities. This has made life very difficult for the poor and has contributed to a deceleration in rural-urban migration.

Given the resource constraints of urban local bodies (ULBs), financial institutions, international donors and credit-rating agencies have come up with innovative arrangements for resource mobilisation. The system of allowing tradable extra floor area (FSI) has been a convenient method of resource mobilisation. Although the basic idea is to promote greater land-use efficiency, this process has made the absorption of poor migrants much more difficult, promoting spatial segmentation and separation of rich and poor.

A large number of cities have adopted policies of privatisation, partnership arrangements and promotion of community-based projects to lessen the pressure on their budgetary resources. Infrastructural projects sub-contracted to private agencies or launched under public-private partnerships mostly have stipulations of cost recovery, aimed at making the projects financially self-sustaining. However, low-income neighbourhoods find it difficult to meet these stipulations. The same occurs in relation to public sector projects that are becoming increasingly dependent on institutional borrowings and capital markets. These accentuate the gap between rich and poor localities, particularly in the context of water and sanitation facilities, resulting in serious problems of health and hygiene for the entire city. Growing disparities in the quality of the micro-environment have also contributed to problems of law and order, resulting in violence. All these lead to low population absorptive capacity of the poor in cities.

A massive programme for infrastructural investment through additional central assistance coming to state/city governments as grants, was launched in the Eleventh Plan under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), restricted largely to large cities. The key objective is to get state and local governments to commit themselves to structural reforms. An overview of projects and schemes launched in different cities reveals that most projects have been designed to increase total capacity services such as water supply, sanitation and sewer treatment, as well as roads, with no explicit provision to improve the delivery of such facilities in deficient areas. The Mission attempted to improve the living conditions of the poor through integrated housing projects, implemented through state governments and local bodies and with the engagement of private agencies. It provided subsidised dwelling units to groups of people with administrative or political clout or those occupying prime land needed to improve city infrastructure, thus contributing to the ‘sanitisation’ and protecting commercial interests. Within the framework of such a policy, the diminished inflow of rural poor into large cities is the expected outcome, as manifest in low population growth in JNNURM cities.

A vision for the future

By conservative estimates, India will have about 400 million additional people in the labour force by the year 2050. Agriculture and related activities that provide subsistence to around 220 million of the current workforce of 500 million cannot absorb this additional labour without further reducing levels of earnings. There has to be, therefore, a massive transfer of people from primary to secondary and tertiary sectors, and from rural to urban areas. One way of operationalising this transfer would be to adopt more inclusive policies in cities, ensuring that they absorb a large part of the rural-urban transfer by creating industrial and service employment on a large scale. Unfortunately, there will be socio-political resistance to this in many of the million-plus cities. Recent studies show (Ghani 2012) that plants in the formal sector are moving away from mega cities into lower-order cities or rural locations, while the informal sector is moving into these cities. In fact, many chemical and manufacturing plants are being expelled from the core to degenerating peripheries and the share of the organised manufacturing base in a large majority of million-plus cities has gone down due to environmental concerns at the micro level (linked to quality of life of the upper and middle class), scarcity of land, and problems of organised labour. Urban-rural cost differentials have risen because of privatisation of many basic amenities, increase in user charges and stricter bylaws and building norms in cities, resulting in a pushing out of the poor or their low in-migration rate.

It is the non-polluting tertiary activities and growth of select informal sector that are driving the limited urbanisation in million-plus cities, their number going up from 35 in 2001 to 52 in 2011. Given that these cities will remain exclusionary, it would make sense to provide more support to potentially successful small and medium-sized Class I cities, so that they can provide employment at a reasonable level of productivity and earnings for the growing labour force. It is important for Indian policymakers to recognise that much of the current population growth will occur in the unorganised sector in the lower-order cities. This will require a different kind of skill-formation and infrastructural support. Besides, there are over 2,500 new census towns where basic services can be strengthened under a scheme such as JNNURM. This will necessitate a change in mindset for planners working under the paradigm of economies of agglomeration and ‘reshaping economic geography’. An inclusionary approach would be more successful in promoting development in these cities by focusing on the informal sector and labour-absorptive technology. The more Indian cities recognise this influx, and design policies and investments to support it, the more effective will be policy interventions. Inclusionary policies must ensure that informal livelihoods are integrated into urban plans, land allocation systems and zoning regulations, and that the unorganised workforce gains access to markets and to basic amenities.

(Dr Amitabh Kundu is Professor of Economics at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, and Dean of the School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has authored several books including India: Social Development Report (Chief Editor), Oxford University Press, and Handbook of Urbanisation (with Sivaramakrishnan and Singh), OUP)


Ghani, E et al. 2012. ‘Is India’s Manufacturing Sector Moving Away From Cities?’, Working Paper 17992, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge
Kundu, A. 2011. ‘Method in Madness: Urban Data from 2011 Census’, Economic and Political Weekly, October 1, Vol XLVI, No 40, pp 13-16
Patnaik, U. 2011. ‘Two Decades of Neo-Liberal Reforms in India: The Worsening Employment Situation’, Monthly Review, August 2, 2011
Sainath, P. 2011. ‘Census Findings Point to Decade of Rural Distress’, The Hindu, Mumbai, September 25, 2011

Infochange News & Features, August 2013