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53 million-plus cities vs 355 million-plus districts

As long as the fixation with high economic growth rates continues, the focus in India will be on urban growth, at the expense of rural resilience, writes Rahul Goswami in this analysis of important data on rural India thrown up by Census 2011

The regular release of data by the Census of India is slowly building up the picture of human development and social sector gaps over the last decade. When read together with the large body of field and social science study on national and state experiences with development routes, the insights that Census 2011 provides can be a powerful tool for planning and public participation. New data on urban and rural populations, gender ratios on literacy and in the 0-6-years population bands are already providing early indicators of leading and lagging districts, building up a detailed picture of how each of the country's 640 districts is faring.

Data from early and provisional Census 2011 releases has led to comparisons of urban size, the speed of urbanisation that has taken place in the leading economic clusters of India, and has prompted forecasts about the size of India's economy based on the trend of continuing population growth in existing and new urban centres. This, however, is only a part of the Census 2011 picture. The numbers are provisional and their verification is a slow process, to culminate in the district-level handbooks which will contain the primary census abstracts for every panchayat and block in India.

With the data releases coming during the final stages of the consultation rounds for the 12th Five-Year Plan (2012-17), the census has the potential to inform and guide the policymaking process, provided of course the correct inferences are drawn from what is available.

The vast numbers which characterise the Indian census have led to a focus thus far on the immense scale of demographic movement in the country, which can be seen in the increase, from 2001, in the urban population from 286.1 million to 377.1 million, in the rapid addition to the already large group of towns in India, from 5,161 in 2001 to 7,935 in 2011 -- an astonishing addition which has meant the transformation, at the rough rate of five a week for 10 years running, of 2,774 settlements into towns, however loosely the term 'town' is used.

Less impressive numerically but very significant economically is the increase, in the last 10 years, in the number of urban agglomerations. For the census, an urban agglomeration is a continuous urban spread comprising one or more towns and their adjoining outgrowths. These have increased in number from 384 in 2001 to 475 in 2011 and are 91 chaotic, new, barely-municipal reminders that the flow of people from rural tehsils to urban wards has strengthened even further in the last decade. The central government sees much good in this transformation, and foregrounds the economic benefits of this change by employing a one-way lens. What happens when such a lens is used to assess such a change can be seen in the 'Approach Paper to the 12th Five-Year Plan', finalised by the Planning Commission of India in August 2011 and released in September. "It is well-known," says the Approach Paper, "that agglomeration and densification of economic activities (and habitations) in urban conglomerations stimulates economic efficiencies and provides more opportunities for earning livelihoods. Possibilities for entrepreneurship and employment increase when urban concentration takes place, in contrast to the dispersed and less diverse economic possibilities in rural areas."

The 53 million-plus cities vs 355 million-plus districts

The urban-centric bias of the Government of India and its principal ministries and agencies has influenced national policy for the last two Plan periods, and is a tendency that will continue for at least the duration of the 12th Plan and possibly beyond, for as long as the fixation with high annual economic growth rate continues. Yet, if there are 53 cities whose populations are a million residents and more, and these are considered essential for the stimulation of economic efficiencies, then there are 355 districts whose rural populations are a million residents and more, whose agricultural outputs and surpluses not only provide them livelihoods, but feed the favoured residents of 53 million-plus cities and of 7,935 towns.

That is why it is worth examining, in greater detail, these rural districts and the people who inhabit them, insofar as the small data sets released by the Census of India 2011 will allow. The first indication that measures of the rural population describe an India quite different, in movement and settlement, from the force that shapes towns and cities is seen in the composition of the top of the list. There are no familiar metropolitan names here, no powerful centres of commerce and influence which are so commonly found in contemporary reportage of the Indian condition. Of the 30 districts with the most rural populations, there are 8 in West Bengal, 8 in Bihar, 8 in Uttar Pradesh, 2 in Andhra Pradesh, 3 in Maharashtra and 1 in Karnataka. Of the top five West Bengal has 4 -- South 24 Parganas (6.06 million), Murshidabad (5.69 million), Paschim Medinipur (5.22 million), Barddhaman (4.64 million) and Bihar's Purba Champaran ranks fifth (4.68 million).

These districts and their rural residents describe India's dependence on its diverse agricultural systems, its natural resources, its stock of traditional knowledge. The list of the top 10 districts with the highest rural populations is completed with Purba Medinipur (West Bengal), Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh), Madhubani (Bihar), Muzaffarpur (Bihar) and North 24 Parganas (West Bengal). The 30 districts with the largest rural populations have between 3.43 and 6.06 million residents in each. Their historicity as the locus of population density in the subcontinent -- as recorded in the early census reports from the late-19th century onwards, and described in lyrical detail in the Census of 1911 -- has been overtaken by the market that the 53 million-plus cities represent, and the reckless pampering of urban growth at the expense of rural resilience. There ought not to have been a battle for financial resources between the 160.5 million residents of the million-plus cities, and the 693.9 million rural residents of the million-plus districts -- but that is the bias with which the 12th Plan will approach both constituencies of Indians.

Odious as the urban flavour to national planning is, rural transformation and conurbation has been a feature of demographic change in India for well over a century. One hundred years ago exactly, the report of the Census of India 1911 attempted to encompass the dimensions of such change. "With the spread of railways and the general improvement in means of communication, the smaller towns are growing in importance as distributing centres, but the process is a slow one and comparatively little progress in this direction has yet been made," said the section on 'Area, Population and Density' in Volume I of this landmark census. "The small market town so common in Europe and America is rarely found in India. Nor as a rule do the smaller Indian towns possess the other amenities associated with urban life in Europe, such as a better class of schools and public institutions of various kinds."

The challenge of gender ratios and density in rural districts

Having dealt with one basis for comparison, the 1911 report then provided a sociological overview of the transformation of the time: "It is true that a new type of town is springing up in the neighbourhood of important railway stations with stores and provision shops and a considerable coolie population, and that these in many cases have not yet reached the prescribed standard of population. But the total number of such places is still small, and their exclusion has had no material effect on the statistics." Then too, the 1911 Census thought fit to remind the administration of the variety of administrative divisions in what was British India, which included Baluchistan, Burma and the subcontinent that spanned these two provinces. "There are great local variations in density. In nearly two-thirds of the districts and states the number of persons to the square mile is less than 200, and in about a quarter it ranges from 200 to 500. The units with less than 100 persons to the square mile cover two-fifths of the total area but contain only one-eleventh of the population, while those with more than 500, though their area is only one-eleventh of the whole, contain one-third of the population."

One hundred years ago, an aspect of the changing demographies of British India which exercised the census officials of the time was the ratio between females and males in cities and towns. It remains a concern, a century later, although more widespread now and not confined to urban settlements, as is explained briefly anon. "As usual in Indian towns females are in marked defect," the 1911 report remarked on Bengal. "Their proportion is highest in the minor towns which are often merely overgrown villages; it is much smaller in the main centres of trade and industry, and smallest of all in Calcutta, where only one person in three is a female." Nor did Bombay prove different, for the 1911 report observed: "As in the other large cities of India females are in a great minority, there being only 530 to every thousand males. This proportion is the smallest yet recorded. In 1881 it was 661; it fell to 586 at the next census owing to the immigration of males to meet the rapidly growing demand for labour, and again rose to 617 in 1901, when plague had driven out more of the temporary settlers than of the permanent residents."

While not as severe as the ratios of that era, the gender ratios for the rural populations of districts in 2011 will, as more data is released by the Census authorities and as the verification cycles for the smaller administration units are completed, help explain the movement of labour, the patterns of migration (with which they will be read) and no doubt support the studies on the feminisation of agriculture we are witness to in India. The 2011 data show that in 122 districts, the female to male ratio of the rural population is 1 or more (the range is 1.00 to 1.18). Of the 30 districts which have the highest female to male ratios of the rural population, there are 11 in Kerala, 7 in Uttarakhand, 4 in Orissa, 2 in Maharashtra and one each in Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. Thereafter, in 112 districts the female to male ratios of the rural population are less than 0.90 (the range is 0.90 to 0.67). The district with the lowest ratio is Tawang (Arunachal Pradesh), followed by Chandigarh, South Delhi, North District (Sikkim), Dibang Valley and West Kameng (both Arunachal Pradesh RP), Kargil (Jammu and Kashmir), Daman, Nicobars and Anjaw (Arunachal Pradesh).

Carrying with it the potential to cause a demographic imbalance whose full import, a generation from today, we can only surmise is the gender ratio of the population between 0-6 years, that is, the children of these districts. There are 34 districts in which, amongst the rural population, the numbers of children between 0 and 6 years are 500,000 and above. That all these districts are in either Bihar (15) or in Uttar Pradesh (14) or West Bengal (5) is another outcome, over the decades since the early-20th century, of the population patterns observed in the final 50 years of colonial India. The 2011 data has shown that whether in the 34 districts with 0-6 year populations of 0.5 million, or in the top 10% of all districts (640), the rural population that is between 0-6 years old is about 90% of the district's total child population in that category.

It is insights such as this that Dr C Chandramouli, Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India, presaged in his introduction to the first provisional paper on the 2011 Census: “It provides valuable information for planning and formulation of policies by the government and is also used widely by national and international agencies, scholars, business persons, industrialists, and many more. In addition, the Census provides a basic frame for conduct of other surveys in the country. Any informed decisionmaking that is based on empirical data is dependent on the Census.”

What does the 0-6-years age-group data tell us?

When taken together with the 355 districts whose rural populations are all a million and above, the implications of such a concentration of the 0-6-year-old population in talukas and tehsils (more than those in town wards) become manifold. An immediate rendering of this concentration will take place in the health sector for it is there that imbalances in public expenditure and budget have been most severe. The Government of India has time and again claimed that the 11th Five-Year Plan (2007-12) has sought to raise the share of public expenditure on health (both central and in the states) from less than 1% of GDP in 2006-07 to 2% and then 3%. For this, the National Rural Health Mission (launched in 2005) was intended to strengthen healthcare infrastructure in rural areas, provide more sub-centres, better staff and equip primary health and community health centres.

Census 2011 will, over the months to come, indicate the degree to which these lofty aims -- often held up as evidence of the government's commitment to social equity -- have been met. To do this, the ratios will be layered between study outputs that bring out the insights of correlating large demographic data sets -- district health services, the national family health survey, planned rounds of the National Sample Survey and, despite the defensible criticism levelled against it, the 2011 BPL survey. Within this dauntingly complex data framework will need to be placed the Plan targets relating to infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate, total fertility rate, under-nutrition among children, anaemia among women and girls, provision of clean drinking water for all, and raising child gender ratio for the age-group of 0-6.

Where do the 640 districts and their rural populations lie on a simple child gender ratio scale? Ranked by female to male ratio within the 0-6 years category of population, the top 10% of all districts (that is, 64 districts) register a gender ratio of at least 0.97 and up to 1.01. The districts with the 20 most favourable female to male ratios for the 0-6 population are Dakshin Bastar Dantewada, Bastar, Bijapur, Koriya, Rajnandgaon, Narayanpur and Korba (all Chhattisgarh); Tawang, Papum Pare and East Siang (all Arunachal Pradesh); Nabarangapur and Malkangiri (Orissa); Lahaul and Spiti (Himachal Pradesh), Nawada (Bihar), Chandauli (Uttar Pradesh), Mamit (Mizoram), Pashchimi Singhbhum (Jharkhand), Tinsukia (Assam), South Andaman, and West Garo Hills (Meghalaya). Among the top 10% of districts with gender ratios for the 0-6 age group that are favourable to females, Chhattisgarh has 14 while Orissa, Meghalaya, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh have 6 each. These are considered, by their states and by the central government's ministries and departments, to be 'backward' districts, tribal in character, lacking in infrastructure and below par in economic development (discounting for this index the proclivity of the state to steal natural resources in the commons, the better to convert it to GDP with). Yet the residents of these districts have proven, as the 2011 data so emphatically shows, that they practice an equality that is far closer to that enunciated in our Constitution than is to be found in the ranks of the million-plus cities.

Even so, the picture at the other end of the scale is a worrisome one. Within the 0-6 years category of the rural population of districts, there are 154 districts whose female to male ratio is less than 0.90, ie 9 girls or less for every 10 boys. In this large set of districts with unfavourable gender ratios amongst the rural population category of 0-6 years, the range of this ratio drops to 0.70 (the average gender ratio for this group of districts being 850 girls to 1,000 boys). There are 24 districts in UP in this set (out of the state's 71 districts), 20 districts each in Punjab and Haryana (out of their totals of 20 and 21 respectively), 18 each in Rajasthan and Maharashtra (out of 33 and 35 respectively) and 14 in Jammu & Kashmir (out of 22).

What effect has this imbalanced ratio, so common in the rural populations of districts, on literacy and education? Census 2011 has told us so far that there are 55 districts in which the rural literacy rate is 74% or higher -- this is the national effective literacy rate (for the population that is seven years old and above) which is a figure derived from rural and urban, male and female literacy rates. The literacy rates in these 55 districts are for all persons, female and male together. They range from 74% to 89%. All 14 of Kerala's districts are among the 55, there are 7 districts from Maharashtra, 5 from Tamil Nadu, and 4 each from Mizoram, Orissa and Himachal Pradesh. The top 10 districts in this set are all from Kerala save one, East Delhi. But these 55 districts have returned literacy rates that will form the basis of study and analysis in the years to come, they are outnumbered, by a factor of more than 11 to 1, by districts whose rural populations lie under the 74% national mark, and this too will serve as an early indicator, continually updated, of the commitment of the Indian state to its implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) Act of 2009, and of the results of the first 10 years of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

Literacy rates, education gaps, too few teachers

Since its inception in 2001-02 the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) has been treated by the Government of India and the states as the main vehicle for providing elementary education to all children in the 6-14 age-group. Its outcome -- this is how the annual and Plan period results of India's 'flagship' national programmes are now described -- is the universalisation of elementary education. The Right to Education Act (RTE) of 2009 gives all children the fundamental right to demand eight years of quality elementary education. For the planners in the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the effective enforcement of this right requires what they like to call 'alignment' with the vision, strategies and norms of the SSA. In so doing, they immediately run into a thicket of problems for, to begin with, there are half-a-million vacancies of teachers in the country, another half-million teachers are required to meet the RTE norms on pupil-teacher ratios, and moreover 0.6 million teachers in the public school system are untrained.

This is the creaking administrative set-up against which the total literacy rates of the 585 districts whose rural populations are under the 74% mark must be viewed. Of these, 209 districts have literacy rates for their rural populations which are between 50% and 60%. This set of districts includes 33 from Uttar Pradesh, 30 from Madhya Pradesh, 20 from Bihar, 18 from Jharkhand, 17 from Rajasthan, 13 each from Assam and Andhra Pradesh, and 9 from Karnataka. And finally, there are 95 districts whose literacy rates of the rural population are under 50%. This set of districts at the bottom of the table includes 17 from Bihar, 14 from Rajasthan, 9 each from Uttar Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, 7 from Madhya Pradesh and 6 each from Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Arunachal Pradesh. The districts of Yadgir (Karnataka), Purnia (Bihar), Shrawasti (Uttar Pradesh), Pakur (Jharkhand), Malkangiri, Rayagada, Nabarangapur, Koraput (all Orissa), Tirap (Arunchal Pradesh), Barwani, Jhabua, Alirajpur (all Madhya Pradesh), and Narayanpur, Bijapur and Dakshin Bastar Dantewada (all Chhattisgarh) are the 15 districts at the very base of the table with literacy rates of the rural population at under 40%.

Over 11 Planning periods there have been some cumulative gains in a few sectors. Today, in rural areas, seven major flagship programmes are being administered, with less overall coordination between them than is looked for – a contrast against the ease with which the central government's major ministries collaborate on advancing the cause of the urban elite -- but which nonetheless have given us evidence that their combined impact has improved the conditions of some.

The seven programmes are: the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NFRLM), Indira Awas Yojana (IAY), the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) and Total Sanitation Campaign (TSP), the Integrated Watershed Development Programme (IWDP), Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), and rural electrification which includes separation of agricultural feeders and includes also the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY). For the local administrator these present a bewildering array of reporting obligations. A hundred years ago, such an administrator’s lot was aptly described by J Chartres Molony, Superintendent of Census 1911 in (the then) Madras: "The Village Officer, source of all Indian information, is the recorder of his village, and it well may be that amid the toils of keeping accounts and collecting 'mamuls', he pays scant heed to what he and his friends consider the idle curiosity of an eccentric sirkar."

Census 2011 also informs both the incumbent ‘sirkar’ and us that there are 22 districts in which literacy rates for the rural female population are above 74% (all 14 of Kerala's districts are included). However, it is in the next 10% range of literacy rates -- 74% to 64% -- that gains since the 2001 census must be protected and this set includes 82 districts. It is a widely dispersed set, comprising districts from 21 states and union territories. There are 11 from Maharashtra (including Sangli, Bhandara and Gondiya), 9 from Punjab (including Kapurthala, Gurdaspur and Sahibzada), 7 from Orissa (including Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara and Bhadrak), 7 also from Himachal Pradesh (including Una, Kangra and Solan), 6 from Tamil Nadu (including Thoothukkudi and Nagapattinam) and 5 from Gujarat (including Navsari and Mahesana).

Bright spots in the rural female literacy story

The Office of the Registrar General of India, which administers the Census, has cautioned that all the data releases so far are still provisional figures. However, the implications are now plain to see, and give rise to a set of socio-economic questions which demographic and field research over the 12th Plan Period (2012-17) will enlarge and expand upon. Is there for example a correlation between districts whose rural populations have unfavourable female to male gender ratios and districts in which female literacy ratios are low? Comparing the bottom 100 districts under both conditions shows that there are only 12 districts in which both conditions are present (5 in Uttar Pradesh, 2 in Rajasthan, and 2 in Jammu & Kashmir).

Most encouraging is that there are 40 districts in which the ratio of the number of literate females to literate males (this is a different ratio from literacy rate), is 0.90 or better, ie there are 900 or more literate females to 1,000 literate males. In this set are all Kerala's 14 districts but also 13 districts from the Northeast (from Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland). The remainder are from island Union Territories, from the southern states (3 from Karnataka, 2 from Andhra Pradesh and one each from Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Puducherry), from hill states (2 from Uttarakhand, 2 from Himachal Pradesh) and one from Maharashtra. It is these districts that provide abundant reason for the allocation of a minimum 6% of GDP allocation for education -- a long-standing commitment -- which must begin to be fulfilled in the 2012-17 Plan period.

How will the Government of India consider these early indicators from Census 2011? How will India's civil society and the great breadth of organisations -- voluntary groups, people's movements, rural foundations and the like -- which have been delivering development 'outcomes', year after year, without the benefit of budgetary support but motivated by the plain fact that inequity still exists, how will this group see these indicators?

The Government of India revels in presenting contradiction as a substitute for careful, evidence-based and inter-generational planning. When downward trends -- such as those seen in female illiteracy and in the gender ratios of the 0-6 age-group -- have been slow over the last 25 years, there is a need to set long-term objectives that are not tied to the end of the next available Plan period, but which use a Plan direction to help achieve them. In this, the Approach Paper to the 12th Five-Year Plan has failed quite signally, because its authors have not drawn the only possible conclusions from the Census 2011 data presented till date. Yet others have done so, notably India's civil society and its more responsive group of academics. Hence the abundance of contradictions in all major documents -- the Approach Paper being the most important, annual Economic Surveys being another type -- which seek to reassure one section while in fact underwriting the ambitions of another.

The import of the 16 percentage point difference

So we see that a state which must ensure provision of Right to Education to every child up to the age of 14 years, because it is constitutionally bound to do so, complains in the planning phase itself that scarce resources constrain it from carrying out its duties and therefore advises its citizens that measures like public-private partnership (PPP) should be resorted to. How will such cunning better the lives and present culturally relevant opportunities for the rural populations in the remaining 591 districts which are under the 0.90 ratio for literate females to literate males? What will the emphasis on vocational training (for the urban job pools) instead of people's empowerment mean for the rural populations in 403 districts where this ratio is less than 0.75 -- which means the number of literate rural females is under three-fourths the number of literate males -- and in 69 of these districts it is even under 0.60 (25 in Rajasthan, 14 in Uttar Pradesh, 9 in Madhya Pradesh, 6 in Jammu and Kashmir)?

In the 631 districts with rural populations, the average difference between the literacy rates of females and males is 16 percentage points. What this means is illustrated by the districts of Pudukkottai (in Tamil Nadu, literacy rates 75.0% for males and 59.1% for females), Yavatmal (in Maharashtra, literacy rates 76.4% for males and 60.4% for females), Jharsuguda (in Orissa, literacy rates 74.4% for males and 58.4% for females), Hardwar (in Uttarakhand, literacy rates 65.9% for males and 49.8% for females), Raisen (in Madhya Pradesh, literacy rates 68.0% for males and 51.9% for females) and Vadodara (in Gujarat, literacy rates 69.2% for males and 53.1% for females). In these six the difference between female and male literacy rates is an average of 16 percentage points.

Rather than understand the underlying causes for rural populations in districts as varied as these to continue to experience an utterly unacceptable difference in literacy rates between women and men, the Government of India insists that "India's urban agenda must get much more attention" (Approach Paper to the 12th Five-Year Plan). Ignoring the evidence of continued neglect of rural populations, and ignoring too the lessons to be learnt from measured and reported gains in some rural districts, the current government and its advisory apparatus is focusing on India's increasing urbanisation as the only habitat that must be planned for. This approach to development -- which flies in the face of the hard evidence of substantial and persistent inequities presented by Census 2011 -- is dangerously uni-dimensional. It sees only that economic growth and urban market development are valid objectives for an India whose peoples have, for the 15th Census running (since 1872, the seventh since Independence), been enumerated with impartial care and implicit faith in our democratic institutions.

Infochange News & Features, November 2011