An Unequal Process of Urbanisation

Urbanisation in India has reportedly accelerated over the last decade, with a sharp rise in the number of towns and peri-urban areas. Cities, on the other hand, are believed to have become “exclusionary,” with in-migration remaining stagnant. This study uses primary census data since 1991 to question the hypothesis of exclusionary cities and argues that the larger towns and cities have grown uninterrupted, whereas smaller- and medium-sized towns have been slow to graduate to higher size classes.

This article is based on the author’s Master’s thesis, completed under the supervision of R Nagaraj at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai. The author would like to thank him for his valuable guidance and comments on various aspects of this article.

1 Introduction

The 2011 population census states that 31.2% of India’s population is urban—up from 27.8% in 2001, and 25.7% in 1991. The accelerated rate of urbanisation in the last decade, compared to the 1990s when the growth rate of gross domestic product (GDP) rose to over 7% per annum, is widely applauded as a positive sign of development. The rise in urbanisation has been on account of the unanticipated addition of 2,774 new census towns between 2001 and 2011 (Figure 1).

According to some (Kundu 2011b), this is an outcome of “census activism” (Census of India reporting a higher pace of urbanisation), discussed later in this article, while others (Guin and Das 2015) believe it represents a genuine rise in the urban population during the last decade. This article attempts to clear up the statistical dispute and present an accurate trend and pattern of urbanisation.

In India, a place is termed urban if it meets any of the following criteria: (i) a minimum population of 5,000; (ii) a maximum of 25% of the male working population employed in agriculture, the rest in non-agricultural activities; and (iii) population density of at least 400 per km2. In addition, every place with a corporation, cantonment, municipality or notified town area is also termed urban. The growth in urbanisation has three specific components: (i) natural increase in population; (ii) net rural–urban migration; and (iii) the reclassification of settlements as urban areas.1

To put this in perspective, the world urbanisation rate (proportion of population living in urban areas) increased from 30% in 1950 to 54% in 2014, whereas the rate of urbanisation for Asia increased from 16.6% to 48% during the same period. In the course of these 65 years, the majority (54%) of the world’s population began living in urban areas (UN 2014). As a developing nation, India’s rate of urbanisation has been low and not very impressive compared to the rest of the world as well as other developing nations. In 2011, according to census data, only 31% of India’s population was urban, compared to 52% in China, 54% in Indonesia, 87% in Brazil, and 61% in South Africa.

In 1981, India’s urbanisation rate ranked 91 out of 124, with only 33 countries having urbanisation rates lower than India’s (Pant and Mohan 1982). In 2011, India ranked 159 out of 195 countries (UN 2014), indicating that urbanisation in India has remained at almost the same level relative to other countries. Figure 2 (p 89)shows the proportion of urban population since 1951 in China, India and Indonesia, the three most populous nations in Asia (data for Indonesia are for 1971 onwards). From the figure, it is clear that the other developing countries had started from similarly low levels of urbanisation and attained high levels of urbanisation, whereas urbanisation in India has remained low (though definitions of urban centres are different across countries). The low level of urbanisation in India is a clear demonstration of the failure, of plan and policy implementation since independence, to initiate or enhance urbanisation.

The UN’s World Urbanization Prospects 2014 forecasts that India, China and Nigeria alone will account for 37% of the growth in the world’s urban population, with India contributing the highest, followed by China and Nigeria.

Against this background, this study looks at the characteristics, nature and trends in urbanisation to verify the propositions made in recent literature in India. A brief review of the literature on trends in urbanisation is presented in Section 2, the objectives and methodology of this article in Section 3, the findings in Section 4, and conclusions in Section 5.

2 Two Broad Views on Urbanisation

There are two broad views on India’s pattern of urbanisation up to the 2000s. The first (Kundu 1983) contends that the distribution of urban population across size class of towns was “top-heavy,” implying that large-sized towns and cities were the main drivers of the urbanisation process, while the small- and medium-sized cities barely grew. The second view (Pant and Mohan 1982) holds that the structure of urbanisation has been roughly balanced and has had a stable distribution.

According to Amitabh Kundu (1983), the growth rates of urban population across size classes are consistently in favour of large-sized towns and cities. The growth rate of population for the largest size classes remains higher than all other size class categories for the period 1961 to 1981. According to Kundu, the weak and unstable economic base of small- and medium-sized towns has played a major role in their unsatisfactory urbanisation.

On the other hand, Pant and Mohan (1982) show that the growth rate across size classes was not starkly different, with the Class V (less than 10,000 population) category attaining the highest growth rate, and a balanced growth rate for different size class towns and cities over decades. Pant and Mohan also affirm that urban growth due to reclassification was negligible in the 1971–81 decade. This implies a broadly stable urban distribution. These two contrasting views of urbanisation in India were largely because of the methodology used, with Kundu taking the declassified towns2 into account, while Pant and Mohan did not.

As mentioned earlier, recent literature on the changing patterns of urbanisation is mainly based on the 2011 Census, which showed an increase of 2,774 new census towns during the last decade, allegedly due to “census activism” (Kundu 2011b). Kundu’s scepticism is mainly because the provisional census figures showed a significant divergence from earlier trends. However, census officials clearly state that there has been no change in definition and identification clauses for a place to be identified as urban (Registrar General, India 2008).

Guin and Das (2015) contest Kundu’s contention for West Bengal, which has witnessed the highest increase in census towns amongst all states. After carrying out a careful study of the available data on population and population densities, and approximating the percentage of male workers in secondary activities, the authors find that the large increase in new towns in West Bengal is a clear result of distress in the agricultural sector. Agricultural distress has led to a sharp increase in non-farm activities in rural parts of Bengal, as a result of which a large number of villages have come to meet the criteria of 75% of the male population engaged in secondary activities, and hence those villages were declared new towns in Census 2011.

Kundu (2011a) has further argued that urbanisation has become exclusionary, basing his argument on the fact that in the last decade a few large cities have faced negative or low population growth rates. “Such low and negative population growth in large cities and their core areas need[s] further investigation, since it raises concerns about exclusionary urbanisation” (Kundu 2011a: 10). However, this hypothesis does not have a strong base, because Kundu’s study does not show the cumulative impact of all the large cities on total urban population decelerating or stagnating, or any other evidence that gives justifiable strength to his hypothesis.

Sita and Bhagat (2005) argue that there has been a substantial growth of peri-urban areas or urban agglomerations. In other words, the incremental urban growth of the 2001–11 decade corresponds to the growth of new towns. It has also been mentioned that the population growth in these areas has been more than that in the primary metros or big cities and that “... urban agglomerations are growing more than the city proper” (Shaw 2005).

Kundu (2003) substantiates these findings and observes that the addition of these lateral spreads (peri-urban areas or outgrowths) to the urban population has been sizeable and significant since the decade of 1991–2001.

In recent times, reclassification, in contrast to its negligible contribution in 1981 (Pant and Mohan 1982), has been a major driver of urbanisation, with migration rates remaining roughly the same (Pradhan 2013). Pradhan’s article (2013) shows that the new census towns account for a 30% increase in urban population in the last decade and claims that the extent of urban migration in the last decade has been the same as in earlier decades. Pradhan estimates the population of new census towns from the 2001 population data. Chandrasekhar and Sharma (2014) show that there has been an increase in two-way commuting and a significant increase in the short-term migration and return migration rate, but these findings are largely based on the hypothesis of exclusionary urbanisation and rapid growth of peri-urban areas.

3 Objectives and Methodology

If these hypotheses were true, one would expect that the lower size class categories would contribute more to overall urbanisation than the larger size class categories over time. The literature has little to say on the percentage contribution of the largest size class cities to total urban population, and its evolution over decades, especially the 2001–11 decade. We propose to examine this proposition using primary census abstract (PCA) data since 1991.

The census commissioner is yet to publish the Towns Directory tables for the districts and states that are required to examine the above-mentioned propositions. However, we have reconstructed the table using the PCA, which we consider a significant contribution of our study. We extract the data for towns for each district, and then stack the data for all the districts of a state, to get all the towns of a particular state. Similarly stacking data of all the states, we get all the towns of India. As the sum of the total population of the towns matched the total urban population of India, our methodology of accumulating the final data is correct. Thus, we have independently created the towns directory (with only the population data) from the PCA data set. Then the data were used to categorise into different size classes, to arrive at the distribution of urban population by size class. This method gives us the urban population at 377 million for 2011, 286 million for 2001 and 216 million for 1991.3

4 Empirical Findings

The next exercise was to get the distribution of the percentage contribution of each size class to total urban population. This exercise was conducted for 1991 and 2001 data as well. Thus, what we actually got was the required distribution for a span of two decades, the decades after the economic reforms of 1991. Moreover, the census has a conventional way of defining the intervals of the size class of towns. Typically, they have six classes (Class VI—less than 5,000; Class V—5,000–10,000; Class IV —10,000–20,000; Class III—20,000–50,000; Class II—50,000–1,00,000; Class I—more than 1,00,000). These intervals are not disaggregated to give us a better picture, and are mainly defined this way for ease of comparison and interpretation with the earlier decades.

Figure 3 and Appendix Table 1 (p 92)show that the distribution of population by size class of towns has remained roughly the same for the last two decades. The contribution of the largest size class towns has gone up from 22.5% in 1991 to 26.3% in 2011. In other words, the size distribution of urban population since 1991 has remained the same, questioning the hypotheses of exclusionary urbanisation and rapid growth of peri-urban areas.

Using conventional census class-intervals, there is a slight dip in the largest size class (Class I—more than 1 lakh) between 2001 and 2011, after a jump from 1991 to 2001. This seems to indicate that all the growth might be taking place in the larger-sized class towns, and therefore we further disaggregate and define the intervals above Class I (more than 1 lakh population) in our own way.

We disaggregate the Class I interval into three intervals: Class I—1 lakh–5 lakh; Class I.1—5 lakh–10 lakh and Class I.2—more than 1 million. After doing this and then formulating the distribution values again, we see that the decline happens in Class I and Class I.1 (between 2001 and 2011), which was the reason behind driving down the percentage contribution of the largest size class towns when we used the conventional definition of intervals (that is, Class I—more than 1 lakh). However, after redefining, we get Class I.2—more than 1 million, as the largest size class, which we have already discussed.

Figure 4 also shows that with these intervals the distribution has remained roughly the same for three decades, with the largest size class contributing the highest to total urban population. Therefore, from Figures 3 and 4 we can see there is no change in the distribution of urban population across size classes. Hence, we can question the idea of exclusionary urbanisation. Further, the largest towns and cities are the ones that are the core drivers of urbanisation in India, thus negating the earlier hypothesis that the peri-urban areas are driving urbanisation in recent times.

The above analysis shows an uneven urbanisation process given the methodology we follow. The larger towns and cities have grown uninterrupted, whereas the smaller- and medium-sized towns are slow to graduate to higher size classes.

Statewise analysis: The above analysis is repeated for 12 major states, accounting for 90% of the total population, to find out if the same pattern holds at the regional level. Nine out of 11 states (excluding Kerala) experienced an increase in the percentage contribution of the largest size class (over 1 million) over the last decade, thus further strengthening the counterargument to exclusionary urbanisation. The argument that the lower size class intervals are contributing more to urbanisation and also the argument that unequal urbanisation has been a nationwide issue has gained a strong foothold from these distributions (Appendix Table 2, p 92).

The findings show that the distribution of Kerala is more equal than other states considered here. Kundu (2011a: 11), while building up the evidence for exclusionary urbanisation, mentions that “Maharashtra, whose percentage of urban population is over 40 has recorded a significant reduction in its population growth.” However, our findings show that in Maharashtra, the contribution of the largest size class interval to total urban population of Maharashtra has increased over time, accounting for almost 55% of its urban population in 2011, thus raising a strong objection to the conjecture of exclusionary urbanisation.

5 Conclusions

Between 2001 and 2011, the share of urban population in the total rose to 31.2%, from 27.8%. This happened when the national economic growth accelerated to over 7% per annum, with services contributing over one-half of domestic output. These trends gave rise to a few hypotheses about the emerging urbanisation pattern, namely, exclusionary urbanisation, peri-urbanisation, growing commuting and short-term migration. These propositions imply that the distribution of urban population across size class of towns and cities is now very different from the past. Is it really so? This article investigates the validity of these propositions using population census data for 1991, 2001 and 2011. As the urbanisation table for the 2011 Census is not yet published, we have recreated it from the district-wise primary census abstract.

This study does not show any perceptible change in the distribution of urban population by size of towns in the last two decades. Cities with more than 1 million population continue to dominate the distribution with over 26% (of the total urban population). If anything, the share of the largest-sized cities in the urban population has increased by 3.8% since 1991, from 22.5% in 1991 to 26.3% in 2011, the highest across all size classes. This result holds true for nine out of the 12 most urbanised states, accounting for more than 90% of the total population of India (Appendix Table 2).

The results by our methodology show that the pattern of urbanisation—with the dominance of large-sized cities—in the last decade, despite some speeding up, remains the same as before.

This article reports a basic statistical exercise that questions the recent literature and hypotheses on India’s urbanisation pattern, using data for the last three censuses over the last two decades. The distribution of total urban population across different size class intervals remained roughly the same and unequal over 1991–2011. There has been no significant change, with the largest size class contributing the most to total urban population and the share of smaller size classes remaining roughly the same, thus invalidating the argument that the peri-urban areas (essentially the smaller classes) are contributing more to urbanisation, and questioning the much talked about concept of exclusionary urbanisation. The skewed distribution of urban population has persisted. This is disturbing, as it depicts the sluggish and unequal process of urbanisation, and the fact that this process has gone on for almost 50 years now, thus calling into question years of planning, policies, commissions and debates. Given this framework, subsequent policy actions should be taken with a great deal of sensibility and should be driven by strong research that targets the core of the problem. Moreover, policies such as the creation of 100 smart cities will only make the distribution of urban population and development more top-heavy, adding to the existing problems. It is imperative now for urban policymakers to look into these issues and develop and implement plans that will address the inequality in the process of urbanisation and lead us to a more balanced and inclusive form of development.


1 The United Nations defines settlements with over 20,000 population as urban and those with more than 1,00,000 population as cities.

2 Towns were declassified during 1961–81, as there were changes in the definition of “urban.” Towns that failed to meet the new definition or criteria were declassified.

3 Our method had a minor shortcoming: adding up the total population of all the towns of a particular state did not match with the total urban population of that state. For example, the total urban population for Uttar Pradesh in 1991 is mentioned in PCA data at 27 million, whereas from our analysis we get 28 million. This is the exact difference that is reflected in total urban population for all-India, as it matched for all other states. Similarly, for 2001, the difference in total urban population in PCA data and what we obtained was only 705, which was from the mismatch of the urban population of Andhra Pradesh. However, it matched for all other states. These data incongruities raise questions about the data accuracy and quality of the census to some extent. However, we go ahead with our analysis with these numbers.

Image: Mumbai, India (Wikimedia Commons)

Source: Economic and Political Weekly

This article is culled from daily press coverage from around the world. It is posted on the Urban Gateway by way of keeping all users informed about matters of interest. The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of UN-Habitat.