The United Nations (UN) report on world urbanization prospects released on Tuesday shows India is urbanizing in a different way than the rest of the world, even China. Policymakers should pay attention.
The rate at which people from villages are pouring into Indian cities is slower than that in other developing countries. This is the main reason why India will be 55% urban by 2050 from 30% today, while China will be 70% urban from 40% today.
This gives our city planners some much-needed breathing space, since they are clearly incapable of coping with even the current pace of urban population growth. They need a strategy to improve the composition of urban growth.
This takes us to a second thread. At least half the world’s urban growth will come from relatively smaller cities—in other words, more new cities are springing up in the more rural areas.
Contrast this with India’s lopsided urbanization, with migration concentrated in the large, or class I, cities, overburdening their limited and shoddy civic infrastructure. As the UN report points out, China has seen the transition of rural areas into urban centres by generating non-farm economic activities. This is something that India needs to work hard on.
In the absence of such a strategic approach, migration from villages to cities will continue to be dominated by distress migration—rural push, rather than urban pull. What that has led to till now is a shift of surplus and unskilled labour from the farm to the urban informal sector in large cities. This is because smaller towns nearer home don’t offer them even the minimum opportunity for survival. The maximum burden has been naturally loaded on the large metropolitan cities that from afar hold huge promise, but migrants more often than not only reach bitter realization. The outcome is more urban poverty and slums.
The solution is twofold. First, a major thrust on investment in new small towns and cities that can absorb and employ surplus rural labour. And second, developing strong urban-rural linkages. These can only come from big investment in the supply chain—organized retail can trigger a wave of economic activity to absorb much of the population locally. If, as is hoped, farming gets ample public investment, higher productivity in time will only release more labour from the farm. Employing and housing them will continue to be a challenge.
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