How much of India is actually urban?
How much of India is actually urban? That is the question the economic survey by the finance ministry has raised this year.
The honest answer to that question is: it depends. It depends on the criteria we use to define urban settlements. Under the rather stringent definition of the Census, about a third of India is urban, with urbanized states concentrated in relatively richer southern and western India. But if you believe in what images from satellites tell us about built-up areas, a whopping 63% of India is urban, with urban settlements concentrated in the relatively poorer northern belt.
India’s three-tiered census definition of ‘urban’—at least 5,000 inhabitants, density of 400 people per sq. km or more, and at least 75% of male working population engaged in non-farm activities—was first framed in 1961 by then census commissioner Asok Mitra.
“The problem he was trying to solve was that the Gangetic plain is a particularly high-density belt,” says Chinmay Tumbe, an economic historian at the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad. Using just a population or density parameter would have inflated the urban rate, skewing funding priorities away from rural schemes.
However, more than five decades later, questions are being raised on whether that definition underestimates the urban population although there is no agreement among urban experts on what the new definition should be.
Under the census definition, 31% of the Indian population lived in urban areas in 2011. But the share of urban population which lives in towns and cities, actually classified as urban, and governed by urban local bodies is even lower at 26%. Even if one were to discount the satellite data, just relaxing the census definition, and considering settlements with more than 5,000 inhabitants as urban will raise the share of the urban population to 47%.
One way to check whether a definition of urban is appropriate is to evaluate the correlation between the share of urban population and per-capita incomes. The built-up area criterion (as measured by satellite images) fails that check. But both the existing definition and the more relaxed (5,000+ inhabitants) criteria seem to meet that test.
Regardless of the definition being used, there is an element of discretion involved in any definition that attempts to strictly delineate rural from urban areas. While experts may disagree on the precise definition of ‘urban’, they all agree that it makes sense to view the entire spectrum of settlements—from small villages to large urban agglomerations—as a continuum rather than in terms of the rural/urban binary. Even Census definitions reflect this continuum as they account for different types of settlements.
Much of India’s population currently resides in the middle space, away from the big cities as well as the hamlets. Many large settlements that are deemed by the Census and state governments as rural may require urban services such as spatial planning, fire services, and building regulations. But the rigid rural-urban division means that they are denied such services.
Also as Tumbe points out, the definition we use will only affect the level of urbanization. It will not affect the pace of urbanization much, which in his view has been low historically because India’s rural-urban migration has been driven mostly by male migrants, who go back to their villages instead of settling in cities with their families.
The slow pace of rural-urban migration could be because of political incentives, argued India’s former chief statistician Pronab Sen in Mint sometime ago.
“In a country where political success is driven by managing the 3Cs of Indian society—caste, community and class—no incumbent political leader would like to see any uncontrolled change in the social configuration of the constituency and, therefore, of the winning coalition,” wrote Sen. “Migration causes this both in the originating villages and destination towns. Initially these effects may be relatively small, but they can snowball over time since much of the migration is driven by social networks.”
It is perhaps because of these reasons that much of urban growth in India is because of purely ‘organic’ reasons: natural growth and reclassification of towns and villages. Migration accounts for barely a fifth of the urban population growth in India.
As in 1961, how much of India is urban, and how much of it is rural is as much a question of politics as it is of economics.