Why do census towns matter? Their share of urban population has doubled in the last 10 years, but they still comprise only one-seventh of urban India. But they matter because their growth challenges many preconceptions and myths that equate urbanization to migration, municipalities to urban areas, villages to agriculture, and cities to manufacturing.

Census towns are not about moving people, they are about morphing places. In the last 10 years, the reclassification of population from rural to urban as a result of identification of new census towns is responsible for nearly 30% of the growth in the urban population, while migration appears to account for less, around 22%, with the rest being the normal natural increase in pre-existing cities.

Even when they do move, people can go from the city to the village as illustrated by Chandpur, near Varanasi. This process of urbanization is not directed by the state, as in Chandigarh and Bhubaneswar, nor developed by the private sector, as in Mundra or Mithapur. Instead, it is the result of decisions about livelihood and residence made by thousands of individuals that coalesce to transform a village into a census town. It embodies a vibrant people-driven, market-centred process, in sharp contrast to the ruins of many state-promoted industrial estates that litter the countryside. In India’s urbanization game, the morphing of places may trump the movement of people.

It may appear from the ongoing series that most census towns are spillovers from larger towns, but this is not the case. While some are, most new census towns that were recognized in the last 10 years are not near class I towns. A recent paper by Kanhu Charan Pradhan from the Centre for Policy Research divides all class I towns in 2011 into four groups on the basis of population: 100,000-500,000, 500,000-one million, one-four million, and more than four million. It then calculates the number of new census towns within a radial distance of 10km, 15km, 20km and 25km, respectively, from such towns. As the graph shows, nearly two-thirds of them were not near any class I town.

Census towns are not made, they happen, and because of this, the state often does not see them. They remain invisible in the urban administrative record. State-specific thresholds for recognition as urban local bodies are often higher than the census, which already excludes patently urban settlements such as Singhia Buzurg in Bihar. West Bengal, for example, demands a minimum density of over 750 per sq. km and a population of 30,000.

Often, while clusters of settlements close to each other may pass this test easily, no individual settlement meets this test and all settlements in the cluster remain classified as rural. Work by Gopa Samanta at the University of Burdwan shows this to be the case. For instance, in the well-known settlement of Singur and surrounding settlements. Indeed, the process of statutory recognition is quite arbitrary and subject to political caprice. In June 2004, in one fell swoop, 566 town panchayats (local governance agencies) in Tamil Nadu were reclassified as village panchayats, “so as to enable them to receive more funds from the government of India and state government under various grants and assistance". Two years later, a new state government reversed the decision. Such instances can also be found in other states.

This whimsical attitude matters because our system of local government, based on the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, differs across rural and urban settlements. Funding schemes of the Union government also depends on this administrative status. In the last 10 years, states around the country gave statutory recognition to very few settlements, and while census towns near existing larger towns, such as Chandpur Sarai and Soraon, may eventually become part of the municipal system, despite the reluctance of people, stand-alone census towns are likely to remain under rural administration.

So, while they can access the rural jobs guarantee scheme to dig wells, they cannot use the urban infrastructure development scheme for small and medium towns to improve their sanitation. The possibility that problems that afflict our larger chaotic towns today could be nipped in the bud in these smaller settlements is thus negated by bureaucratic design.

Census towns show that India is changing below the radar. Barely half of our workforce remains in agriculture, with about one-third of the rural population engaged in non-farm work. Half our manufacturing employment is in what we call rural areas. Contrary to perceptions that India’s urbanization is low, its smaller settlements are stagnant and its cities are unproductive, census towns are among the many economically vital settlements that are emerging across the country. But, if they continue to be consigned to the grey zone of governance, their full potential may never be realized.

Partha Mukhopadhyay is a senior research fellow at the think tank Centre for Policy Research in Delhi.

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