One-third and increasing

One-third and increasing

If the 2011 census data is to be believed, more than one-third of Indians, close to 377 million out of 1.2 billion, now live in urban areas, however defined—metropolises, cities, or towns. This is a big change since the days of “India lives in its villages". It’s also time for a careful reappreciation and change in the rural bias in policymaking.

As reported in Minton Saturday, the pace of urbanization has been particularly rapid in the southern and western states—Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra and Gujarat—all have more than 35% population in urban areas. All have moved away from agriculture due to one reason or another.

The story is bigger than what is being witnessed in these states alone. Seen together with the country’s output—agriculture vs industry and services— urban India accounted for nearly 70% of the country’s output compared with 15% from rural India in 2010-11. This is an approximation as the share of rural areas in the service economy has grown in recent years; the location of other important activities, such as mining, too is rural. But for all practical purposes, one-third of the population churns out more than two-thirds of the national cake—a powerhouse indeed.

This calls for a change in planning and policymaking priorities. Urban infrastructure is burdened and close to breaking. In many cities even rudimentary services such as garbage collection, sewage, water supply and transportation systems are primitive. Union and state governments, however, continue to focus on rural areas, showering them with money gathered as taxes from urban centres. Leaving aside the question of fairness, this is quite unsustainable. Unless investments are made in improving basic facilities, urban economic growth could hit a road bump or two.

Will this happen? Here it is important to sound a pessimistic note. The common refrain is that the fact of urbanization by itself will force governments to change spending patterns. This is nothing more than a “magic wand" theory. The fact is that rural India returns the bulk of parliamentarians and legislators. As such, this is a solid block of votes-cum-decision makers that will resist any change in spending priorities. The Constitution prescribes delimitation as a procedure for “reforming" this aspect of our politics. But the pace of change is glacial: delimitation does not happen every year or every five years. Even after that, for a new political equilibrium to set in can take up to a decade at a minimum.

What does urban India require: investment or greater political representation? Tell us at