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Business News/ Politics / Policy/  New ‘census’ towns showcase new India

New ‘census’ towns showcase new India

As opposed to conventional urban sprawls, the new urbanization is rapidly incorporating villages into its fold

The burgeoning consumer economy in Soraon has spawned a complimentary industry of repair shops for air conditioners, TVs and refrigerators over the past decade. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)Premium
The burgeoning consumer economy in Soraon has spawned a complimentary industry of repair shops for air conditioners, TVs and refrigerators over the past decade. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Soraon, Uttar Pradesh: By the time he turned 50, Kareem Bashir Ahmed had spent nearly 20 years away from home. Long enough, he thought, as he prepared to leave Saudi Arabia, where he’d been working as a mechanic to support his wife and four children back in Soraon, eastern Uttar Pradesh.

But when he finally returned, Ahmed found that the modest potato-farming community he had left behind no longer existed. In its place, he encountered a large, straggling, unlovely settlement of more than 8,000 people, strung loosely along the national highway, 25km north of Allahabad.

“It was all jungle here before," Ahmed said, raising his voice above the noise of the traffic and pointing towards the businesses that now extend for half a mile north of the main village.

Ahmed’s neighbours had become richer, and were integrating into a relatively new but rapidly growing consumer economy, spending their extra money on television sets, refrigerators, DVD players and air conditioners. The ubiquity of these machines had spawned a complimentary ecosystem of new electronics repair shops along the main street. The emergence of the LDC Institute of Technical Studies on the outskirts of the town had boosted the nascent businesses, and its comparatively affluent students, mostly from Allahabad and Varanasi, were providing additional support to the local consumer economy.

“The actual village is really decreasing in size," said Ahmed, looking at the roadside sprawl. “It’s the so-called town around it that’s increasing."

Soraon exemplifies India’s new towns. As opposed to conventional urban sprawls, the new urbanization is rapidly incorporating villages into its fold. Not only is it creating a contiguity hitherto limited to states such as Kerala, it is adding an entirely new demography to the consuming class.

The new towns

Ahmed’s choice of phrase highlights the ambiguous nature of Soraon. It is one of about 2,500 large villages to be reclassified as a “census town" by the Census of India in 2011.

This urban classification, which exists on census paper only, helps differentiate between India’s smaller farming communities and the larger market town-type settlements that are experiencing rapid and haphazard growth. To become a census town, a village must fulfil three criteria—it needs at least 5,000 inhabitants, a density of 400 people per sq. km, and, crucially, at least three quarters of its male working population must be “engaged in non-agricultural pursuits".

Simply put, census towns are populous places where farming is no longer viable and people have turned to other professions. And they are multiplying fast: between the 2001 and 2011
census the number almost trebled, from 1,362 to 3,894, and that is probably an underestimate, given that the census relies on projections from the previous decade’s data to make its classifications.

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A 2011 report by IIHS noticed the striking importance of what it described as a “grey zone" of between 80-140 million people, between the smallest towns and large villages of more than 5,000 people “with an increasingly urban character". In this grey zone lie the census towns and it is here, the report noted, that “the success of India’s new manufacturing, livelihood and skill building policies will be sorely tested".

Soraon and other census towns are poised on the threshold of the rural-urban divide, and their liminality poses several problems related to governance and growth. Semi-urban though they might feel, census towns are still run by panchayats (village councils) and classified as rural for all official purposes, allowing them to draw on Union government development schemes and exempting them from property taxes.

However, a combination of more people and more money has spurred demand for better roads, proper sewerage systems and 24-hour access to safe water and electricity—the kind of services a panchayat finds hard to deliver with its limited resources and capacity.

Uneven development

On the upside though,wages have gone up in Soraon thanks to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), according to Farooq Raien, the pradhan (head of the village council) of Soraon. Under the scheme, at least one member of every poor rural household is entitled to 100 days’ manual work in a year.

“Now there’s more money for development," he said. “When I was young, eating rotis was a luxury, we would do it only when guests came to stay," he reflected. “Now we eat them every day."

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The main road from Allahabad seen from pradhan Farooq Raien’s rooftop. Most development has happened along this throughfare. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Over the last two years, Raien estimates that 50% of villagers have started using gas cylinders for cooking food. Soraon boasts four Internet centres and as many banks. But, the new prosperity aside, development has happened in uneven jolts. Although fibre-optic cable is being laid from Allahabad to bring high-speed Internet to the village, Soraon’s roads are still in bad repair, its electricity intermittent and its drains dirty.

Prem Nath, the municipal commissioner of Allahabad, attributes the economic growth in places such as Soraon to better connectivity to urban centres and growing appreciation of land within the city. “Soraon and Shantipuram (a nearby town boasting a flashy Montessori school painted shiny white) are near the national highway," he said. “The railway is there too. So if people want to settle in Allahabad but they have less money, then they’ll go there."

But Nath acknowledged that the growth to the north of Allahabad has been unplanned and somewhat haphazard. “Outside the municipal limits, beyond the Ganges and the Yamuna, that is not the concern of the municipal authority," he said.

Some hope that will remain the case. Many residents of Soraon are uneasy at the prospect of becoming

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Improvements made to the village include solar lighting for its vegetable market. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

“There are a lot of people who are opposed," said Raien. “Most people here are not very literate. They think that even if they make a one-room house they will have to pay all kinds of taxes in a town. They also think that for every little thing they will have to do a lot of paperwork with the government."

Raien himself is nervous about any official urbanization and needs constant reassurance that the urban classification is for census purposes only. “When you become a town, then the politicians come along," he observed gloomily.

Under the radar

This inherent wariness of government intervention is echoed in the nearby farming hamlet of Chandpur Sarai. There, the village head, Ramkhilawan Patel, is ambivalent about the growth in Soraon. “Slowly, slowly in the last few years there has been a lot of change there," he said. “A lot of people have set up businesses there, even people from this village. In the last four to five years, the population too has shot up."

Asked about the benefits of upgrading Soraon to a statutory township, Patel shook his head emphatically. “Everyone wants better facilities," he said, “but at the same time you have to understand that if you are on the outskirts of a town, then government takes an interest. And if it wants your land then it can take it. So we are happy being in the interior."

Being one step down the political chain, under panchayat rule, might mean slower access to the coveted and elusive “facilities" but it is seen as a safety net too.

At the six-year-old Wi-Fi-enabled campus of the LDC Institute of Technical Studies just north of Soraon, there is little disagreement about the census town’s status. “It’s totally a village," says Siddarth Singh, a fourth year B-Tech student from Varanasi, who stays in the Soroan hostel.

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Students at the LDC Institute say their presence has stimulated the local economy and broadened the range of goods available at the market. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

“Their standards have increased because of us," said Ekta Mishra, a second year day student from Allahabad, studying for a B-Tech in electronics and communications. “Because of the college being situated in a village, the mentality changes, the dressing sense, the way to talk and the thinking process too. Students from Soroan have started coming here from this year."

Back in his showroom, Ahmed feels the growth in Soraon has been double-edged. He is pleased about the better paid jobs and growth, but he insists that any social development has been limited to the private sector.

“It’s all private limited here," Ahmed said, waving his hand in the direction of the new nursing home next door. “That’s the thing about these small cities…large villages," he corrected his terminology as he went. “No one really cares about them. They are left on their own."

This is the first in a six-part series on India’s census towns. The second part of the series will examine how industrial growth on the periphery of India’s large cities has begun to shape village economies and spurred new demand for infrastructure.

Read the second part of the series.

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Updated: 02 Oct 2012, 11:12 PM IST
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