The Name Game: Urbanization in India

What is rural? What is urban? Different countries use different definitions and sometimes there are multiple definitions within a country. In India, as Reuben Abraham and Pritika Hingorani write, the same state can be 16% or 99% urban depending on the definition..

In India, only “statutory towns” are considered urban and have a municipal administration — a definition that officially leaves the country 26 percent urban. State governments make the decision using widely differing criteria; demographic considerations are peripheral at times. The Census of India provides the only other official, and uniform, estimate. Its formula uses a mix of population, density and occupation criteria, and pegs India at 31 percent urban.

Such estimates can be misleadingly low. For instance, Kerala is statutorily only 16 percent urban. Yet the census sees the well-developed southern state as approximately 48 percent urban. If we use a population cutoff of 5,000 residents as Ghana and Lebanon do, or even Mexico’s threshold of 2,500 people, Kerala’s urban share leaps to 99 percent, which is more consistent with ground reality.

So what? A rose by any other name smells as sweet but definitions matter for policy and resource flows:

The consequences of underestimating the urban share of the population are dire. Resources are badly misallocated: By one estimate, over 80 percent of federal government financing still goes to rural development. This reduces incentives for politicians, especially rural ones, to change the status quo. Tens of millions of Indians who live in dense, urban-like settlements are governed by rural governments that lack the mandate and the money to deliver basic services. In India, urban governments are constitutionally required to provide things such as fire departments, sewer lines, arterial roads and building codes. Local bodies in rural areas aren’t.

In addition, urban planning becomes particularly haphazard when cities grow but aren’t defined as such. How can roads, water lines, sewage lines and metros be arranged when a city is governed by multiple rural units?

As satellite data clearly show, most cities extend well beyond their administrative limits, and dense, linear settlements spread out of those cities along transit corridors. This growth is unregulated and unplanned, marred by narrow roads, growing distance from major thoroughfares, limited open space and haphazardly divided plots.

…what appears to be a single economic unit is now governed by a multitude of rural and urban jurisdictions, with no mechanism to coordinate on mobility, public goods or municipal services. It’s difficult and expensive to retrofit such cities with proper infrastructure and services.


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