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Urban legend


Neither do they have the glamour of Mumbai or Delhi nor do they fit the traditional mould of rural India. Sandwiched between the two Indias are bazaar towns and medium-sized cities which have been driving breakneck urbanisation across the country. Yet, the likes of Ratlam, Sangli and Dharwad are almost orphans in India's urban family.

The wave of urbanisation is portrayed as a crucial part of the India Shining saga as was evident when provisional Census 2011 findings revealed recently that 31. 16 per cent of the population is now urban, a jump from 27. 81 per cent a decade ago. The transition is welcome as it signals the economy's move away from agriculture, widely considered essential for growth and development.

But social analysts and urban researchers believe it is time to look beyond the mere pace and size of urbanisation and question the quality of urban growth in the country, especially since it is small and medium towns that are fuelling urbanisation today rather than mega cities, many of whose growth is on the decline (see box on classification of towns). Yet, the metros grab nearly 80 per cent of urban funding. Smaller settlements acquire the 'urban' tag by definition, but are often nothing short of glorified villages. Shorn off labels, their socio-economic indicators make many a village proud. With no visible town planning, small cities and medium-sized towns fall through policy gaps and chart a haphazard growth trajectory.
Such unfettered urbanisation needs reining in, caution urban researchers.


India continues to be predominantly rural, but a growing number of people - 377 million of its total 1. 2 billion population - now live in cities. Around 2, 774 new towns were created in 2011, an increase of 53. 7 per cent since 2001, according to provisional census findings.

But many like Amitabh Kundu, professor at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, are sceptical of conjuring up a pretty picture from such data. "We need to examine whether these are really new towns or census activism at play, " he says. By census activism, he means the pressure on officials to designate more and more areas as towns and cities to keep up the optimistic facade of India's urban march.

Such concerns are not unfounded. Sift through the provisional Census findings and it emerges that over 90 per cent of the new towns created are census towns, not statutory ones. Statutory towns are those declared under state laws as they have municipalities, corporations or cantonment boards and thus some semblance of urban systems in place. Meanwhile, Census towns are designated as such if they meet certain criteria - have a population of 5, 000 persons and a population density of 400 persons per sq kilometre with at least 75 per cent of working men engaged in nonagricultural activities. Social scientists question the use of such criteria to demarcate urban spaces, even as they await migration and city-level Census 2011 data for a clearer picture.

The shift from village to town seems fairly simple on paper, but the transition poses mammoth practical challenges. New towns are governed by panchayats or nascent urban local bodies, many of which lack direction and resources. "There is lack of integration of urban and rural plans in such towns. Often, the urban cell is a small set-up in the district office with no coordination with district planning officers, " says Anil Kumar of the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore, citing how Dharwad, for instance, has no drinking water or sanitation plan in place. The reality is mirrored in the medium-sized industrial town of Vapi in Gujarat which presents a typical picture of chaotic traffic, open sewers and loose electric wiring.

The policy vacuum is evident in the state of the urban poor in new urban converts. Academicians point out how popular databases, the Census and National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), recognise slums only in towns with over 50, 000 population. The last Census made an exception only for a handful of settlements including 11 Census towns around Delhi and its surrounding areas and one in Uttar Pradesh. Thus, the poor who live in slum-like conditions in towns with, say, a population of 5, 000 are deprived of social benefits as they neither qualify for schemes for slumdwellers, nor for the rural poor. "Small towns may not have slums by definition. But one-third of small towns in Punjab lack latrines. How are they any less deprived?" asks R Sandhu from Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, who has studied small and medium towns in the state.


This brings us to the crucial question of whether small and medium towns - which are considered emerging markets for fast-food outlets and FMCG goods - are not really the picture of prosperity they are made out to be. Social and economic parameters in small and medium towns often lag way behind mega-cities, revealing a pattern of urbanisation which is pockmarked and highly skewed.

In another indication of divergent urban growth, Prof Annapurna Shaw of IIM-Calcutta pertinently points out that small and medium towns in more urban states such as Punjab, Haryana, West Bengal, Gujarat and Maharashtra are better off than those in less urban states such as Bihar, Himachal Pradesh and Orissa (map on the left).

Migration and urban studies expert Prof RB Bhagat of the International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai, who analysed people's access to basic resources, found small and medium towns performing abysmally when compared to mega-cities (see graph on access to basic amenities). "Examining access to basic amenities and utilisation of services such as drinking water, electricity, LPG gas and toilets provides an understanding of the quality of urbanisation we are undergoing. Worryingly, urban growth has been lopsided and selective. " Only 70. 6 per cent in small and medium towns had access to toilet facilities, as compared to 97. 3 per cent in mega-cities, as per National Family Health Survey III data. The poorest quintile (bottom 40 per cent in wealth), are worse off. A mere 20. 5 per cent of population in small towns has access to toilets, as compared to 51. 8 per cent of the population in mega cities (see table on access to resources).

Sometimes, even villages with their harsh realities make a better picture than tiny urban dwellings. Poverty headcount ratio in small towns was worse than that in rural areas consistently across decades (1987-88, 1993-94 and 1999-2000 ). This was highlighted in a research paper on urban poverty in India by economist Himanshu of The Centre de Sciences Humaines, Delhi. He vetted NSSO's unit level data to show that poverty headcount ratio stood at 35. 3 in small towns, as compared to 28. 7 in rural areas and 16. 5 in large cities from 1999-2000.


The concerns over unfettered urbanisation are beginning to bubble. A group of urban researchers, government officials and social scientists met at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai recently to explore the challenges small towns face in a global era and the ways to tackle them. The consensus was that plans for small towns are piecemeal and fail to reduce the burden of mega-cities. The Centre had launched the IDSMT (Integrated Development of Small and Medium Towns) in 1979-80 to cover all towns with a population of up to 100, 000 in 1971. It was discontinued in 2005-06, despite failing to meet its target.

Infrastructural development and urban reforms now largely fall in the purview of the Centre's flagship JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) with two schemes targeting small towns - the UIDSSMT (Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small and Medium Towns) and IHSDP (Integrated Housing and Slum Development Programme).

But these too have a focus on larger cities in the hierarchy and better-off states. Debolina Kundu of the National Institute of Urban Affairs, New Delhi says 80 per cent of JNNURM funds are earmarked for 65 cities and 20 per cent for small towns. "An analysis of funds shows that only 58 per cent of the urban population has been covered during the past four years. "

She further points out that coverage in more developed states stood between 50 and 80 per cent while about 60 to 65 per cent of population in less developed states such as Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh was yet to be covered under the scheme. "The big city bias is most evident in West Bengal where 95 per cent of class I cities' population is covered, against only seven to nine per cent in the small and medium towns. " At the other end of the spectrum are towns like Gurgaon which catapulted directly from the small town to mega-city league purely because of private investments. But Aparajita De of the Delhi School of Economics points out that the glitzy structures there too eclipse the reality of precincts like Madanpura gully within the town which are still trapped in an existence without governance.

Experts recommend decentralisation of urban development, in true letter and spirit, so that the challenges of small towns can be tackled more effectively. Prof Shaw recommends a three-pronged approach, wherein the UIDSSMT is continued in economically dynamic and more urbanised states, its allocation increased in smaller and fast-urbanised states, and the scheme expanded for large economically stagnant and less urban states to include economic infrastructure and social components in some small towns. Warning that a highpowered expert committee had projected that there would be 87 million-plus cities by 2030, Prof Kundu believes the 12th Five Year Plan should address the monumental urban challenge that lies ahead.


According to the census definitions


Population of one million and above (For eg: Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore)


Population between 50, 000 and one million (For eg: Kozhikode in Kerala, Madurai in Tamil Nadu, Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh, Haldia in West Bengal, Aurangabad in Maharashtra)


Population less than 50, 000 (For example, Chithode in Tamil Nadu, Tarapur in Maharashtra, Singur in West Bengal, Pali in Madhya Pradesh, Udma in Kerala) *Examples of towns cited are as per their population in the 2001 Census

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