India’s urban population has recorded an annual growth rate of 2.76 per cent during 2001-11, which is higher than that of the previous decade of 2.73 per cent only in the second decimal point. Yet, this piece of information has been received with certain amount of satisfaction and surprise by planners, policy-makers and researchers. The satisfaction is because the spectre of over-urbanisation or urban explosion has been dismissed by the low urban growth during the eighties and nineties. The growth rate had come down sharply from its peak of 3.83 per cent in the seventies to 3.09 in the eighties and further to 2.74 in the nineties. This made policy-makers at national and state levels concerned about deceleration in urban growth, particularly at a stage of rapid economic growth that accentuated rural-urban (RU) disparities in economic and social spheres. If the Tenth Plan had expressed concern over “the moderate pace of urbanisation”, the Eleventh Plan admitted that “the degree of urbanisation in India is one of the lowest in the world” and considered planned urbanisation through new growth centres in the form of small and medium towns its major challenge. The Approach Paper to the Twelfth Plan also recognises the need for promoting spatially-balanced urbanisation.
There are three reasons for the surprise at the reasonably high urban growth and stalling the declining trend. One, the office of the Registrar General had projected the figure to be 2.24 per cent, partly based on the past trend and partly because of a fall in natural population growth. Two, using the unit-level data from the 66th round of National Sample Survey (NSS), one would compute the percentage of urban population in the year 2009-10 as 27.3 per cent against the figure of 25.4 per cent in 1990-00. However, the NSS figures have always been less than that of the Census basically because the former do not include new Census towns. The urban percentage of 27.7 according to Census 2001 was higher than the NSS figure of 1999-00, obtained from the NSS 55th round, by 2.3 percentage points. Based on this, one would expect the urban percentage in 2011 to be higher than that of 2009-10 by two to three percentage points only and not 4.4 points. Three, the proposition of a possible slowdown of urban growth received empirical backing from the population figures of predominantly urban Union Territories and select metro , released for 2011 Census. Most of the cities with populations of a million-plus for which data are available have recorded a significant decline in their population growth, suggesting that they have become less welcoming to migrants. A process of sanitisation and formalisation seems to be discouraging the inflow of rural poor in these cities.
Delhi and Chandigarh, for example, have recorded population growth rates less than half that that of the nineties. Mumbai district, comprising the island city, has reported a decline in population in absolute terms by 0.6 per cent a year during 2001-11, implying substantial outmigration. The Mumbai suburban district recorded a decline in its growth rate from 2.5 per cent to 0.8 per cent. The story is similar for Delhi where the present population growth is less than that of any decade in the last century. Here, New Delhi zone and central Delhi have lost one quarter and one tenth of their population respectively. Among the large states, Maharashtra, where the percentage of the urban population is over 40 and where an influx of migrants is an explosive political issue, too, has recorded a significant reduction in its total and urban population growth.
The proposition that urban growth has not decelerated during 2001-11, thus, goes against past trends and recent evidence. The important question is whether urban growth has remained high despite a decline in urban fertility because of the existing urban centres receiving migrants. Or alternately, is it due to a reclassification of rural settlements resulting in increase in the number of new towns? The data from the 45th and 64th rounds of NSS suggest that migration for economic reasons has gone down among the RU migrants. Further, the percentage of adult male migrants in urban areas has declined during this period. Understandably, the impetus to urban growth has come at the lowest level of urban hierarchy. This is manifest not as much in acceleration in the growth rate of small and medium towns but an increase in the number of Census towns.
The total number of urban centres in the country has increased at a rate much slower than the urban population during the last century. The number had gone up by about 2,500 in the entire 10 decades. However, it has now gone up by 2,800, in just one decade, against the prediction of an increase of only 1,000 during 2008-30 by McKinsey Global Institute (MGI 2010). The sudden increase in the number of towns can be attributed to, at least partially, Census activism. The Registrar General’s office has, indeed, been under tremendous academic and administrative pressure to review its methodology for collecting data on urban centres.
Researchers and policy-makers have regretted a large number of small towns and large villages languishing for lack of sectoral diversification and emphasised the need and potential for more than 20,000 villages, with over 5,000 people, acquiring urban status. It would be difficult to accept that this diversification in these villages has already taken place resulting in a massive crop of new towns in 2011, in contrast to the decline in the number by 330 in 2001. It is, nonetheless, possible to hold that a few among these have been identified as “census towns” due to the workforce here shifting from farm to non-farm employment. The share of primary workers in the rural male workforce has declined from 71 per cent to 63 per cent during the period from 1999-2000 to 2009-10, which is higher than what has been noted in the past. This can be attributed to a fall in rural employment during this period, partly attributed to definitional problems associated with the data for 2009-10. In any case, the central and state governments must recognise the possibility of urban impetus coming from the lower level by according “statutory towns” status to the new census towns. They must also design a scheme similar to Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission to strengthen their infrastructure base and promote them as centres of distributed and inclusive growth. This would require revisiting the investment and sectoral scenarios projected for urban economy for the Twelfth Plan, being based on the High Powered Expert Committee (2011), which proposes a model of urbanisation more top-heavy than the MGI.