‘An offshoot of trickle-down urbanisation, census towns like Hatia and Hinjewadi can be engines of change for rural areas’

At the southern edge of Ranchi city lies Hatia, and not all of its residents are sure if theirs is a village or part of Ranchi city’s sprawl into its surrounding rural areas.

“It’s still a village. The panchayat has the land records,” says Santosh Majhi, standing by the side of the Ranchi-Khunti highway that runs through. “No, no, it is now a ward within Ranchi municipality,” Gulal Bihan disagrees. Documents safely stored in plastic are brought out from under mattresses and the matter is settled: Hatia is a ‘Census Town’.

Over half of India’s urban population now lives in towns of less than 1 million people, the greatest change in the pattern of urbanisation in the last decade. These may either be villages that have grown large, or the expansion of a big city swallowing up villages, says R.B. Bhagat, Professor and Head of the Department of Migration and Urban Studies at the Mumbai-based International Institute for Population Studies (IIPS).

“The key thing is that despite having urban characteristics, they are still governed by panchayats,” he adds.

The blurred lines are not only administrative. Mr. Bihan’s village was displaced by the Heavy Engineering Corporation that came up on the outskirts of Ranchi in 1958. “We still have land in our village, Todar, but since we live here now, we have sub-contracted the cultivation of our land to someone in the village,” he says.

Mr. Bihan works as a security guard, most recently on the flyover that came up on the highway connecting Ranchi to Khunti. But he has not been paid his dues, and has also not got any work for the last two months. “For months like these, it is the land in our village that still gives me some income to run the house,” he says.

In nearby Satranji, the consensus is that the biggest problem is that of basic infrastructure. There are no toilets, no drains and no piped water for the 350 households who live on either side of the highway. “Look at me, pumping water for the hand pump and taking it home on my head. I might as well live in the village,” laughs Rani Singh, balancing two full pots on her head. “The ward councillor is not able to do anything for us even though we meet him and write letters,” Mr. Bihan says. When Mr. Bihan votes in Ranchi constituency’s election on April 17, infrastructure will be the issue on the top of his mind, he says.

On one side of the road is a temporary stall erected for the Trinamool Congress and on the other, one for the Congress party. Blazing through the highway on their motorbikes are a group of young boys campaigning for the All Jharkhand Students’ Union Party, led by the 40-year-old Sudesh Mahto. “In villages people vote for old Adivasis. In cities, they vote for young leaders,” says Sunny Yadav, who is doing a B.A. at Doranda College.

“In the village, everyone belongs to the same community and decides to vote for the same person,” says Ramesh Oraon, who moved recently to Satranji. “Over here, there are people of all different communities.” Mr. Oraon says that his village always voted for the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Shibu Soren’s party. “Over here, the parties are all different,” he says, unclear about what exactly the TMC, a relatively new entrant to Jharkhand, is.

Prof. Bhagat sees the growth of Census Towns as essentially a positive sign about the Indian economy, a sort of “trickle-down urbanisation”. “These census towns can become engines of change for rural areas. But what is needed is proper management and development of these areas,” he says.

In the past, there has not been much difference between the issues that rural and urban voters care more about while voting in the Lok Sabha elections, Sanjay Kumar, who leads Lokniti’s National Election Studies, told TheHindu, except for the issue of corruption, which urban voters have tended to care more about.

Even though voters in small towns might be more concerned about infrastructure, there isn’t evidence that this guides their voting decisions, he added.

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