Census figures show a conclusive urban turn across the country, but the question is whether this growth is broad based and of desirable quality

Census figures on urbanisation in Tamil Nadu reflect worrisome national trends: over emphasising mega cities, neglecting medium towns and proliferating census towns with poor institutional infrastructure. The numbers show a conclusive urban turn across the country, but the question is whether this growth is broad based and of desirable quality.

Tamil Nadu tops the list of States in terms of urbanisation – 48.4 per cent of the total population lives in cities. Given the large network of urban centres (shaped by historical forces) and better road infrastructure, such growth was expected. Of the 25 urban agglomerations, Chennai with 8.6 million is the largest. The next big place is Coimbatore with 2.1 million, followed by Madurai with 1.4 million. If one leaves out Trichy, Tiruppur and Salem, other towns are way below one million.

It is not practically possible to develop a network of towns with equal size and value, but one cannot ignore the huge gap between Chennai and the other top five cities. The emerging pattern indicates the shrinking distribution of urban growth. Chennai’s growth and size far exceeds other cities. Coimbatore, Madurai, and Trichy have the potential to grow, but there is not any concerted effort to develop them. Ad hoc projects and inadequate plans prevail. None of these cities has development authorities, which can envision, organise, and mobilise investment and growth. The same is the case of other States. The percentage of urbanisation is impressive, but in the absence of a larger policy and incentives to distribute growth, market forces are propping large metropolitan cities. Sustainability and equity have become the causalities.

Another problem with the imbalanced growth is the quality of distribution. National estimates indicate that 44 per cent of the urban growth alone is natural while the remaining 56 per cent is due to reclassification of settlements and expansion of boundaries (refer to the detailed study by CPR, Delhi here). In 2011, the number of census town has substantially grown from 1362 to 3894 while the statutory towns have only marginally increased from 3799 to 4041. Tamil Nadu too shows a similar pattern: census town has increased from 111 to 374.

Census towns are places declared as urban by the census operations based on the size of the population - more than 5000 - and employment pattern - 75 per cent of the male population employed in non-agricultural sectors. Statuary towns are places declared as urban centres by the State government.

In other words, what we are witnessing is the proliferation of overgrown villages rather than a qualitative urban turn. Studies also show that most of these towns are not in the immediate periphery of cities but scattered. Probably villages located along a major transport corridor have changed. The fact remains that these reluctant towns are at the bottom of the administration and fund chains.

It is not surprising as the CPR study points out, that, the government of Tamil Nadu, in 2004, reclassified 566 town panchayats as village panchayats because they were financially weak and still rural in character. The government thought the urban status was an impediment and reclassification would help these small places get more funds. This demystifies notions about urbanisation as desirable change. At least in its present form, urbanisation benefits the large cities the most and for other accidental towns it is only a change in classification.