India’s coming urban mega crisis

India’s urban population rose from 27.82% to 31.14% between 2001 and 2011.

India’s urban population rose from 27.82% to 31.14% between 2001 and 2011.

How many metro cities are there in India? If you said four, you are more than a decade out of date. The four ‘traditional’ metros – Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata – were actually categorised as metro cities back in 1965 by the expenditure department of the Finance Ministry for the purpose of calculating house rent allowance for government employees. This is actually the only ‘legal’ definition of a metro as far as the government is concerned.

Over time, various Pay Commissions have expanded the list to more cities: Bengaluru and Hyderabad in 2007, and Ahmedabad and Pune in 2014, taking the official tally of metros to eight. But India is one of the most rapidly urbanising economies in the world. By the time the government actually gets around to formally recognising a city as being worthy of classification as a metro, the reality is that several more have joined the fray.

Clues from the Census

The Census gave us the first inkling about the pace of change. India’s urban population rose from 27.82% to 31.14% between 2001 and 2011. And it was not just because existing cities and towns grew — new towns, cities and megacities were being created. The number of ‘statutory towns’ — towns with a municipal body or cantonment board – grew by over 6.1% during this period.


But the real pace of urbanisation was revealed by the exponential rise in the number of ‘census’ towns — defined as habitations with a minimum population of 5,000 with at least 75% of the working population engaged in non-agricultural pursuits; and a density of population of at least 400 persons per sq. km. The number of ‘census’ towns rose by over 185% between 2001 and 2011, compared to an increase of just 0.36% in the number of villages.

With such a breakneck pace of urbanisation, it is inevitable that the number of metros and soon-to-be metros is substantially higher than the official tally. According to a new study by consultancy EY ( India’s growth paradigm, March 2017 ), India already has two more metros — Jaipur and Surat — as well as 10 ‘high potential’ cities which will soon grow to metro-hood: Bhopal, Chandigarh, Indore, Jabalpur, Kanpur, Lucknow, Nagpur, Patna, Vadodara and Visakhapatnam. That’s not all – EY has identified as many as 30 more ‘new wave’ cities, based on population growth and cumulative household income. During the course of this ongoing decade, EY believes these 42 cities will actually outpace the eight defined metros in both population and income growth.

EY sees this as a good thing. The report actually highlights the untapped potential of these aspiring metros. By 2020, they estimate that India’s urban population will be close to half a billion, accounting for more than 70% of India’s GDP and with GDP growth rates over double that in rural areas. This is not unlikely, as India’s 50 largest cities housed 123 million people and had a combined income of ₹26.4 lakh crore as of end 2015 itself.


Which all sounds terrific on paper, but it is only when you actually visit these ‘cities’ that you can see the real problems: traffic is hellish, public transport is rudimentary, public infrastructure is ramshackle, there doesn’t appear to be any civic planning to speak of, roads peter off into dirt tracks in new ‘colonies’, there are mounds of garbage everywhere, power and water shortages are acute, and law and order machinery is stretched.

Other infrastructure is even more attenuated. Like education, for instance — in most of the ‘new wave’ markets identified in the EY report, for instance, anywhere from a quarter to half the schools have only opened shop after 2001. EY’s analysts see this as untapped potential for education investors, but you could also see this as the gap left by the public system.

What is even more worrisome is the lack of any sort of plan to deal with this surge in urbanisation. Where will the millions in these cities get water from? Or power? Or fresh vegetables, or milk, or meat for that matter, if other States carry out U.P.-like crackdown on abattoirs? Who will build the schools? Provide the health care? Dispose of the garbage? Can Uber and Ola take the place of civic public transport? Vehicle ownership will more than double in these emerging markets in the next three years — any guesses on how many kilometres of new roads are being built in these places?

There are, of course, plenty of schemes on paper. Visit the Ministry of Urban Development’s website and you are hit with a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms — AMRUT, HRIDAY, SBM, PFDF… but what is the scale of execution?

And what about money? Do our civic bodies have the money to fund solutions, even if they have ideas? It looks unlikely. The numbers provided by the Ministry of Urban Development only come up till 2007-08. In that financial year, municipal bodies spent an average of ₹2,461.92 per head per year on all civic services put together.

That’s simply not enough. We have a mega crisis looming in our mega cities. And nobody seems to be particularly worried about it.

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Printable version | Jun 21, 2022 9:46:56 pm |