Turning urban, staying rural

A RECENT set of papers to emerge from the Census of 2001 deals with rural-urban populations in the country. Out of the total population 1.027 billion, the urban segment is 285 million or about 28 per cent. For a country of India's size and variety this arithmetical average does not convey the shape or spread of urbanisation. The city-states of Delhi and Chandigarh are almost entirely urban and smaller States such as Goa, Pondicherry and Mizoram are half or more urban. Some of the major States are nearing that situation as well. Tamil Nadu's urban population of 43.86 per cent is slightly more than Maharashtra's 42.40 per cent. In Gujarat it is 37 per cent while in Karnataka and Punjab it is closer to 34 per cent.

These figures should cause neither elation nor despair because urbanisation is only a spatial reflection of the economic changes taking place in the country. However, the increase in Tamil Nadu's level of urbanisation from 34 per cent in 1991 to 44 per cent in 2001 sets it apart from all other States. In absolute terms the urban population in the State has grown from 19 million to 27 million. In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, the increase was from 18 million to 20.5 million and 14 million to 18 million respectively. Can it be that non-agricultural activities are flourishing all over Tamil Nadu and that notwithstanding the competition from Chandrababu Naidu and S. M. Krishna new business and industries are sprouting in every town, small or big? A closer look will show that the varying figures of urban growth in these States are a product of definitions, rather than reality.

For the past few decades, the Indian census has followed uniform criteria for towns. Settlements with a minimum population of 5000, a density of at least 400 per sq km and 75 per cent or more of the male working population engaged in non-agricultural employment are classified as `census towns'. By and large, the State Governments also adopted this definition in setting up municipalities. The 74th Constitutional Amendment that came into effect in 1993 did not specify any population or employment limits. However, in listing the criteria to be considered by the State Governments in setting up municipal bodies, the Constitution also uses the same language as the Census, such as density of population, non-agricultural employment, etc.

In the wake of the Constitutional Amendments, the States had to make a choice in notifying settlements as either rural or urban. Those designated as urban would have corporations, municipalities or nagarpanchayats. Others would be panchayats. Earlier, Tamil Nadu used to have a system of `town panchayats'. These were not considered municipal but semi-urban settlements. Uttar Pradesh had a similar system of town committees. Both the States found it convenient to notify all town panchayats and town committees as municipal bodies. In 1994, Tamil Nadu notified 611 town panchayats as `municipal' to be administered under the Tamil Nadu District Municipalities Act. Uttar Pradesh did something similar. They are now discovering that these towns are municipal bodies only in name. In fact, several of them have populations of less than 5000 and thus do not meet the criteria of `census towns'. However, for population count, the Census authorities treat them as `statutory towns' as distinct from `census towns' and include these within the urban frame. This increase in the urban frame of Tamil Nadu accounts for about 5.6 million or about 21 per cent of the State's total urban population. Which of the `statutory towns' indeed meet the criteria of `census towns' will have to await data from the detailed town and village directory expected by the end of 2002. Until then, there will be a question mark over the 1991 to 2001 urban growth rate as well as the 43.86 per cent level of urbanisation claimed for Tamil Nadu.

Some other States have made different choices. Many do understand that in the present dispensation of Central financial assistance, there are strong incentives for saying rural. The Ministry of Rural Development has a whopping budget of over Rs. 2000 crores per annum to be distributed as grants to the panchayats and for various other programmes such as water supply, roads, schools or healthcare. In comparison, poverty alleviation and employment programmes supported by the Ministry of Urban Development make up a paltry figure. Many States, therefore, find it is better for small towns to be panchayats rather than municipalities, so that they can access the largesse distributed by the Centre. Some other factors also operate as an incentive to remain rural. The desire to avoid taxation has also been an important motive in resisting municipalities. Different charges for services and subsidies are also a problem. For instance, electricity charges, assuming they are indeed levied and collected, and telephone tariffs are significantly lower for rural areas. Water supply, primary education and healthcare are invariably free. This is not to grudge such concessions but the disparity between rural and urban consumers should not escape notice. Another factor is the ubiquitous builder's lobby in Indian cities. The creation of a municipality is invariably followed by some measure of planning and building regulations. If it is possible to live in proximity to a city and access its economy, but at the same time escape its planning and building rules, why not do that? Several cities elsewhere in the country have been quick to follow suit. About a year ago, 14 settlements within New Bombay and Thane municipal limits were taken out and officially made villages again. In the most recent civic elections in Maharashtra, villages at the fringe of Thane boycotted the polls to press their demand to be excluded from the municipal corporation limits. Haryana has also denotified several small municipalities and made them panchayats again.

The census 2001 places the total number of towns and agglomerations in the country as 4368. One would like to believe that all are municipal. This is not so. As many as 636 are only `census towns'. In other words, they might have been identified as urban according to longstanding criteria followed since 1961, but accepting them as municipal may not be convenient. Hundreds of places may `turn urban' but `stay rural'. Apart from making growth analysis and inter-censual comparisons difficult, this ambiguity will be a serious problem in raising the resources needed for urban upkeep.

(The writer, a former Union Urban Development Secretary, is now Visiting Professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)

Recommended for you