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How ‘urban’ is India’s urbanisation?

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A boy plays on a swing suspended from a tree in front of a residential estate under construction in Kolkata, India, 31 October 2011. (Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri).

In Brief

‘Urban’ seems to be the latest buzzword in India’s public policy circuit. Despite being a latecomer to the urbanisation process, India’s urban population is likely to exceed 590 million people by 2030 — more than the total population of the EU.


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Recognising urbanisation’s growing contribution to the economy — around 65 per cent of India’s GDP — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recently announced the government’s plan for establishing 100 ‘smart cities’. The economic opportunities, quality of life and, importantly, social mobility associated with urban living have acquired a new allure among India’s rural population.

Yet few people know how Indian cities fare in terms of growth and governance and have little understanding of the lifestyle of India’s urban spaces. There seems to be no consideration of how vulnerable communities, like religious minorities, are able to navigate this new lifestyle.

A recent study looked at three major Indian cities — Ahmedabad, Varanasi and Pune — to determine the trends and dynamics in India’s ongoing urbanisation. While the conclusions drawn from the study should not be extrapolated to other cities of India, it provides important insights for urban planners and other stakeholders who are grappling with the complexities of Indian urbanisation.

Far from being ‘melting pots’ or harbingers of social mobility, Indian cities increasingly resemble their rural counterparts. There is a growing trend of residential segregation by caste, religion, and socio-economic characteristics. Residents belonging to the most marginalised demographic of society overpopulate the poorest neighbourhoods. This trend of ‘socio-economic segregation’ seems to be prevalent even in comparatively well-planned cities.

This trend has concerning consequences for city inhabitants. The location of slums has a direct bearing on the residents’ access to municipal services. Compared to their counterparts with similar socio-economic characteristics in the inner parts of a city, families living in informal settlements located in the city’s margins receive inadequate municipal services. Access to municipal services is also linked to the strength of the municipal governance system.

The socio-religious characteristics of a neighbourhood are another determinant of municipal services access. For example, settlements with large Muslim populations and those with large communities of new immigrants face higher degrees of discrimination and institutionalised apathy when it comes to the delivery of basic services. Such identity-based exclusion in cities should come as a wake-up call for the country’s urban planners and policy-makers in overseeing the goals of inclusive urbanisation.

Exclusionary processes take a slightly different turn when it comes to migrants. While all migrants face various disadvantages in a city, this is much more severe in the case of new migrants. For example, new migrants in the surveyed cities have little or no access to critical services such as food stamps and social welfare schemes due to their lack of official documentation, such as proof of residence or identity.

There are also a variety of social and institutional barriers to the inclusion of migrants in urban life. For instance, migrants face obstacles such as resentment from other residents in their new city. Similarly, there is a growing phenomenon of ‘sons of soil’ or ‘outsider’ based abuse. Such politicisation of India’s urban spaces — often for so-called ‘vote-bank populism’ — is not only creating exclusionary barriers for new migrants but is also fuelling their gradual disenfranchisement. This could have dangerous consequences. The citizenship and quality of life of thousands of urban migrants is at stake.

Currently, India’s ongoing urbanisation offers little opportunity for inclusion of its disadvantaged populations. Cities are not only mimicking the social and cultural structures of inequality and exclusion found in rural areas but they are also creating fault lines for future conflicts. This trend of ‘urban winners’ and ‘urban losers’ should ring the alarm bells of urban planners and key policy makers.

Niranjan Sahoo is Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a member of the Carnegie Rising Democracies Network, Washington.

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