Urbanization Issues in India


For the first time since 1921, urban India has added more numbers to its population in a decade than rural India. As the country continues on its path of modernization, the percentage of urban population will continue to rise over the rural population. This poses unique challenges to the country which needs to be tackled carefully and immediately.

The reasons for this increase in urbanization are many. For one, people are migrating in large numbers to urban areas, this could be either due to increase in opportunities available in urban areas or it could be due to distress migration in which rural people migrate to cities for lack of opportunities in rural areas and drying up of farm income.

Natural increase in urban population due to availability of better medical facilities which reduces infant and maternal mortality rate and improves life expectancy could be another reason.

Another important reason is the inclusion of new areas as ‘urban’. villages whose population exceeded  5000 with population density of 400 per square kilometer and their number of male workers in agriculture drops below 25% are categorised as ‘census towns’.

The last time when more number of people were added to urban than rural India was in 1921 and the major reason for this was massive number of deaths caused by flu pandemic in rural India and participation of Indian Sepoys in World War 1.

Experts like P.Sainath say that the major reason for this increase now is, distress migration caused by massive agrarian crisis in rural India.

According to 2011 census, 31.16% of Indians live in urban areas up from 27.81% in 2011-a rate which is actually lower than the rate in many developing countries. So the urbanization process is expected to speed up in coming years. However India must ensure that this urbanization process is not due to ‘push’ of distress migration but because of ‘pull’ by better quality of life in Urban areas and due to ‘natural’ urbanization of rural villages.

Government must strengthen its implementation of MGNREGA scheme to stop distress migration. It needs to improve employment opportunities by encouraging agricultural based and food processing industries in rural areas.


Challenges posed by urbanization:

The shift from rural to urban habitation is an intrinsic dimension of the larger process of economic development and structural change experienced by all major nations. As income rises, the relative role of agriculture in economy shrinks, while those of services and industry rise. And, world over, these non-agricultural activities of Industry and services prosper best in urban areas, which nurture the economies and efficiencies of scale, scope and connectedness. The choice therefore before India is not whether to urbanise of not, but rather between reasonably planned, efficient, growth and employment enhancing urbanization, and the higgledy-piggledy expansion of congested, polluted, under-serviced, unhealthy urban sprawl that is so typical of today’s Indian urban landscape that is so damaging to India’s long-term development prospects.

Compared to other developing countries like China and Brazil, pace of Urbanization has been slow, for instance, in the 60 years from 1950 to 2011, India’s urban population rose from 17% to 31% while China’s quadrupled from 12% to 49%. Despite this moderate pace of urbanization, the condition of urban communities in India is dismal and their services woefully inadequate. Consider the following:

  • 25% of urban India dwells in slums, in greater Mumbai the ratio is over 50%
  • Barring a couple of small towns in Maharashtra, no city provides continuous piped water. And the water that does come, fitfully, is rarely fit to drink without boiling or other treatment. In contrast, cities in China and Brazil get much better water 24×7
  • Very few Indian towns (such as Chandigarh, Navi Mumbai and Surat) treat over 90 per cent of their sewage (excrement and waste water) before discharge into rivers, sea and lakes. In the vast majority of urban communities, the treatment rate was far lower, well below 50 per cent. Until recently it was 30 per cent in Delhi, and has now increased to 50 per cent.
  • Urban India is estimated to produce 180,000 tonnes of garbage every day, most of which ends up in huge rubbish heaps or “landhills”, instead of being composted, converted to energy or sealed in sanitary landfills. Overflowing garbage bins and rubbish heaps are common sights.
  • Little wonder that diseases like dengue, malaria, typhoid, swine flu, diarrhoea and respiratory ailments are on the rise in most towns in India.
  • Urban road systems are grossly inadequate and poorly maintained. Typically, public transport is scarce: only about 500 out of 8,000 cities and towns have a public bus system.

Why these problems?

The sheer magnitude of urban population, haphazard and unplanned growth of urban areas, and a desperate lack of infrastructure are the main causes for this situation. The spectacular growth in urban migration is causing enormous stress on urban area’s resources like Pubic transport, water, electricity, health, housing, sanitation etc.

Problems the country faces due to unplanned urbanization are:

Overcrowding of public places is one of the major problems of unsustainable migration in to urban areas. This leads to lot of stress on resources as well as on citizens.

It could lead to shortage of houses which could force people to live in sub-habitable dwellings.

Urban public bodies may not be capable of providing minimum public amenities like drainage and drinking water. This could lead to many health problems due to unhygienic sanitation practices and drinking contaminated water.

As we have seen in the last couple of years, urban areas are being used as focal points for civil unrest in many countries. People find it easier to organise protests in city squares and grounds. So if India doesn’t full fill urban people’s political and socio-economic aspirations, the country would be facing powerful political protests.

Urbanization also poses unique challenges to law and order. Unlike rural areas, people have relatively more anonymity in urban areas. Some newly migrated rural people take advantage of this freedom by indulging in anti-social activities. Hence police presence need to be increased proportionately with growth of the size and population of an urban area.

Increased stress on transport infrastructure is another worry. Long traffic jams frustrates people and decreases the productivity of economy. Uncontrolled traffic  also leads to increased accidents.

The way forward


At the heart of the quality of urbanisation is the governance system of institutions and policies that guide and oversee the planning, execution and co-ordination of land use, building regulations, road construction and delivery of key services such as water supply, sanitation, transport and solid waste disposal, while ensuring adequate mobilisation of the necessary financial resources. The institutional framework for urbanisation has been historically weak. Significant improvements occurred in 1992 with the passage of 74th amendment to the constitution, which emphasised the importance of Urban local bodies(ULBs).  But many believe that this matter needs to be revisited to assign better revenue resources to ULBs, clarify expenditure responsibilities in relation to state and central governments, and improve their staffing and competencies.

Till such reforms, a great deal could be done with in the existing framework. It needs strong administrative and legal support from state government and some assistance from central government, as through the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. Facilitation of setting up new ULBs in towns that are lacking them surely is a primary task of state governments, with some assistance from the Centre.


Secondly, ULBs are chronically short of resources. Yet within the existing framework, many of them, especially city municipalities, could do a far better job in exploiting existing revenue bases such as the property tax, which are usually the prime sources of urban local governments worldwide. There could be a range of other revenue instruments that could be deployed for harnessing some of the soaring land values in urban locales to fund necessary urban infrastructure. Third, user charges need to play a bigger role to fund provision of services such as water, electricity, bus services and waste disposal. Fourth, ULBs can improve resource mobilization and service provision through intelligent deployment of information technology. More generally, there is a great deal hat India’s urban governments can learn from each other.

I have heavily referenced this Business Standard article and other Hindu articles for researching this topic.


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