How Urban is India?

Project Active since Cities

This project seeks to develop a dataset on the extent and location of de facto urbanisation – settlements with characteristics commonly thought of as urban - in India. Based on Census data, about one-third of India is often thought of as urban. However, census classification as urban requires at least 75% of the adult male workforce to be in non-farm employment and has a relatively high bar (in international comparison) for population density. We propose to expand this set of parameters to incorporate other attributes of settlements that may indicate urban or rural characteristics using the Primary Census Abstract and Housing Tables published by the Census of India, Town and Village Directories published by the Registrar General of India, and various other open sources of spatial data such as Bhuvan from the National Remote Sensing Centre and Open Street Maps.

We ask two key questions: first, how much of India’s population lives in an urban-like environment? Recent research on economic geography, built up area, and other indicators of settlement structure suggest that there may be important elements of an urban context in areas classified as rural. Second, where does this population reside (cities, small towns, villages, urban peripheries)?

This research is motivated by consistent and widespread anecdotal evidence of a “de facto” urban distinct from officially designated urban, gleaned through IIHS engagement with urban policymakers at national, state, and urban government levels. It builds on recent work on urbanisation in India has indicated that the Census definitions of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ obscure the extent and location of urbanisation in India. (See, for example, see Denis, Mukhopadhyay, and Zerah’s 2012 EPW piece on Subaltern Urbanization in India; the Urban India 2011: Evidence report by IIHS; and the World Bank (2012) India Urbanisation Review).

An accurate definition of the ‘urban’ is critical for: policy administration: definitions of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ define eligibility for funding programmes; creating a more realistic national perception of the importance of urban strategy, obtaining a clearer understanding of the spatial distribution of public investment and political strategies for managing urban and rural needs. There is anecdotal evidence that Indian state leaders are consciously allocating rural housing funds to create additional housing in fast-growing urban-like areas, for example, but such trends cannot be analyzed without better ability to identify the “de facto” urban areas. The project will also provide a basis for identifying how much and what types of public finance are and need to be directed towards urban-based programmes and addressing the needs of the ‘real’ urban population and provide valuable insight into several on-going discussion on characterising the ‘urban’ whether from a labour market perspective (Uchida and Nelson, 2011), or a density, built form and urban fabric perspective (McGee 1991, 1995, 2001).

The research here will be disseminated as an open dataset with metadata, as well as a series of maps and a working paper-cum-academic paper outlining the implications of the findings on the extent and location of urban-like characteristics.