And the city softly sings the blues

Whether or not urbanisation is the way forward for India, rural-to-urban migration is a reality we must face up to. Sadly, our cities fail the millions who arrive in hope

Saurabh Roy | January 23, 2017

#Smart City   #Urban Development   #Urban India   #Sanitation   #Swachh Bharat   #Transport  

India is a largely rural country with 68 percent of its population living in villages. As per the 2011 census, approximately 32 percent of the population or 38 crore people stay in cities. This figure is expected to grow rapidly to 59 crore by 2030 (McKinsey) with rural-to-urban migration being the main driver of urbanisation, driven by multiple factors like industrialisation, employment opportunities and social factors.

Fifty years ago, agriculture accounted for half of India’s GDP and was responsible for more than three-fourths of the jobs in the country. Today, it accounts for 13.7 percent of the GDP but still employs 51 percent of Indian’s unorganised workforce. Worse, agricultural productivity has remained more or less stagnant in the last 50 years.

As India has developed into a more services-based economy, agriculture has become more crowded and less profitable. It has forced hundreds of millions of rural inhabitants into choosing between the following options: remaining in the villages and surviving through low-returns subsistence farming; struggling to find non-farm related opportunities; moving to urban centres as part of the 100 million-plus migrant population. Finding non-farm related work is difficult, for want of market access or marketable skills. In the cities too, migrants’ lack of saleable skills often leads to exploitation.

The growth of urban population as well as the pace of urbanisation has been generally slow in India compared to other Asian countries. For India’s demographic dividend to pay out, India needs thriving cities – not just the metros, but cities like Madurai, Gwalior and Amritsar with population of more than 10 lakh – to start supporting a modern sustainable economy. It is estimated (McKinsey) that by 2030, Indian cities can produce 70 percent of the net new jobs in the economy and sustain  about 59 crore people.

We have not really come to terms with the reality of an urban future. Politicians still debate whether the prosperity of the future lies in the villages or in the cities and many people believe that urbanisation is anti-rural. This is clearly a myth as cities shift the workforce away from the least productive sector of the economy (agriculture) towards more productive jobs that will be important for the eventual rise of per capita income in the country.

Cities deliver a higher quality of life to citizens. Urban scale benefits mean the cost of delivering basic services is 30 to 40 percent cheaper in concentrated population centres than in sparsely populated areas. Cities provide better access to sources of income, health facilities, education and other social amenities.

While cities may be melting pots that have helped mitigate traditional caste-based discrimination, urban spaces are generating newer forms of inequalities and exclusions that go beyond caste. Urban development in India is a story of sharp contrasts. On the one hand, we have glitzy buildings, shopping arcades, corporate offices, and neatly laid out residential complexes that provide a clean, safe, and healthy existence; on the other, there also exist shanty towns, slums, and the informal economy, where people live in sub-human conditions and earn a living by doing odd jobs, including casual labour at construction sites, domestic work, rickshaw pulling, security guard duty, street vending and hawking. While their contributions are indispensable to the smooth working of urban spaces, these people and their needs are overlooked in the planning and vision of urban development.

In fact, urban planning is completely ignored in India.

In British times, cities were segmented into blocks, wards and colonies, whereby people belonging to similar socio-economic brackets lived together. This spatial segregation of the rich and the poor made it easier for the government as well as private agencies to determine the level and quality of basic amenities to match the affordability of the local community or the power structure and almost effectively institutionalising the disparity. When new migrants came to urban centres, the poor were pushed out to urban peripheries or marginal lands within the cities, resulting in the growth of slums. The growth of slums or squatter settlements has resulted in serious social, economic and environmental problems. About 25 percent of India’s urban families live in slums, squatter settlements or refugee colonies because proper houses are beyond what they can afford.

India, unlike China, places no restriction on internal migration. People are free to move across states in search of opportunities. However, local governments and the middle class view economically poor migrants as outsiders making illegitimate claims to life in the cities. In urban India, economic class has become the new caste.

The caste anonymity is not enough to allow access to all urban spaces. Gated communities and private spaces restrict entry to most poor people. In Mumbai, housing is often restricted on the basis of religion, food habits and even marital status. While such exclusionary practices are not legalised, little is being done towards the active enforcement of rights that allow for an integrated society.

Much depends on a city’s ability to create an enabling environment for new entrants. This involves planning for services such as access to safe housing, water, electricity, schools and healthcare. However, institutional and state policy efforts to this end seem to have been sparse. In urban India, government services can only be accessed through a host of official documents such as property lease or ownership papers, PAN cards, bank statements, bills, and voter IDs, essentially leaving poor migrants to access basic services at a premium in the black market economy.

Urban saturation

India’s urbanisation has its own quirks. So far, we have not been able to create multitudes of cities with their own eco-system. We have instead relied upon the major cities to drive urbanisation and it is to these cities that most of the country’s migrant labour flocks in search for better opportunities. India’s urban centres are hence fast becoming congested. Local governments have not been able to ramp up public goods to match the inflow of people to cities.


Housing in Indian metros is notoriously expensive. China’s mega-cities have seen a five-fold increase in property prices over the past decade. Yet despite these astounding increases, property prices in Beijing and Shanghai are still only half of comparable property in Delhi and Mumbai. And urban infrastructure is better in China. India’s excessively high property prices reflect a combination of two archaic practices: reserving large parcels of valuable urban land for government use and outdated and overly rigid building codes that discourage concentrated development of commercial activity and housing in the core of cities. This pushes development to the outer suburbs, making it difficult to realise the agglomeration benefits that drive productivity gains. Correspondingly, people have to either commute long distances for work or live in expensive and sub-par housing. In every city, almost 50 percent of the population lives in slums. As these are illegal colonies, they do not have any civic amenities like drinking water, sewage and electricity.

Urban transport

As cities are growing, distances to be travelled are increasing. With more than half the population being poor or belonging to low income groups, public transport is a necessity. Unfortunately, we are just waking up to this challenge. While poor migrants do not have access to adequate and affordable transport facility, richer people are able to buy cars for their travel. The main reason for this condition is that the low income forces people to live in areas with cheap accommodation which necessitates extensive travel. Further, since they cannot afford to pay high fares for using public transport, fares have to be kept low resulting in bus services sustaining annual losses, hampering their expansion or maintenance. As the number of motor vehicles is rising, traffic jams and pollution are increasing. Only recently local and state governments have woken up to this problem and metro rail systems are being set up. Kolkata and Delhi have well managed metro rail systems but they are inadequate. Mumbai and Chennai have had a long history of local trains but even these are proving inadequate with population in these cities growing rapidly.

People have to rely mostly on bus transport but their number is not enough; nor are the roads able to accommodate all the vehicles now in use.


All cities are under-policed. Rich citizens are able to pay for their own security with gated communities and private security arrangements. This is a sad reflection on the capacity of the authorities to provide security to inhabitants. Similarly, healthcare, waste disposal, almost every public service is overburdened in cities.

Rural infrastructure

The sad truth is that even with all these problems, Indian cities manage to provide better conditions for inhabitants than villages. The state of rural infrastructure is pathetic. Currently, 45 percent of rural India does not have access to stable power supply, 10 percent have no access to drinking water, and 70 percent have no access to toilet facilities. The average distance to all-weather roads is 2 km.
Rural health outcomes are alarming, to say the least. Twenty percent of rural households have none of the three basic services – safe drinking water, sanitation and electricity – and only 18 percent have access to all three. Access to basic facilities is glaringly unequal. Only 5 percent of the low-spending quintile and about 10 percent of the SC/ST groups have all three facilities. But deprivation is so high in rural areas that only 39 percent of even the high-spending quintile and only 33 percent of advanced social groups have access to all three basic facilities.

The major work in Indian villages is agriculture and allied activities, apart from some small businesses.

Agricultural productivity has not increased much in the past decade and to improve rural incomes, people will have to be moved to more productive work like trade or industry. The value added in agriculture in 2012 was Rs 63,000 per agricultural worker, less than a fourth of the average figure for non-agricultural workers. At Rs 170 a day, this is barely higher than the minimum daily wage of unskilled agricultural labour. For the millions working in agriculture, the possibility of escaping poverty depends on the availability of jobs in more productive sectors.

As long as rural infrastructure languishes, migration will continue to happen, putting immense pressure on cities. Along with infrastructure, the government also needs to focus on rural employment. The NREGA, by providing a baseline support to rural workers, has increased rural welfare immensely. But to take Indian villages into the next century, aside from improved infrastructure, employment has to be generated in the villages.

India is undoubtedly becoming urban. As our cities become more congested, the quality of life in the cities is also taking a beating. If the quality of life in cities keeps deteriorating, we may have to face a reality where people prefer to live subsistence lives in the villages than move to cities in search of opportunities and social mobility. A job is essentially looked upon as a tool for social mobility. It provides income and via income access to services that improve the quality of one’s life. In a more interconnected world, the poor can observe how the rich live and people in developing countries are aware of what social infrastructures are available in developed countries. If India is not able to meet the rising aspirations of the upcoming generation, if youth are idle and are denied basic services, a sense of disillusionment and exclusion will grow. The 100 smart cities project looks good on paper but a city cannot be smart as long as basic amenities are not provided for. If urban services are not provided for in all these 100 cities, hi-tech gadgetry will be of no consequence. It behoves the government to focus on basic infrastructure rather than build castles in the sky or, in this case, in the air waves.

Roy is a fellow at Pahle India Foundation.

(The article appears in the January 16-31, 2017 issue)



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