Posted in Development

Development and the Rural-Urban Continuum

A nation which has forgotten its history is doomed. That is why, if we are to understand why Indian towns and cities are the way they are, we need to go back at least to British colonial times…

Every schoolchild knows that the East India Company was here primarily to trade, and stayed on to rule. Therefore the urbanization of India (as in other colonies) concentrated on the development of port cities at Madras, Bombay and Calcutta; Cantonments for the mobilization of the army to maintain law and order; and railway towns to move goods and soldiers as required.

The British were never interested in developing the hinterland – only in exploiting it – and concentrated all facilities like Universities and Hospitals in the cities and towns they created and inhabited.

Meanwhile, the pre-colonial towns and their hinterland went into steady decline, and millions died in the regularly occurring famines in India. The situation is best summed up by that consummate and accessible historian, and our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru in The Discovery of India:

“With the developments in industrial techniques in England a new class of industrial capitalists rose there, demand­ing a change in policy. The British market was to be closed to Indian products and the Indian market opened to British manufactures…The Indian textile industry collapsed, affecting vast numbers of weavers and artisans…

The liquidation of the artisan class led to unemployment on a prodigious scale. What were all these scores of millions, who had so far been engaged in industry and manufacture, to do now? Where were they to go? Their old profession was no longer open to them, the way to a new one was barred. They could die of course; that way of escape from an intolerable situation is always open. They did die in tens of millions. The English Governor­ General of India, Lord Bentinck, reported in 1834 that ‘the misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton weavers are bleaching the plains of India.’ 

All these hordes of artisans and craftsmen had no job, no work, and all their ancient skill was useless… So they became a burden on the land and the burden grew, and with it grew the poverty of the country, and the standard of living fell to incredibly low levels… India became progressively ruralized.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

The Census of India in 1961, defined an urban area as:

– Firstly, those settlements that were given urban civic status, like corporation, municipality and cantonment by the State Governments, and were recognised as ‘statutory’ towns.

– Secondly, ‘census town’, applied to areas which met the following criteria: (1) population size of 5000 or more; (2) density of at least 400 persons per square kilometre; (3) at least 75% of the male workers to be engaged outside agriculture.

As urban development is a State subject in the Constitution of India, there is quite a bit of variation in identifying Statutory Towns across States, making comparisons difficult. State Governments have been declaring overgrown villages as municipalities with great alacrity, often in the neighbourhood of existing metros. As these metros expand, land-owners on the periphery acquire overnight wealth and in order to match their new economic clout with political power, displace the traditional landed elite by the simple expedient of having their home village declared an urban area.

According to the Government of India Census 2011 there are 7,935 urban centres or townships that house the 377 million urban citizens of the country. Of these, the 53 million-plus urban agglomerations account for 160.7 million persons (or 42.6%), and the remaining 217 million – or more than half of the total urban population of India – live in small and medium sized towns.

For example, in Maharashtra there were 26 Municipal Corporations with population > 3,00,000; 12 Class A municipalities (1,00,000-3,00,000 population) ; 61 Class B (40,000-1,00,000 population);152 Class C (< 40,000) and 13 Nagar Panchayats, as notified.

There is news today that the Government is planning to develop these small towns by opening BPOs! Of course, where they will find the manpower in such places to make a success of it, does not trouble the policy announcers! Nor can mowing down these towns as part of developing ‘industrial corridors’ provide sustainable livelihoods – it will only bring displacement of native populations, loss of agricultural land and water and air pollution.

Can we not, therefore, look at the larger picture and convert our small towns from the problem to the solution?

Even the most cursory survey will show that no more than 40% of the adult population of the ‘C’ Class municipalities is employed in non-agricultural activities (which, incidentally, contravenes the 75% criterion for urban areas outlined in Census 1961). Already, these smaller towns are intimately tied to the agrarian foundations of the country, informally networking tens of thousands of villages with regional and national markets.

It is argued that with adequate resource allocation and infrastructure development, this network could be formalized, and extended into the global arena. Such a network would sustain the agricultural economy regionally and globally, and also become the base for the industrial, manufacturing and service sectors by providing competitive labour. Such a development would not only lead to more balanced economic growth, but also prevent distress migration to the metros, by tertiarizing rural economies.

With 60% of the population of the smallest of these municipalities already engaged in agriculture, they provide the ideal hubs for the tertiarisation of the rural economy through the development of agro-industries and food processing and storage. Once the agro-industries sector is well developed, we can consider FDI in retail without jeopardising rural livelihoods.

Where handicrafts are the main industry, this networking could be developed on the basis of workers’ collectives. There is the classic case of a village in Rajasthan, where the main industry was the manufacturing of mojri shoes. Thanks to the initiative of a development agency and local NGO, a workers’ collective was created, the entire manufacturing process was streamlined and standardised, and the collective was soon flush with export orders from places as far afield as Japan and the US!

The success of sugar cooperatives in Maharashtra (like Warananagar and Baramati) is strong evidence of the success of cooperative farming, food-processing units, workers’ collectives and SHGs in making these places the hub of India’s growing food and agro-industry. That is the way to prosperity and elimination of local poverty and eventual prevention of emigration to bigger metros.

In my next Post, I hope to touch upon the larger cities and ways to stem informalisation, and address at least some of the issues arising from the growing urbanisation of Indian poverty…



I am a trainer of Government Officials and Elected Representatives, specializing in the urban and municipal sector. I have also written extensively on Urban Governance, Poverty, Development, Social Accountability and Municipal Management in the Indian context, and wish to share these writings with you through this blog.

3 thoughts on “Development and the Rural-Urban Continuum

  1. Excellent article, touching sustainable development, tertiarizing agriculture sector with proven example of Warananagar, urbanization of small and medium towns and their global and national links hinting at inclusive development.


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