Column: 2,532 new towns or 2,532 new Dharavis

First the good news. India's urban population grew by around 91 million between 2001 and 2011, accounting for more than half the people, 181.4 million, the country added in the last decade.

Population growth in urban India far outstripped that of rural areas, 32% and 12%, respectively. The share of urban population rose from 28.81% in 2001 to 31.16% in 2011. There was negative growth in the rural population in many states, like Kerala, Sikkim and Nagaland. Amongst the big states, Andhra Pradesh added the least number of people to its villages, up just 1.64% in the last decade, compared to a stupendous 36.26% population growth in her cities.

Growing urbanisation is a sign of a developing economy, pointing to a whittling down of the populace's dependence on the primary sector—agriculture and allied activities—and a move towards more remunerative livelihoods in manufacturing and services, the mainstay of an urban economy. Why, even a large part of India's rural economy now, almost 60%, is led by informal industry and services, with agriculture accounting for only 40% of rural GDP, according to research by the National Council for Applied Economic Research.

In fact, between 2001 and 2011, India added more towns—2,774—as against 2,279 villages. And this is where the picture starts getting bleak. Of the 2,774 new towns that emerged in the last decade, under a tenth, or 242, were statutory towns—ones with a formal municipality, corporation, cantonment board or notified town area committee. And as many as 2,532 are classified as census towns or, in short, an agglomeration of more than 5,000 people, where over three-fourths of the working males earn their bread from non-agricultural activities and with a population density of 400 people per square kilometre, the census definition of an urban area outside statutory towns.

Now do the maths. Assuming each of these 2,532 new census towns make the urban cut at a bare minimum 5,000 people, the total population that we are speaking of is in the order of 13 million. Push the average people per new census town to 7,500, and you have a total population that touches 19 million and 25 million at 10,000 people per new census town. To put this in perspective, we are speaking of anywhere from 14% to 27% of urban population growth between 2011 and 2011 being accounted by these completely unplanned new urban areas, outside existing cities, possibly without any semblance of civic amenities like sanitation, electricity, water, roads, etc. Now, even amongst existing cities—5,161 as per the 2001 census—over 90% didn't even have a partial sewerage system, and only under a fifth had road networks with any drainage system for rain water. Imagine what hell holes of filth, squalor and disease these new census towns sans any formal and functioning town body will be.

Dharavi, Asia's biggest slum cluster, in Mumbai, is estimated to house anywhere from 0.3 million to one million people. India's new 2,532 census towns have populations equivalent to anywhere from 13 to 75 new and independent Dharavis across the country!

Though a clear picture will emerge once detailed census data is made available, it's anyone's guess as to the genesis of these new 2,532 shanty towns. These may very well be villages that have made the transition where over 75% 'male main workers are engaged in non-agriculture pursuits', part of the inevitable trend of the rural economy getting more and more diversified away from agriculture.

Equally, many of the 2,532-odd census towns may very well have sprung up as new urban agglomerations besides big cities, kind of like ghettos that house migrants in search of livelihoods.

Obviously, these new non-statutory towns are outside the domain of the village panchayats and even the town bodies. We have not even begun to start thinking of the policy implications of such growth in census towns. If, for instance, a majority of these are overgrown villages, do the government's poverty alleviation programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act apply here, since they are no longer 'rural'? And if they are indeed villages that have 'urbanised', how would a mass of 13-25 million people react if the government keeps half of them outside the Food Security Act umbrella, as envisaged for urban areas in the Act as compared to exclusion of just a fourth in rural areas? The cost for bringing the 535-acre Dharavi's civic infrastructure just at par with a far-from-model Mumbai's is estimated to be upwards of R15,000 crore. Imagine what tens of these non-contiguous ones, spread across the country, will cost!

shailesh.dobhal@expressindia.com

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