Rethinking the rural

India is urbanising away from the big cities. This trend calls for policy changes

Say "rural India", and the image that flashes in our minds is that of a buffalo tied outside a mud hut. After all, for most if not all of us, rural equals agriculture. Imagine the surprise, therefore, when told that while all agriculture by definition is rural, the converse is no longer true. Now only one-fourth of rural output comes from agriculture. Fifty-five per cent of India's manufacturing output comes from rural India. Seventy-five per cent of all manufacturing plants that started in the last decade started in rural India.

This is so counter-intuitive, it needs an explanation, and it lies in the unique way in which India defines "urban". In India, there are two types of towns: statutory towns and census towns. A statutory town is simply a habitation that the government calls a town — it has a municipal corporation instead of a gram panchayat (village council) as the administrative organisation. The census town, on the other hand, is a far more interesting construct: the government thinks of it as a village, but the Census Bureau thinks it has all three mandatory characteristics of a town: one, a population of at least 5,000; two, a population density of at least 400 people per square kilometre, and three, at most 25 per cent of working males in agriculture. This third criterion is what makes India stand out — very few, if any, countries have this requirement.

This is why comparing India's urbanisation (31 per cent) with, say, that of China (50 per cent), is like comparing apples with oranges. For argument's sake, a habitation with 70 per cent of the workforce in factories but 30 per cent herding cattle would still be called a village in India: not until the agrarian dependency is below 25 per cent will it become even a census town. In China, it would most likely have been reclassified as a town and given an urban administrator a decade back. This is possibly why roads to some exotic seaside villas in Alibaug were constructed with funding from the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana.

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