Mains Article

India Needs Smart Urbanisation [Mains Article]

In India, metropolitan cities have acted as engines of growth, but lack of urban planning in general and spatial planning (integrated land use and transport) in particular has left major scars on the city fabric, with significant deterioration in the quality of public services and ease of living.
By IT's Mains Articles Team
September 12, 2019


  • Introduction
  • India’s Urban Scenario
  • Focusing on generation of non-farm employment opportunities
  • Problems in Urban areas
  • Suggestions
  • Conclusion

India Needs Smart Urbanisation

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  • Residents of a village near Ahmedabad have been protesting against their inclusion in the city’s urban area by the local urban development authority. Similar protests have been observed in villages elsewhere in Gujarat.

Residents of a village

  • Meanwhile, pollution in India’s urban areas have initiated reverse migration. Farmers from Haryana who had migrated to Delhi and Gurugram for work to escape an agricultural crisis are increasingly going back to their farms during winter, unable to take the toxic pollution.
  • Hence, there is need for Bold measures for connectivity, through transit-oriented development, leading to decongesting growth centres, strengthening labour markets and building rural-urban linkages.

India’s Urban Scenario


  • Over 34% of India’s current population lives in urban areas, rising by 3% since 2011. India’s urban population could increase to 814 million by 2050.
  • While existing large urban cities (population above 50 lakh) have remained mostly constant in number since 2005, smaller cities have risen significantly (from 34 to 50 with 10-50 lakh population).
  • Under Smart City scheme, over 90 ‘Smart Cities’ have identified more than 2,800 projects, however, these projects lag on implementation.
  • There is an outstanding shortage of over 10 million affordable houses (despite the government taking encouraging steps to incentivise their construction).
  • The annually recurring instances of floods in Mumbai, dengue in Delhi and lakes on fire in Bengaluru adds to the current urban grim scenario.

Focusing on generation of non-farm employment opportunities

  • Due to Shrinking land-man ratio, the agriculture sector is unable to generate more jobs for the rural population of India. According to the Agriculture Census 2010-11, the average land holding size is only 1.15 hectares.
  • Cultivation alone can no longer provide livelihood sustenance for 70 percent of those farm households, who possess less than one-hectare land holding.
  • As per the National Sample Survey estimates, the average monthly consumption expenditure of such marginal farmers is higher than their income through cultivation.
  • According to the United Nations World Urbanisation Prospects (2018), India’s rural population is projected to climb up from 856 million in 2011 to reach the peak of 909 million by 2027.
  • Thus, generation of non-farm employment opportunities for surplus rural workforce has become an imperative for India’s economic policy.

Cluster development

  • Cluster development schemes to boost rural growth launched earlier under the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee National Rurbun Mission or Mega Food Parks, had been slow in its implementation.
  • To fast-track rural industrialisation through such clusters, the farmer producer organisations need to be located near transportation interchanges, especially mandi towns, to attain an economy of scale and better supply-chain logistics.

Significance of strategically located clusters

  • The clustering of artisanal crafts and small-scale agro-processing units offer opportunities for peer-learning; facilitating the sharing of orders and expensive machineries and reducing transportation costs.
  • Co-location of agro-economy activities could trigger multiplier effect and encourage further investments from related trades such as packaging industries, transportation and logistics firms, agro-machinery dealers as well as support infrastructure in the form of education, healthcare, residential and retail functions.
  • The agro-driven urbanisation process could stimulate the construction activities in these small towns and generate jobs for the surplus farm-labour from neighbouring villages.

Problems of Urban areas

Definition of ‘Urban’

  • The Central government considers a settlement as urban if
    • it has an urban local government, a minimum population of 5,000
    • over 75% of its (male) population working in non-agricultural activities
    • a population density of at least 400 per sq. km.
  • However, many States consider such towns as rural, and establish governance through a rural local government or panchayat.
  • For instance, the Dabgram city in West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district, which is classified only as a ‘census town’, while having a population more than 120,000.

Low urban infrastructure investment

  • Another issue is the low level of urban infrastructure investment and capacity building.
  • India spends about $17 per capita annually on urban infrastructure projects, against a global benchmark of $100 and China’s $116.
  • Governments announced a variety of schemes including the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. However, the implementation of such schemes have been mostly inadequate.
  • Moreover, there is a limited exploration of financing options. For example, Jaipur and Bengaluru collect only 5-20% of their potential property tax. This raises a question of how can urban local bodies be sustainable without enforcing such tax.
  • Meanwhile, urban institutions also suffer from a shortage of skilled people.

Urban Migration

  • Internal migration in India is very closely linked to urban transitions, helping in reducing poverty. However, urban migration is not viewed positively in India, with policies often seeking to reduce rural to urban migration.
  • Hence, there needs to have policies and programmes in place to facilitate the integration of migrants into the local urban fabric, and building city plans with a regular migration forecast assumed.
  • Lowering the cost of migration, along with eliminating discrimination against migrants, while protecting their rights will help raise development.

Multiple transitions


  • Indian cities have been witness to multiple transitions over the last century, with barely any time to recover and adapt.
  • The British creation of three metropolitan port cities, rollout of the railway network, relegating erstwhile prominent Mughal-era towns such as Surat and Patna into provincial backwaters, creation of hill stations in northern India and the advent of the plantation economy, along with industrial townships (such as Jamshedpur) transformed trading networks.
  • Hence, transforming them into neatly organised urban spaces is a great challenge.

Dispersed Indian Urbanization

  • Urban policy in India since the mid-2000s has focused on transforming metropolitan areas into economic powerhouses. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) exhibited a clear metropolitan bias. Recent schemes such as the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and the Smart Cities Mission have also favoured metros and million-plus cities.
  • Policymakers have barely paid attention to the dispersed spatial nature of India’s urbanization. It is driven not by the large-scale migration of villagers to the metropolis but by the natural growth of large city populations.

Messy and exclusionary Cities

  • Despite the attempts to address infrastructure and service gaps in larger cities, Indian cities remain increasingly unliveable as well as exclusionary.
  • For residents, the economic opportunity represented by the city is countered by disincentives like higher costs of food and housing, bad air quality, inefficient transport and inadequate basic services.

No power to local government

  • There has been no serious effort to decentralize power to urban local bodies, as mandated by the 74th Constitutional Amendment, or equip cities with adequate numbers of urban managers.
  • Instead of being handled by the directly elected government that runs the municipal corporation, critical planning functions related to land use and zoning; infrastructure and design interventions etc. are carried out by state government-run institutions.
  • This makes it hard for governments to respond to localized problems, or tap into community initiatives.

Creation of metropolitan regions by default

  • The term ‘metropolitan area’ is defined in the Constitution as an area having a population of over 1 million, consisting of two or more Municipalities or Panchayats or other contiguous areas that may span over multiple districts.
  • The Constitution provides considerable discretion to the state governments in determining the administrative boundaries of metropolitan areas.
  • But metropolitan regions have been delineated by the state governments without paying attention to the need to create a unified market, especially labour market. As a result, metropolitan regions are being created by default and not by design.
  • Moreover, the Census of India does not use the term metropolitan region or metropolitan area. Instead, a continuous urban spread constituting a town or multiple contiguous towns and their adjoining outgrowths is defined as urban agglomeration.

Little interest in MPC

  • The 74th Amendment Act mandated the setting up of Metropolitan Planning Committees (MPC) in all metropolitan areas to prepare Draft Development Plans.
  • However, MPCs remained a non-starter as states showed little interest in their establishment.
  • There are no examples of any MPC carrying through a Draft Development Plan through a state government approval, financing and implementation.

Other Metropolitan challenges

  • A range of institutions such as municipalities, and other parastatals such as State Water and Sewerage Boards continue to coexist in metropolitan regions, often with overlapping functional jurisdictions and little coordination amongst them.
  • The ad hoc extension of urban boundaries and regularisation of unauthorised colonies brings with it additional challenges for metropolitan governance and financing.


Multiply urban growth engines

  • The government must reorient central and state government schemes to include small cities, as a means of signalling their inclusion into India’s urban growth narrative.
  • A focus on small cities also helps villagers, given half of India’s rural-urban migration is in smaller cities.
  • Investments in small cities can go much further than basic infrastructure to create quality jobs and develop skills, both for rural and urban workers.
  • With over half of India’s industries located in rural, policies related to industrial development, skill development and labour must also focus on transitional ‘rurban’ spaces.

Integrated planning

  • India can take inspiration from South Africa’s recent initiatives. South Africa’s National Development Plan Vision 2030 articulated the vision of boosting small town economies to address rural poverty. Accordingly, one agro-park cluster is being developed in each of the country’s 44 districts.
  • Thus, it has put in place an institutional architecture for coordination between various sectoral departments for plan implementation.
  • In India, constitutional provisions for such integrated planning exist through the District Planning framework under Article 243 ZD of the Constitution since the local government reforms of 1992, but are not fully operationalised.

Reversing rigid planning regimes

  • The rigid plans of Indian cities have been ineffective to sustain economic growth.
  • The governance of metropolitan areas might require a unique approach, given the complexities of their problems and the multiplicity of governance actors and institutions.
  • For instance, Kolkata’s auto rickshaw system is reliable and well-connected due to attempt of localized legislation to overcome the difficulties of central laws and the involvement of representatives of rickshaw unions in key decisions like route planning.

Representation of local initiatives

  • A plethora of local initiatives must find representation in urban reform strategies.
  • Some of these initiatives deliver lasting solutions, such as the public library in Panaji, Goa, that is open seven days a week to all residents.

Enable labour mobility and improve governance of migration

  • A focus on the social protection in every city could be key to remove barriers for migration.
  • After providing such protection, government will have the opportunity to amend legislations to facilitate the registration of migrant construction workers in various schemes under the Building and Other Construction Workers Act.
  • Ramping up universalized social protection in education and health, including critical interventions like Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), will incentivize long-term migration to cities over time.


  • India need to empower their cities, with a focus on land policy reforms, granting urban local bodies the freedom to raise financing and enforce local land usage norms.
  • Moreover, to maximise the growth potential and contain the adverse ecological fallout of uncontrolled conversion of fertile agricultural land into urban real estate, the agricultural towns and their rural peripheries require to be planned through an integrated spatio-economic framework.


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