India in a Liminal Phase?

I came across an interesting article, “New ‘census’ towns showcase new India” that made me ponder over the direction where India is heading. Through the study of the Saraon village, eastern Uttar Pradesh, it shows how the process of urbanization is incorporating villages into its fold as can be seen in the rapidly expanding classification of the ‘census town’. These census towns, placed on a rural-urban divide, are more developed, have better business opportunities and a bigger consuming class. Yet, they fail to meet the increasing demands for basic needs like better roads, proper sewerage systems, 24-hour access to safe water and electricity. Their liminality instead poses several problems related to governance and growth. The auther says:

The census of India reclassifies 2,500 large villages as “census town”. This urban classification, which exists on census paper only, helps differentiate between India’s smaller farming communities and the larger market town-type settlements that are experiencing rapid and haphazard growth. To become a census town, a village must fulfill three criteria—it needs at least 5,000 inhabitants, a density of 400 people per sq. km, and, crucially, at least three quarters of its male working population must be “engaged in non-agricultural pursuits.

Though villages still vastly outnumber towns in India (Census 2011 estimated 8,000 urban centres, including census towns, in a sea of 660,000 villages), the construct of these villages is changing. Since 1951, the proportion of rural India living in small villages and hamlets (of fewer than 2,000 people) has decreased from 63% to an estimated 28% today according to Census data analysis by the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS). But, at the same time, the percentage of Indians living in large villages (more than 5,000 people) jumped from 5% to 17%.

What does the emergence of such census towns indicate? Can we now ensure the supply of necessary amenities to all? Do we have equitable distribution of resources? I’m afraid, not. And this is because the transition from rural to urban is not well-planned.

The main road from Allahabad seen from pradhan Farooq Raien’s rooftop. Most development has happened along this thoroughfare.

Semi-urban though they might feel, census towns are still run by panchayats (village councils) and classified as rural for all official purposes, allowing them to draw on Union government development schemes and exempting them from property taxes. However, a combination of more people and more money has spurred demand for better roads, proper sewerage systems and 24-hour access to safe water and electricity—the kind of services a panchayat finds hard to deliver with its limited resources and capacity. Though the wages have gone up, but the new prosperity aside, development has happened in uneven jolts. Although fibre-optic cable is being laid from Allahabad to bring high-speed Internet to the village, Soraon’s roads are still in bad repair, its electricity intermittent and its drains dirty. Many residents of Soraon are uneasy at the prospect of becoming an official statutory town with a municipal board and the elections and taxes that would follow.

Though there has been a growth in the standard of living and the consumer economy in such towns, yet many people still lack basic amenities like access to safe drinking water, 24-hour power backup, adequate sewage disposal, smooth traffic flow, etc. These are some of the biggest challenges that our country is facing today. We aim to address these challenges at the Design Public Conclave to be held in November this year. With our focus on four challenge tracks- Equitable Water, Post-Grid Power, Nimble Agriculture, and Smarter Cities- we aim to bring together bring together a range of experts from different sectors of society to collaboratively identify new forms of cross-sectoral partnerships towards solving these outstanding challenges.

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1 Response to India in a Liminal Phase?

  1. namrata says:

    Great post Akanksha! I was just reading this book called “Arrival City” that essentially talks about the character of these ‘census towns’, and it speaks directly to the idea that these are in-between, liminal urban transitions. It’s got some very nice anecdotes and examples from several countries, but emerging as well as developed. I’ll bring it in for you, one of these days.

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