Reaching the last village

The problem begins with the way we define “urban” and “rural”

Written by Bibek Debroy | Published: May 27, 2016 12:36 am
urbanization, india urbanization, urbanization in india, 2011 census, 2011 census report, 2011 census villages, india census report, indian express, columns The 2011 Census showed 222 villages in the National Capital Territory. (File/Reuters)

As per the 2011 Census, there are 6,40,930 villages in India, of which around 6,00,000 can be regarded as inhabited. The Census, though, treats rural or village population as a residual even as it has different categories of “urban”.

If a settlement is under a municipality, corporation, cantonment board or a notified town area committee, it becomes a statutory town and is hence urban. Another definition of urban is linked to demographic characteristics: If in a population size of 5,000, 75 per cent of the male working population is engaged in non-agricultural pursuits and the population density exceeds 400 people per sq km, this becomes a Census town, regardless of whether it is a statutory town or not.

This reclassification — a deviation from the traditional notions of urbanisation, which we link to the natural rate of growth in urban areas or rural-urban migration — also results in urbanisation. In fact, between 2001 and 2011, a large chunk of increased urbanisation was because of Census towns and not statutory ones.

There is also the matter of an urban outgrowth, when a village (or hamlet) is physically contiguous to a town and possesses urban features; it is then treated as an urban agglomeration. Therefore, anything other than a statutory town, Census town or urban agglomeration is a village.

In that sense, the village is residual, regardless of its population size. The population can be 10,000 people or it can also be 100 people.

I find it odd that the 2011 Census showed 222 villages in the (National Capital Territory), though I understand the definitional issue. There is a process for transition to the “urban”, but that hasn’t yet occurred for these 222 villages. There is a notification, land is acquired by the DDA and during the transition from a panchayat to municipality, there is understandable speculation on the land. You can thus find one side of a road that is “urban” and an opposite side still “rural”, like the area near Masoodpur village.

The major road from NH 8 to the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road is sometimes referred to as the Mahipalpur-Masoodpur Road, both Mahipalpur and Masoodpur being villages. Mahipalpur gets its name from Raja Mahipal Tomar, who established it, while Masoodpur is so named because some six centuries ago, the land was originally bought from Masood Khan. Subsequently, DDA acquired some of this land. Near Masoodpur, you will find malls, institutions and hotels, but you will also find a panchayat bhawan. Many people don’t know that JNU is built on Masoodpur land and that a land acquisition (on quantum of compensation) case is still going on, even though the acquisition was done in 1961 and 1965.

Throughout the country, we want citizens to have access to similar standards of public goods and services — the word “public good” not being used in the classic economist’s sense, but in terms of goods and services we want the government (across all three layers) to provide. We want a minimum threshold to be available everywhere: in the village with a population of 10,000, the village with a population of 100, Masoodpur-type villages, statutory towns and Census towns.

At one level, there is a governance issue. Who ensures those public goods and services — panchayats, municipalities? Or is the village stuck in the interregnum from panchayat to municipality?

I think the more serious issue is that we use the word “village” too loosely, across a very heterogeneous category. For Census purposes, we have in mind a revenue village but there may be many clusters of habitations/hamlets within the same revenue village. Inside forest areas, there may be non-surveyed villages. Just as we have habitations as sub-categories of villages, we have gram panchayats as categories higher than villages. Therefore, we have something like 2,50,000 gram panchayats.

The 2001 Census contains a table (a comparable table is not yet available for the 2011 Census), which provides size distribution of villages according to population. As per the 2001 data, 91,000 villages had population size less than 200, with almost 13,000 of them in Odisha and around 9,000 in HP and UP. There were 1,27,000 villages with population sizes between 200 and 499, with their concentration in UP, Odisha, MP and even Maharashtra.

Delivering public goods and services in a village with a population size of 10,000, where there is a gram panchayat, is relatively easy. Delivering it in a village with a population size less than 200 is much more difficult. Delivering it in every habitation within the village is even more difficult. I forgot to mention that some villages with small population sizes are in difficult geographical terrain. How has this changed? The only decent answer we have seems to be from the ICE (income and consumption expenditure) 2014, undertaken by PRICE (People Research of India’s Consumer Economy). This tells us an expected story of greater integration of larger (population sizes more than 5,000) villages with the mainstream, primarily because of better transport connectivity. The radius of development, so to speak, is getting larger, but there are still the smaller villages.

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