Recognition of senior policymakers in the government that many so-called large villages are really urban areas but are not classified as towns on account of various reasons is a step in the right direction. Demographers from the 1990s onwards have questioned the definition of rural and urban and underlined the fact that reclassification of large villages to towns leads to substantial advances in our understanding of the dynamics of movements in the Indian economy. This phenomenon was not recognised as urbanisation until the 2011 Census.
In the 2006 S.K.Dey Centenary Memorial lecture, we established that there were “large villages” that met the census criteria of towns but were not classified as urban areas by the government and, at that time, even in the census (now called census towns). This led to a pessimistic perception of urbanisation. I argued then that a part of this pessimistic perception arose from settlements which are “urban” by census definitions not being classified as “urban”. While the absolute differences on this account could be small, “small” absolute differences can affect the projections seriously. For instance, if a proper classification was made of the “villages” in Gujarat that were not rural according to the census definition but were not classified as towns, the rate of change in urbanisation in the state would be twice that which is currently planned for.
This anomaly was recognised in the 2011 Census. In Gujarat, the 2006 projections have turned out to be accurate for 2011. The pattern is similar in agriculturally advanced states like Punjab, in contrast to industrially advanced Gujarat, and a relatively backward state like Bihar. In all, we are talking about a million or more farmers having moved to census towns. Policymakers have been forced to recognise this phenomenon for 2011, but are still resisting its implications for future planning, which is a terrible mistake.
The 2011 Census shows that this trend was prevalent in the whole country and the increase in the population of census towns was roughly equivalent to the increase in the rate of urbanisation of the country. The census authority was saying that more than 4 crore Indians had moved from villages to urban areas, which were not officially classified as municipalities, notified towns or cantonments and, were not counted as urban. In the 11th plan (2007-2012), this problem was finally recognised. The base numbers were changed, but corrections were not factored in the projections of urban population.
This conundrum continues. What it really means is crores of farmers have moved from villages to towns following the laws of the market because the demand for their products was rising in markets in small towns. This was particularly true for milk and animal husbandry products like eggs, poultry and so on, and fruits and vegetables. But these were not officially taken into account and, therefore, the provision to build infrastructure in market towns — markets, storage facilities, processing of agriculture commodities, roads, communication infrastructure — was not provided to the extent needed.
The next round of population projection is not yet ready. The Technical Group on Population Projections is still working on it. This time the pressure to provide backup to the Five Year Plan (FYP) is not there since there is no FYP. The ministries may rely on earlier statistics and projections of rural and urban population. Now that an important official of the NITI Ayog has recognised this problem, the ministries, hopefully, will be pushed to factor in these changes in their workplan. The Expert Group on Population Projection will, hopefully, submit its report soon and many infrastructure planning decisions which have to take into account population projections will get to work with the correct set of numbers on rural and urban population and migration from rural to urban areas.
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