Fractured Thinking, Fragmented Setup

How Big Is the Indian Metropolis?

Urban agglomerations were recognized formally and adopted for the first time in the 1971 Census Report based on a rather tight definition of contiguous urban growth. But for planners, the MRs, by definition, include urbanizing and urbanizable settlements as well.

Out of the total urban population of 377 million in the country, nearly 53 agglomerations, each with a million people or more, have a total population of 160 million, that is, 42 per cent The five metro regions covered in the book (Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Mumbai) account for about 68.5 million people, which is about 18 per cent of the country’s urban population. All the five are included in various lists of large cities in the world prepared by organizations such as the World Gazettes, Demographia, and United Nations.”

Are Metropolitan Populations Declining?

Since the 2011 Census figures became available, some scholars have been tempted to make comparisons about the growth in different cities and claim that large cities have not been growing as much as before; in some cases population has been declining. Kolkata is frequently cited as an example where the 2001 population of 4.57 million within the core city has declined to 4.48 million. In the case of Mumbai, although the population in the corporation area has increased, the pace of growth is lower than before. However, for MRs, the population growth has to be considered for the region as a whole rather than for its individual constituent units.

The core and the periphery, as well as the question whether one has been growing while the other has declined, have prompted debates for a long time. American planners refer to the phenomenon of declining core and growing periphery as the ‘hole in the doughnut’. Delhi and Ahmedabad are examples of a declining core and a growing periphery for certain periods, but there could also be cases where the core is growing while the periphery is declining. This has happened in the case of Bangalore, if the 1991–2001 population figures are considered. There are also several instances where both the core and the periphery are growing, such as Pune and Surat. Similarly, Kochi and Kolkata are instances of declining core and periphery.”


One of the common perceptions flying in the face of economic and demographic realities is that migration from rural to urban areas is the principal cause of urban growth. A corollary of this perception is that our cities and towns will be much better places if the so-called flood of migrants is stopped or deflected. Rural development and provision of urban amenities in rural areas are advanced as answers to stem migration. It is claimed that flagship schemes of the government, such as MGNREGA, can halt or slow down rural to urban migration. The case for rural development should rest on its own and not be argued as an alternative to urbanization. That urbanization is a manifestation of the economic changes is now widely experienced across the world. The true purpose of rural development cannot hold people down in the farm, irrespective of availability of jobs. Furthermore, it is universally recognized that an important aspect of rural development is enhancing agricultural productivity, which implies a lesser number of people directly engaged in cultivation but producing more. India has already witnessed to this development.

“The problem with migration in India is not that too many people are moving out from the farm, but too few. Given the size of India’s population, the quantum of migration is too little. According to the 2001 Census, out of the total population of 1.02 billion, migrants accounted for 307 million, which included migrants who moved 20 years or earlier.

“With regard to metropolitan cities, the quantum of migration has not been uniform and, as a component of growth, it has varied from one census period to another. Yet, it has been a significant part of increase in population. It is noteworthy that much of the migration into metropolitan cities is from within the state and not from other states, except for the Mumbai City Corporation.”

Economy, Livelihoods, and People

“Given the varied aspects of urban economy such as increasing labour force, employment prospects, existing and new establishments of manufacture and services, and livelihoods, the question is what possibly could be the role of the metropolitan planning and development authorities in addressing them. In the Indian situation, investment decisions are taken essentially by the investors themselves. In the days before liberalization, several clearances were required, especially for manufacturing establishments. Whatever be the demerits of the license raj, it at least provided information about the types of industries, their locations, their scope, employment, etc. At present, the investors are largely free to decide on the location depending on their best judgement. Environmental clearance and local authority approvals are still required, but these come at a later stage. The state governments and metropolitan-level bodies are able to make only an approximate assessment of growth possibilities.”

Towards an Alternative Entity for Metropolitan Governance

“Given a chance, cities can survive, grow, innovate, succeed, and help a globalized world to deal with stagnation and recovery. Early in the book, a reference has been made to research programmes, monitoring global economy and the crucial role several of the world’s cities play. Benjamin Barber, in the book with the ambitious title If Mayors Ruled the World, foresees a global parliament of mayors who will take the lead in dealing with climate change issues, environmental sustainability, and promoting exchange of knowledge and skills (Barber 2013). Barber points out, ‘[T]he planet itself pleads the case. The seas are rising, the glaciers melting, the atmosphere warming. But the 193 notions that have gathered annually in Copenhagen, Mexico City, Durban and Rio remain “implacable”, stubbornly adhering to their sovereignty. Yet that sovereignty itself has become an endangered notion, bent by many a global assault’.

The nation state did fill its role in the post–Second World War reconstruction but in the contemporary scene of globalization the opportunities available for nation-states for guiding their own future and that of others are becoming less, not more. Writing several years ago Robert Norman, a political scientist, argued that even the largest state does not have the agility or sensitivity to deal with the problems of its principal cities (Norman 1976). Likewise, even the largest cities cannot hope to take centre stage in the country. This is the essence of the sovereignty trap. Escape from the trap is possible only through cooperation. For a nation of India’s diversity, decentralization is a political necessity and not a measure of benevolence accorded by the state. It is precisely because Indian cities are overwhelmed with problems that appreciable powers have to be given to them, to enable them to respond. The failure to confer political power and responsibility on a city is a failure based on oversimplified nation building models, which has led to weak cities, on the one hand, and states treating the cities as their fiefdom, on the other. Glaeser echoes the same thought when he says an ‘open city cannot exist in a closed nation’ (Glaeser 2011).

Citizens across the country keep demanding city-based leadership which can be accountable. India’s governance structure is based on democratic pluralism; at the same time it also seeks political modernization. In the best of circumstances this is a very difficult combination to achieve. Unfortunately, the political leadership and power is still operating on a hierarchical basis in the traditional union–state–local body pattern. If political modernization is also desired, one has to think out of the box and look for innovative structures. The MRs offer an opportunity for such thinking. Avoiding this opportunity can only mean that we are happy to remain within the confines of the present sterile system.

None of India’s metropolitan problems will be solved without a political vision and a political purpose. The governance of an MR cannot be dismissed as an inconsequential municipal matter. The Indian metropolis, like its counterparts elsewhere in the world, is intergovernmental. For long, we have remained stifled in a hierarchical atmosphere of the union, the state, and the city regions. We are eager to share the glory of many a scholar or a scientist, a business professional, a sports person, or a civil society leader, who is acclaimed internationally. Yet, in our own political backyard, it is not possible for a city mayor to stay in office for more than a year or to move to a position of leadership in the state or the centre. In many countries of the world, it is possible for yesterday’s mayor to become tomorrow’s chief minister or prime minister. Many of our leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, and C. Rajagopalachari had strong municipal antecedents. We have discarded our own past and relegated local government to a lowly position. To realize the true purpose of our federal design and political plurality what we need is not just a stellar prime minister but at least a dozen good chief ministers and mayors.

K.C. Sivaramakrishnan is Chair of the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi