Census 2021: India's Urban-rural conundrum

We urbanise, we celebrate; but is urbanisation providing basic livelihood?

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Monday 28 October 2019

Census 2021 preparations are underway for more than a year now. One of the first tasks the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India was to identify the country’s urban and rural areas. For this, officials created a base map by applying the census criteria.

Officials involved in this process say it is surprising how quickly urbanisation is spreading, and that rural India will be history sooner than we think. Many of the urban areas identified in Census 2011 have expanded while thousands of villages have turned into towns, as per the census definition, the officials say. 

This exercise usually captures the changing demography, geography and economy of the country. As we wait for another three years before the preliminary results of Census 2021 emerge, what’s certain is that India is changing from rural to urban. 

What are the implications of this change? It’s perilous, because with India’s transition from a predominantly rural economy to an urban one, people’s occupations and preferences will also change.

The immediate concern is whether India’s farming population will remain the same or will it migrate to non-farm occupations. The other big questions are who would be left in the farming sector and whether agriculture would survive by being lucrative enough to provide for the survival of its practitioners? 

Much would depend on the resolution of the Catch-22 rural-urban situation. Going by the census definition, a habitation is declared urban (excluding a municipality, corporation, cantonment board and a notified town area committee) if it has a minimum population of 5,000; at least 75 per cent of the male working population is engaged in non-agricultural pursuits; and the population density is at least 400 people per sq km. Such habitations are also called the Census Towns.

For the first time in history, the Census 2011 reported a decline in the population growth rate of rural India. However, at that time India was still predominantly rural, with the urban population being just 30 per cent. Between Census 2001 and Census 2011, the number of Census Towns increased from 1,362 to 3,894. This indicates that people in rural areas are quitting farming or joining non-farm livelihoods. Millions of farmers have quit agriculture and, worryingly, very few from the current generation are entering the sector. 

In absolute terms, India is losing farmers. In fact, there are indicators that many rural residents are not taking up farming despite being unemployed and having small lands. This shows that India on the cusp of a major change. In 1970, three-fourths of a rural household’s income came from farm sources. After 45 years, in 2015, it is below one-third. Basically, most of the households now earn more out of non-farm sources.

Another concern is that these non-farm jobs are mostly in urban areas. In recent years, these urban employment sources have not been able to meet the surging job demands due to the exodus from agriculture. As the latest economic data points out, manufacturing, construction and other related sectors have not been able to generate employment as they used to earlier. All these sectors are experiencing slowdown. 

This leaves us with that big conundrum: We urbanise and celebrate it as a sure shot path to prosperity, but urbanisation doesn’t provide basic livelihood to people who have migrated from rural areas. This explains the current slump in demand that is keeping the overall economy down.

This article was first published in Down To Earth's print edition (dated 16-31 October, 2019)

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