What is Urban about Urban?

I’m writing this based on some challenges I ran into when classifying employment categories for a household survey and learning about the myriad types of part- and full-time jobs that people, most importantly women, were doing in peri-urban areas around Delhi. Fieldwork, in that sense, is a great thing because it challenges ideas that we’ve stopped thinking too deeply about, and most importantly, makes us question our assumptions.

India of course is a country of villages. Everybody who has ever heard of India has heard this. And it is. According to the Census of 2011, only 31.16% of the population lives in urban areas. And yet, urban India is fascinating – it is glitzy and glamorous, fast-moving, exciting, chaotic, a shopping dream or nightmare depending on your own tastes, “world-class” in some neighborhoods, and of course, ever expanding. The pace of urbanization has certainly picked up during 2001-2011 compared to the previous decade of 1991-2001, with ‘urban areas’ increasing by 3.35 percentage points in 2001-2011 up from 2.1 points in 1991-2001.

A few months ago when I was describing urban-rural differences in some data, a Prof told me, “Perhaps you should look into what you mean by urban and rural.” Look, I wanted to say, at some point or the other we’re going to have to take a call on and decide and finalize how we define things. And I wasn’t interesting in going into an exposition of urban/rural definitions and whether they’re appropriate because I thought they were relevant categories for me to work with. At that instance, I was perfectly happy following what the data told me was urban and what it told me was rural. But there is more to this. The definition of urban and rural areas is something each country decides on its own. There is no global definition that is used world-wide. In India, it is the Office of the Registrar General, i.e. the Census Office which decides this: Census Towns: a place with a population of 5000 or more, at least 75% male working population engaged in non-agricultural employment, and a density of 400 people per square kilometer. Also, Statutory Towns: any place that has a municipality, corporation or has been notified as urban areas or towns by the state government.

I have a few quarrels with this definition, but none that I’m making an issue about just yet. If that’s how they want it, then so be it. Its not perfect, why 5000 people and not 10000, what about female employment, urban outgrowths, peri-urban areas and such, etc. etc. but one needs to take a call somewhere about a working definition that can be applied across the country and not throw in enough ifs and buts to make the whole exercise a giant mess.

And so coming back to the fact that the pace of urbanization has increased, a lot has to do with census towns, and the fact that rural areas in 2001 were reclassified as urban areas in 2011 by the Census based on the Census Town definition! The number of Census towns increased three-fold during 2001-2011, and calls attention to the fact that smaller towns are seeing a lot of growth. Or that over a 10-year period, urban townships and extensions have eaten into large sections of surrounding rural areas. The name of the game in the real estate market in India today is getting agricultural land converted into non-agricultural or NA land. Sample adverts that say “Already NA Land available immediately for installing your own boundary wall!” There is no doubt that employment in agriculture is shrinking, and that too contributes to the definition as we saw earlier.

In terms of urban employment, I am stunned by the diversity of livelihoods that urban India represents. I was working in Bombay some years ago on a project on urban health sector reforms, it involved a community mobilization component, and the thing I heard again and again was that life in Bombay constantly revolves around work and the economy and people making sure they had enough to get by on. During some recent data collection rounds in Delhi, its been difficult to classify occupations into neat categories. And what about multiple jobs in different industries? How do I classify a lady who works daily-wage at a salon in the day and takes private tuitions of primary school children in her neighborhood in the evening? I fall back on the safe “self-employed”. But saying daily-wage, part-time or self-employed doesn’t quite feel right.

At one level, one would think that it would be easier to measure employment and its contribution to the urban economy because employment is more likely to be ‘organized’, legitimate, with neat working hours, job titles and roles, salary slips, defined office or working places, etc. Think again. Remember, a majority (by some dated estimates, about 92%) of employment in India including manufacturing, services and agriculture, is in the non-formal sector. And in urban India as well, the estimate is as high as 80%. Think vegetable vendors, hawkers, construction workers, basket weavers, think of hand-rolled cigarettes, rag picking. Think of a large migrant population and think of domestic workers. They all live in cities and towns, in slums and chawls. When you drive or walk around Bombay, it is impossible to miss pavement dwellers and slums. But live and work in central Delhi like I have most of this summer, and you might forget that half of all Delhi residents live in slums (the figure for Bombay is over 60%). While it is not accurate to say that all working slum dwellers are in the unorganized sector, a majority is. This is all ‘unorganized’ ‘informal’ employment, the sort without salary slips, electronic crediting of salaries and books of accounts. Most crucially: the sort without benefits, health or accident insurance, and very often, with none or very few days off. No break over the summer. The cogs in the wheels of glamorous Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore. Something to think about.

Abhijit

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