India’s Urbanisation: Highlights 2011 Census

By: Anuradha Banerjee
In general parlance, the process of becoming urban refers to the concentration of a territory’s population in towns and cities and involves the growth of urban population in respect to total population. The paper offers glimpses of the new findings offered by the Census 2011 and highlights some of the significant changes that India is undergoing.

Urbanisation is a process rather than a measure that draws strands from several interrelated social sciences. Technically it can be defined as increments to urban population as a percentage to total population. Urban growth, however, refers to the increase in urban population itself. Presently, urbanisation is being guided by contemporary globalisation, and ‘global cities’ perform global control functions over a chain of other cities in the global urban hierarchic system. Urbanisation in India started with dawn of civilisation in its north-west realms and continues till date in varied intensities. Considered to have started with the ‘proto-urban’ planning of the Harappan Civilisation (2350 BC), urbanisation in India has seen many phases through history. It underwent significant changes with the advent of British in India and saw the domination by ‘gateway’ cities in the colonial period. With political and structural economic changes in the post Independence period, a ‘top-heavy’ pattern of urbanisation sprawled across the country with growth concentrated in a few cities with larger population. Today however, urbanisation in India is dysfunctional with persistent regional disparities.


Defining Urban

Urban settlements in India can be categorised as follows,

Statutory Towns: All places with a municipality, corporation, cantonment board or notified town area committee, etc. The statutory towns are notified under law by concerned state/UT governments irrespective of their demographic characteristics.

Census Towns: All other places that satisfy the following criteria,

  • A minimum population of 5,000;
  • At least 75 per cent of male main working population engaged in non-agricultural pursuits; and
  • A density of population of at least 400 persons per sq km.

Urban agglomeration (UA): An urban agglomeration is a continuous urban spread constituting of a town and its adjoining out growths or, two or more physically contiguous towns together with or without the out growths of such towns. An urban agglomeration must consist of at least a statutory town and its total population (i.e. all the constituents put together) should not be less than 20,000 as per the 2001 Census.

Article 14 Fig 1

Urban out growths (OGs): An out growth is a variable unit such as a village, a hamlet or an enumeration block which is identifiable in terms of boundaries and location. Out growths of cities and towns are also treated as urban in the Census. In the calculation of the growth rate, however, both urban agglomeration and individual town/city may be considered. In the 2011 Census, 475 towns with 981 OGs have been identified as UA as against 384 UA with 962 OGs in the 2001 Census. Fig. 1 depicts that the urban population of India has been steadily increasing over the decades, signifying that there has been considerable urban growth. However, the level of urbanisation i.e. the percentage of urban population to total population has registered a sluggish growth in general but picked pace between the 2001 and the 2011 Census period. The number of settlements too has shown a significant increase from 3081 in 1971 to 7935 in 2011.


Level of Urbanisation

Although the level of urbanisation has increased over the years, a marked variation exists over states and UTs, which seems to have increased in the decades between 1991 and 2011. It has been observed that the accelerated rate of urbanisation in the decade preceding 2011, visible in Fig. 1, can be witnessed mostly for already highly urbanised regions whereas the states with low urbanisation level have improved only marginally. The emergent state-wise scenario of India therefore reveals a very high level of urbanisation in a few union territories – Delhi, Chandigarh, Lakshadweeps, Puducherry, Daman and Diu and also in the already urbanised states
of Tamil Nadu, Goa and Maharashtra. On the other hand, states like Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Odisha occupy the lowest ranks.


Number of Settlements

The distribution of towns and cities across states reveal a diversified pattern. Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Maharashtra have recorded a large number of towns as compared to the north eastern states. In all the 35 states and UTs, the number of towns in 2011 has increased – mainly because of declaration of many urban OGs fulfilling the Census criteria as towns, and also due to the increase in the urban growth rate of population which had slowed down during 1971-2001. The ranking of Tamil Nadu though remained intact in 2011 as it again topped the charts in terms of number of towns. West Bengal however, recorded a remarkable increase of 554 towns, while Kerala’s addition of towns has been also spectacular from 99 in 2001 to 520 towns in 2011. This may have accrued due to the declaration of settlements showing urban characteristics as statutory towns by the respective state authorities. Imbalances in the pattern of distribution of urban population in different size class towns, however reinstate the top heavy structure. As has been the case for several past decades, in most of the urbanised states and UTs, Class I cities supports more than half of its urban population.

Article 14 Fig 2

Population Growth in Metropolises

Metropolises are million plus cities, usually identified through their urbanism and heterogeneity of population. The number of such cities as per Census 2011 is 53 showing a graduation of many Class I cities to present metropolises, (Fig. 2), the new additions being Ghaziabad, Kozhikode, Thrissur, Mallapuram, Tiruvananthapuram, Kannaur, Srinagar, Vasai-Virar, Aurangabad, Jodhpur, Ranchi, Raipur, Kollam, Gwalior, Durg-Bhilainagar, Chandigarh, Tiruchirapalli, and Kota.



Although urban population growth rate is considered as a major attribute of urbanisation, it does not always lead to a high degree of urbanisation. In 1981 India experienced the highest growth rate of urban population attributed partially due to the introduction of neo liberal policies in 1971 leading to large scale migration of rural population and the emergence of new urban centres. Urban growth has experienced a decline after 1981 to 2001. This decrease is the result of declassification of many urban centres that mushroomed during the 80’s as new towns, due to a very casual application of the definition of the Census towns by a few states. However, 2011 Census shows the largest increase in number of towns since Independence.

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