Though the expression ‘periurban’ is used commonly, a clear and unambiguous definition is not yet available. However, a general consensus in literature leads to surmise these as fringe areas between rural and larger urban centres. Periurban areas have unique characteristics where general urban morphology is altered and traditional physical differences between urban and rural areas are modified significantly. The most appropriate definition of periurban can be a specific and non-neutral transition or interaction zone where urban and rural activities are juxtaposed and landscape features are subject to rapid modifications by human activities. Normally, the process of emergence of periurban areas is linked to the development of large urban centres in the proximity and resultant changes accrued in land use pattern, economic activities, socio-economic-demographic and psychographic profile of the local populace. Periurban areas, thus, might include valuable protected areas, forested hills, preserved woodlands, prime agricultural lands and important wetlands, which can provide essential support services to urban residents. It has been observed that periurban areas are often far more environmentally unstable and vulnerable compared to exclusive urban or rural settings. By and large, one can say that the periurban area development is a by-product of unsystematic and uncontrolled urban growth and sprawl, especially in developing countries.
A background of spatial distribution of urban structure in India may be observed in fig 1. Urban centres in India have been categorised into 5 groups based on population size—deemed important from the socio-demographic and consumer market point of view. Although the phrase periurban is used quite fluidly in India, the article denotes any town below one lakh population as periurban area. According to Census of India 2011, there are 8048 urban centres. Out of these, 7489 towns have a population below a lakh which also includes a large number of ‘census towns’—a status awarded by the Indian Census for towns that may not strictly fulfil the urban definition, yet exhibit certain urban characteristics. Periurban areas in India account for more than 93 per cent of the total number of urban centres. Starkly in contrast, less than 40 per cent of the total urban population live in these centres. In fact the remaining 7 per cent of India’s urban centres account for more than 60 per cent of its urban population. A closer look into the numbers indicates that 0.5 per cent of India’s urban centres houses 25 per cent of its urban population (Fig 2).
Historically urbanisation has been driven by industrialisation, especially in developed countries. However, in many developing countries including India, a lopsided urbanisation is being experienced which is shaped less by industrialisation and more by the services sector. The sector has fuelled India’s economic growth in segments such as IT, telecom, trade, construction, real estate and more, with the workforce in large urban centres mostly involved in such activities. The scenario in periurban areas is however, not the same. In most of the states a large chunk of the workforce is found under ‘other services’ which include non-household manufacturing, mining and quarrying, construction, primary activities such as fishing, forestry etc. (table 1). In India, non-household manufacturing is concentrated in well-defined clusters and by that logic one can safely assume that the share of non-household manufacturing in periurban workforce is negligible. Also, it is well documented that most people in periurban regions are likely to be involved in petty trading etc., rather than white collared jobs. But, what is noteworthy that workforce engaged in cultivation and as agricultural labourer in periurban India (Fig 3) is significantly high. This is uncharacteristic of urban areas.
Location plays a primary role in transforming rural areas into periurban regions. The spatial driving forces are:
Proximity to a large city or an industrial hub – On one front it is an unplanned spillover effect of a large urban centre while on the other, it implicitly fulfils the requirement of residents of the large urban centres at a lesser cost. The pull factor of periurban areas, though feeble, lies in the low real estate and consumer prices. The price attracts economic agents who find periurban areas more cost effective in terms of productive activities.
Access to major road network – It has been noted that most periurban areas are located along road networks such as the national or state highways. A direct link with productive economic agents make these regions better suited compared to the rural hinterland. Access to better road network gradually improves social infrastructure to a significant extent as purchasing power of the residents, at least of a good proportion of the population, grows considerably. Better schooling, health facilities, market etc., also pull rural residents from nearby villages who aspire to be part of modern urban life.
However, the emergence of these periurban areas remains spurious due to the unsystematic urban planning in the country. This becomes evident when we look at access to basic amenities to the residents as well as their quality of living. Some of the variables depicting the above aspects are given in table 2, fig 4, presents the proportion of people without minimum sanitation facility and treated tap waters in the periurban areas. The spikes shown in the graph suggest that in most of the states the periurban areas are deprived of even basic amenities that are expected for its residents, at least in an urban area.
Proportion of population using LPG for cooking and the asset ownership pattern also suggests that periurban areas are hardly different from the rural regions in terms of quality of life. The figures presented in table 2 indicate that almost 50 per cent of the population is still using traditional fuels for cooking. Less than 10 per cent of the periurban residents in most of the states have consumer durables such as television, phone, bicycle, two wheelers, car and computer.
Emergence of periurban areas in India is a unique example that showcases impacts of lopsided and unplanned urbanisation in the country. The complex dynamics of rural as well as urban economic agents also make these centres vulnerable from the productivity point of view. Moreover, lack of amenities coupled with high population densities make the centres environmentally unsustainable. However, these centres can adequately serve to strengthen rural-urban linkages with due attention from policy makers. Developing periurban areas can ascertain a more stable and balanced urban structure for the country, which is marred by uncontrolled migration to large urban centres.