Provincial Urbanization: examining the role of small and medium towns and cities in the urbanization of India

Joint NationalWorkshop UIRF & SUBURBIN

School of Planning and Architecture

Delhi, 23rd and 24th April, 2013

Download the program schedule

The Urban India Research Facility (UIRF) housed in the School of Habitat Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Suburbin project (Subaltern Urbanization in India) coordinated by the French Institute of Pondicherry and the Centre de Sciences Humaines propose to organize a national level workshop focusing on the significance of India’s small and medium cities and towns to the rapidly changing and complex processes of urbanization in India. Building from the ongoing research of these two programmes on the multitude of forces influencing the transformation, growth, development of and governance in small and medium cities and towns in India this workshop will attempt to address much broader and complex questions about the relations between urban and rural areas, the nature and the extent of urbanization in contemporary India and the economic and social changes occurring in smaller urban settlements. With policy, investment and academic interest seemingly converging on existing mega cities and large metropolitan areas, the other urban centers such as small and medium sized cities and towns have remained largely neglected despite more than half of India’s urban population living in non–metro smaller urban centers or towns. These places are seen to form an important linkage between larger cities and the rural hinterland in terms of the flow of goods, produce, circuits of capital and migration of people. They are likely as well to be independent economic centres. Small and medium cities and towns in India are thus key sites for opening up an urban enquiry into the diversity of urban settlements and the role they play in the larger scheme of urbanization.

UIRF has been actively researching and preparing a knowledge base on contemporary urban issues in India since 2009. Given the context of widespread urban reforms being implemented in the country, the Facility has been studying changes in policies and institutional frameworks, responses by urban local bodies and state governments pertaining to a range of urban issues (for e.g. increasing demand for urbanisable land and land reforms, push towards privatization of urban infrastructure, urban local governance and changing power relations across different levels of local, state and central governments, changes in municipal administration and an emphasis on citizens participation in the planning and governance of urban areas). UIRF shaped its research and advocacy agenda around the nature, status of implementation and implications of urban reforms on the poorer urban populations within the context of small and medium cities and towns across four states – Maharashtra, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan where it has partnered with state level academic institutions as well as non-government organizations.. Significantly, the knowledge base on small and medium towns has been prepared through collaborations with local scholars, citizens groups and activists in a bid to create knowledge products that are usable locally and that can strengthen local and regional advocacy efforts around urban issues such as access to water, affordable housing, increasing participation in planning and development works in town as well as opening up spaces for transparent implementation of reforms and inclusive urban governance.  In the present research phase, the Facility is examining the socioeconomic and spatial transformations of small and medium cities with partners, Madras Institute of Development Studies and Prayas, Pune concentrating on four interlinked modules- water, governance, spatial planning and economic development, affordable housing and land.

The three year Subaltern Urbanization in India (SUBURBIN) research programme started in January 2011. It is a collaborative project with researchers of the Centre for Policy Research (New Delhi), the Centre de Sciences Humaines (New Delhi), the Centre for the Study of Regional Development (JNU, New Delhi), the French Institute of Pondicherry, the University of Burdwan, the Department of Regional Planning at the School of Planning and Architecture (New Delhi), and the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (Mumbai). This research network involves senior researchers, post-PhD fellows, PhD candidates and several Master Students. The SUBURBIN project positions itself vis-à-vis vision of a World’s urbanisation reduced to metropolitanisation and competition between global cities, or “metrocentricity”. It aims at challenging the usual approach that tends to consider the urban world only through the prism of very large cities – even though half of the world’s city dwellers do not reside there. However, urban research tends to put emphasis on megalopolises, which are considered as the privileged site for the production and concentration of national wealth, innovation and talents, as well as the central location of social movements and environmental problems. This leads to public policies focusing on large metropolitan areas and promotion of economies of agglomeration. The SUBURBIN programme aims to offer additional perspectives on “urban transition” from a multiplicity of disciplines and by linking the macro and micro analysis levels. It questions the restricted representations and existing measures and explanatory models. It also strives to actively contribute to the debates about the plurality of development models, to provide analytical tools to policy makers and to inform public policy debates on smaller towns.

Through this workshop we hope to open up a space for debating and discussing the emerging significance of small and medium cities and towns in India. The workshop will take place on 23rd and -24thApril 2013 at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), New Delhi. The main aim of the workshop will be to

a) share the ongoing research by UIRF and SUBURBIN project in order to build a common understanding and identify existing knowledge gaps.

b) create a longer term engagement on the concomitant challenges and opportunities faced by smaller and medium towns and cities in India

c) contribute to current urban policy debates influencing urban development decisions

d) in the longer run, envisage the potential building a network of researchers who are working on a variety of urban settlements, including smaller cities and towns and exchange critical findings from ongoing research and advocacy efforts on the ground.

The workshop will be organized around   three broad dimensions which constitute a framework for discussion by conference organizers on what are the critical research issues we would like the conference to be organized around. Each of these dimensions is a point of entry to bring together collective research findings. Paper contributions are invited to specify which of these larger topics they will address.

  1. 1.    Scale and substance of urbanization in India:

Currently, the Census of India defines a place as urban if a) it has been accorded the official status of an urban area and thus has an elected urban local body (Statutory towns), or b) if it as an area having a population of more than 5000 population, where more than 75% of the male main workers are engaged in non-agricultural activities, and the density is greater than 400 persons per sq. km (Census Towns). Based on the size of population urban areas are either classified as cities (100,000 or more), medium towns (20,000 to 99,000) and small towns (from 5,000 to 19,999). Although the demographic classificatory system above provides us with a way of categorizing different urban settlements, the distinctiveness of these towns and the specific ways in which they can be distinguished from the larger cities is not sufficiently understood. Further, the 2011 Census data have shown a rapid increase of urbanization in smaller settlements with the designation of 2,532 new Census towns (based on 2001 active population results). This brings about the question as to the role of small towns in the urbanization process and the urban structure. Papers in this section are expected to contribute to better understand (i) the place of medium and small cities and towns in the urbanization process either at the national or at the regional scale, (ii) the explanatory factors behind the rise of new towns or the rapid growth of small and medium cities: What is the relation between the proliferation of small towns and economic processes, i.e., to what extent are these settlements dependent on or autonomous from the metropolitanisation process? Are they just the recipients of diffusion processes and of the (re)-location of low productivity activities or do they have an independent economic rationale? Three related questions assume importance – (i) the extent to which these small towns are engulfed in metropolitan regions or in economic corridors, (ii) the nature of their formation and subsequent development, and (iii) their contribution to the Indian economic growth story. Based on such scale of analysis, one core theoretical question is as to whether the centre-periphery paradigm is relevant or can be probed further?

  1. 2.    Economic, spatial and social changes:

An important question is how do we understand the distinctiveness of urban settlements, particularly those that fall in the range of small and medium towns, and non-metro cities? What are the different trajectories of urbanization for these settlements? How do these trajectories depart from the type of urbanization that we see for metros and megacities? And in reverse, how the focus on small cities can offer a refreshing perspectives on metro and megacities on mega-regions current models? What are the economic, spatial and social changes that take place in these settlements? How far development orientations in small and medium towns are path dependent?

Currently research on urban issues seems to follow a macro perspective which stresses the importance of political economic structures and particularly role played by global economic forces in influencing urban development within cities while at the same time underplaying the role of nation-states and other sub-structures of government in the way policy decisions are undertaken at the local or city level. This has partly been instrumental in the growing research interest around global cities, the competition amongst them and finding out to what extent these are integrated within the larger economic restructuring processes. However, such a macro level perspective is not able to explain local distinctiveness, or why some urban centers follow paths of development that do not comply with the above view. This perspective fails to highlight how, within urban areas, particularly smaller and medium towns and cities, local political actors and interests collude, come into conflict, negotiate the terms of urban development and shape the direction of urban growth. Medium and small town dynamic remain commonly view as passive effect of global growth driven by big cities in a context of economic polarization. This kind of micro perspective clearly examines the role of local political agency in the process of urban development and holds it in tension against the larger backdrop of political economic structures. In the UIRF research a strong emphasis has been to understand both top down processes and larger political economic frameworks of urbanization and focus on the particularities of actors, interests, spatiality and histories of development and planning at the micro or local city level.

Understanding forms of globalization from below also requires delving into the specific economic changes in small and medium urban settlements: what kind of capital do actors in the smaller towns mobilize and for which activities? How do such actors articulate and connect their practices and knowledge to flows at different scales, from local to global? For SUBURBIN, such flows of capital and innovation are not restrictively defined. They encompass non-commoditised practices, social formations and modes of governance. Related to these dynamics are the types of innovations which emerge from small towns or networks of settlements and the role of land capital in contemporary transformation in relation to real estate activities, e.g., the emergence of new clusters of economic activity such as educational institutions. Along with economic changes, the SUBURBIN project is concerned with spatial and social changes. Are small towns sites of social changes and social mobility, of labour relations, of mobility and new forms of urbanity? The dynamics at work are as well strongly influenced by the questions around changes in land use and land assembly. For UIRF, it is about exploring how and in which direction a city grows,  establishing the connections between emergence of informal housing, location of economic activity clusters, siting of industries and spatial as well as infrastructural planning.  Understanding processes and actor networks, particularly  the multiple roles and types of leadership played by state and non-state actors in practices of planning and implementation   of industrial activity, service delivery, housing policy and land use management  are  key factors to map the ongoing complex urban transformations.

  1. 3.    Governing medium and small towns:  institutional changes, public policies and reforms

The UIRF project has  been examining changes in major institutional and legislative structures, by investigating the reform agenda and the forces that have shaped it at the national and state levels, and the particular directions in which urban reforms seem to  be aimed – the state governments as adopting more regulatory and facilitation functions, the entry of private players in provision of basic services and infrastructure, the institutionalization of user charges and leaner administrative functions as well as the monetization of land as a resource for urban development. Yet at the same time, in order to understand how these reforms have actually been understood and implemented at the level of urban local bodies, and what kind of impacts they have had on different  socioeconomic population groups within these urban settlements, and the responses to the reforms –grounded field level case studies of towns have been conducted. Indeed this sort of a micro level perspective has actually served to highlight how in certain instances individual actors (such as charismatic commissioners), or particular local groups such as journalists’ association have played an important role in setting the reform agenda in the town and taking it forward, or how in other cases, active citizens groups have challenged and influenced decision making with regard to user charges for water privatization projects. The focus has been on processes that have shaped the development and growth of these smaller settlements – flows of public investment into urban local bodies, impacts of urban reforms, the complexity of spatial patterns, housing situations and local economic development, decision making structures and identifying local people or networks who have been crucial in influencing major development projects and processes, as well as trying to understand these places within the larger regional political economic contexts and transformations. Though the SUBURBIN project also shares some of these concerns related to the governance of small urban centres (in particular the questions of local finance, local-state relationships and role of elected representatives), it has also focused on the question of the politics of classification, acknowledging the strong reality of a denied and invisible urbanization. In such settlements, which are the forces at the local and state level that explain the classification of settlements as urban or rural? Does this enable us to better understand the cost and benefits associated with the fact of being declared urban and how does it affect or not the governance of physical and social infrastructure?

Structure and audience of conference:

Often, urban research and critical thinking is confined to academic institutions and audiences. In the same manner, narratives of implementation of policies are embedded within the context and often do not inform larger theoretical formulations. In particular, there seems to be a gaping need to highlight these grounded spatial practices, especially those that illuminate diversities, disjuncture, and alternative ways of dealing with urban issues. The need to address the gaps between theories and practices is an important dimension of the framework of the workshop.

This critical dimension therefore enables us to broach larger questions such as what are the conceptual and material challenges of researching smaller and medium cities and towns, what are the visible gaps in existing theories on urbanization and in the cognitive framework of policy makers? How is current research on small and medium towns and cities in India contributing towards building theories of urbanization or adding to the body of research on urbanization in India? What are the emerging debates within this body of research and what are the gaps that need to be examined? How will the research on small and medium towns and cities influence policy making, investment flows, current processes of reform, programs such as the UIDSSMT and governance of small and medium towns and cities? How can research on smaller medium towns and cities in India change current policies that adopt a one-size-fits-all stance? How can informed debates on the scale and substance of urban issues affecting non-metro urban settlements that are based on a constructive understanding of both wider political economic contexts and as well as grounded practices and realities, lead to a more nuanced understanding of the processes of urban transformations?

This two day workshop that will address the questions above, will highlight field based findings as well as policy studies, provide space for debates and discussions. In terms of a structure, it would be designed around 4 sessions that will have 3 to 4 paper presentations along with panel discussions. In addition there will be one open panel discussion with invited speakers to discuss some broader issues around urbanization as a process and the significance of non-metro settlements to the process.

We invite abstract submissions for paper presentations by scholars, independent researchers, academics and urban practitioners for a national level workshop on the significance of India’s small and medium cities and towns to the rapidly changing and complex processes of urbanization in India on the three themes of the workshop define above. We encourage presentations from urban practitioners and scholars who are currently engaged in research in/on small and medium cities and towns. Paper submissions are being sought for all three interlinked themes. This event will be presented in collaboration with the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.