Tag Archives | urbanisation

A Tale of Two Cities

The tale of Bangalore and Chennai’s growth is also the story of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu’s urbanisation.

The Indian growth story has included two actors in the past two decades, Bangalore and Chennai. Along with their parent states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, they have been the face of Indian progress, on everything from software to manufacturing to higher education.

Bangalore and Chennai are quite distinct from one another, and this post traces the differences in their urbanisation and their respective roles in their states. Chennai (formerly Madras) was designated as one of four ‘metro’ cities in India from independence, having been the capital of a British presidency before then. Bangalore was a more modest state capital. Till the mid-1980s, Bangalore was almost  two decades behind Chennai in its total population size*. Bangalore has since seen more rapid growth, and in 2011 the city was only a couple of lakh people smaller than Chennai.


It is tempting to view population growth as a competition between two cities, but cities urbanise within the context of their states. While both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are among India’s more urbanised states, but it is here that Tamil Nadu leaves Karnataka far behind. Tamil Nadu is the most urbanised large state in India, with almost half its population living in cities. For context, the Indian average of urbanisation is just one third. In Karnataka, about 38 per cent of its population lives in cities and towns.

Urbanisation and the successful movement of large numbers of people out of agriculture is key to prosperity for Indians, so it pays to examine what Tamil Nadu got right.

One feature of Tamil Nadu’s success is its lack of dependence on Chennai for all its urban growth. In 1991, Chennai was about 30 per cent of urban Tamil Nadu. The state’s largest spurt of urbanisation came between 1991 and 2001, increasing by over 10 percentage points. Most of this growth came from outside Chennai, with Chennai’s share of the state’s urban population steadily declining since 1991.


Much of the urban growth in Tamil Naducame from the reclassification of land and the setting up of town panchayats after the 74th amendment to the constitution was enacted. A lot of it also came from other large cities springing up. Today, Coimbatore, Madurai, Trichy and likely Tiruppur all house million+ people each.

Karnataka’s urbanisation, on the other hand, continues to be led by Bangalore. The primacy of Bangalore in the state is paramount, with Hubli-Dharwad and Mysore having a population of barely a million each. Bangalore was over 35 per cent of urban Karnataka in 2011.

Not just that, but almost half of the urban growth in Karnataka came from Bangalore’s growth between 2001 and 2011. In comparison, only about a fifth of Tamil Nadu’s urban growth came from Chennai in the same decade.


This stark difference can perhaps be explained by extensive industrial growth in Tamil Nadu, which is conspicuous in its absence in its neighbouring state. From the city of Hosur giving competition to areas on the far side of the TN-Karnataka border to bustling ports trying to compete with Sri Lanka’s, Tamil Nadu has been more successful in providing an alternative to agriculture for large numbers of its people. Kerala’s urban spurt last decade appears to be similar, with habitations becoming larger and denser, as well as more people leaving agriculture as a profession. When and whether this can happen in Karnataka is an open question.

For now, Karnataka and its politics are still frequently dominated by agrarian concerns. The Western Ghats continue to pose a formidable barrier to the development of the state’s ports, with its largest port Mangalore competing with larger ports at Mumbai, Kochi and Goa. Connectivity – perhaps in the form of all-weather roads and tracks across the Western Ghats and high volume ports – may be just be the most potent driver of urbanisation in the state.

As the Karnataka government is trying to figure out how to split the Bangalore city corporation into more manageable pieces, more people should start reflecting on how to get more centres of urban growth going in the state.


*This is the population of the entire urban agglomeration. Since the Bangalore Municipal Corporation became the Bruhat Bangalore Municipal Corporation in 2006, all urban areas around Bangalore (with the exception of small census towns and Electronic City) have been governed under one municipal authority. Chennai, on the other hand has a metropolitan corporation that is co-terminal with the Chennai district and houses a little over half of the people in the Chennai urban agglomeration. Several other city councils and town councils govern the rest of it.

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In Business Standard: Indian Cities, New and Improved

I write in Business Standard today on the 100 smart cities plan announced by Venkaiah Naidu and the lessons they must learn from JNNURM almost a decade of centrally-sponsored urban development schemes:

JNNURM had a tantalising premise when it was first launched: the Union government will give cities money for infrastructure as an incentive for states to devolve power to cities, and for these cities to reform. The Union government was a third party in the state-city equation, hoping to tip the scales in favour of cities and true decentralisation.

The promise of JNNURM was lost for two broad reasons. One, the ministry of urban development had to perform two conflicting functions: it had to spend money by disbursing it to states, but it also had to audit and verify the reforms process. The outlays were conditional on meeting reform targets. Though the ministry did a lot in checking whether cities had completed enough reforms, the spending mandate usually won through, and poor reformers were rarely punished. This made it a weak incentive for genuine urban reform. Some cities like New Delhi also received large infrastructure funds from sources such as the Commonwealth Games, making JNNURM irrelevant as an impetus for reform.

Two, the Union ministries demanded an extraordinary amount of scrutiny and control for the projects approved. For example, if a town in Karnataka wanted to finance a water supply project under JNNURM that improved the lives of its residents, often the project had to meet extremely trying norms such as 24/7 water supply or complete metering of connections, which were enforced by Union ministries and attached bodies. While these are desirable, the lack of state-level decision-making led to the projects losing local relevance, apart from being subjected to an excruciatingly long and difficult process of approval. If the intent of the Union government was to incentivise reform, then perhaps it should not have controlled the type of infrastructure projects beyond setting broad norms.
[Full Article: Building Blocks to Smart Indian Cities, June 3, 2014]

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Census Towns and Toilets

The Transition State returns to examining sanitation data today and we take a look at toilets in the odd entities called ‘Census Towns’. (For previous analyses see this and this.)

Census towns are formed by villages that show an increasingly urban character in terms of density, size and economy. They are considered towns only by the Census and not by state governments and are hence called ‘Census towns’ as opposed to ‘statutory towns’. Census towns are governed locally by village panchayats.

Why are census towns relevant from a sanitation perspective? Rural sanitation in India is still stuck at a level where a majority of people continue to defecate in the open, and less than 1 in 3 households have a toilet. Understanding what drives people to build and use toilets is necessary to change this. Urban India fares much better in toilet ownership – but fails quite spectacularly in other aspects of sanitation like waste collection and disposal.

Census towns are of interest here because they are places which have *just* urbanised, and are still at the margin. Census towns get called so when they have crossed all three of the following thresholds: a population density of 500 people per square kilometre, village size of 5,000 residents and 75 percent of the working age male population employed in non-agricultural sectors.

So how do census towns fare in toilet ownership compared to their rural surroundings? I compare census towns with the rural taluk (sub-district) in terms of toilet ownership for the state of Karnataka. The taluks are ordered in an ascending order of toilet ownership.


Census towns in Karnataka appear to have much higher toilet ownership than their rural surroundings. And when the rural base goes higher than 20 percent, most of the census towns cross the 80 percent mark in toilet ownership.

Several things change between census towns and other villages. The services sector would have taken off in census towns, likely also resulting in higher incomes. But the most important change is that of population density. This increase in density results in a reduction in open spaces where people can defecate conveniently. If people have to go more than say 200 yards every time they need to relieve themselves, then the case for a toilet becomes a lot stronger. The ‘call of nature’ becomes more difficult as nature is beating a retreat out of the census town.

Urbanisation seems solve the toilet ownership problem. But toilets are far from sufficient in a city to achieve the public good that is sanitation. Waste collection and treatment become vital – be it through a sewerage network, local treatment plants, septage management or some other means.

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Hybrid buses: An exercise in vanity environmentalism

Missed opportunities outweigh any gains hybrid buses make in terms of  fuel efficiency.

In a move that has been in the making for several months, the Ministry of Urban Development has decided to fund the roll-out of hybrid buses as a part of JnNURM:

The urban development ministry plans to fund hybrid buses — that use a combination of electric battery and diesel engine — as part of the next lot of buses under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

During the budget session, finance minister P. Chidambaram had announced that the Centre would fund 10,000 buses under the mission. The ministry has not put a cap on the number of hybrid buses, as it will depend on proposals coming from states, but officials said they may not exceed 50.

While normal low-floor buses cost between Rs 60 lakh and Rs 70 lakh, hybrid buses — which are more fuel-efficient than normal buses — cost around Rs 1.25 crore.

The urban development ministry had proposed that there should be additional financial assistance for hybrid buses.“We had suggested that since hybrid buses are expensive but at the same time we want to promote them for their fuel efficiency, we should give state governments 10 per cent additional financial assistance,” said a senior official.

However, last week, the expenditure finance committee, while sanctioning Rs 4,900 crore for the project, rejected the idea of additional monetary help. [The Telegraph]

At first glance, this looks like a good pro-environment move, where switching to fuel-efficient hybrid buses reduces both carbon emissions and urban air pollution. Though the buses cost almost two times what other modern low floor buses cost, it feels justified because of the fuel savings incurred.

Clean air in urban India is a quickly disappearing public good. Just like we feel the need to purify water before its use, commuters in cars effectively purify and control their air through air conditioning before breathing it in. But are hybrid buses in any way a solution to this problem? In foreign cities with widespread public transport, hybrid buses may indeed be the solution. If we assume that the share of public transport in city commutes is mostly saturated, for every regular bus that can be replaced with a low-emission hybrid, the city reduces its overall pollution.

This is hardly the case in India as public transport’s share in intracity travel is far from optimal! Most of our cities do not have metros or commuter rail, and have to rely solely on city buses, private buses and “share-autorickshaws” as modes of public transport. The environmental gain in Indian cities comes from people switching from cars and personal vehicles into public buses. So while a hybrid bus might be low on emissions, the opportunity lost because of its purchase is the acquisition of an extra regular bus – which would have taken more private vehicles off the road. If 50 hybrid buses could be replaced by 100 regular buses, the transport service might spend more on fuel and have higher emissions, but the city as a whole will spend less. Investing our scarce financial resources in hybrid buses is not a very environmentally friendly move.

City buses in India

The chart above (Source: *, **) shows you some quick numbers on buses in India and Karnataka. The first three cities have other modes of public transport that coexist with buses (commuter trains and metros). However, as the graph shows – even the best performing cities have too few buses for our public transport to be saturated.

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission has been India’s flagship programme to finance urban infrastructure and catalyse urban reforms since 2005. It is noteworthy that the acquisition of buses was not a valid item of expenditure under the mission for the first four years. It was in 2009 that under a union stimulus package, the Ministry of Urban Development decided to finance the procurement of about 10,000 high tech buses, to ‘transform city bus transport in India‘.

It is beyond the scope of this blog post to evaluate whether bus acquisition and deployment served Keynesian ends, but the move was politically astute and was fairly well received. The JnNURM labeled buses on Indian (and Bangalorean) roads today are the most visible output of the mission. The move to deploy high quality buses with low floors, pneumatic doors, good suspension and comfort was also a welcome one. By providing a means of public transport that is on par with cars on comfort and safety, these Volvos and Tata Marcopolos were likely able to get more cars off the road than regular buses. In cities like Bangalore, these high-end buses have appropriately priced tickets, are profitable and are even able to subsidise other bus fares.

In the mean time, many bus manufacturers have come out with hybrid buses, including Tata Motors with a CNG-hybrid. Tempting as they may appear, policymakers in the urban development ministry have to seriously consider whether these are necessary – or an exercise in vanity. As the Telegraph article points out, the ministry correctly ruled out the provision of extra assistance for hybrid buses. However, even giving an identical percentage of assistance is too much – as it can buy two regular buses in its stead.

Good public transport has several outcomes that benefit cities: less air pollution; reduction in congestion and in travel time; and also an opportunity for social mixing. This blog strongly believes in the single-minded pursuit of better public transport in Indian cities – but alas, hybrid buses are an expensive and unnecessary detour from that road.

Note. 40 buses per lakh population appears to be a subjective norm fixed by the JnNURM. One World Bank initiative recommends between 50 and 120 buses per lakh population. That said, these are but useful guidelines to follow. What matters most are outcomes – and among them, the public share of total city transport, a control of travel time with urban growth and an overal reduction in urban air pollution.

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