Redefining Cities – UPSC GS1

 2 ways to define urban areas

1) Statutory town

  • These towns are defined by state governments and place India’s urbanisation rate at 26.7%.
  • A statutory town includes all places with a municipality, corporation, cantonment board or notified town area committee.

2) Census-based criteria

  • Census adopts three criteria to define what is urban
  • The three criteria are:
i) a minimum population of 5,000;
ii) at least 75% of the male main working population engaged in non-agricultural pursuits, and
iii) a density of population of at least 400 persons per sq km
  • This, coupled with statutory towns, pegs India’s urbanisation rate at 31%.
  • Total number of towns (state and census) stands at 7,933, together constituting a 377-mn population.

Why there is a need for changing the definition of ‘urban’

  • There is growing evidence—mostly from satellite imagery—that India is way more urban than the 2011 Census estimate.
  • This is quite plausible because there is a large sum of money allocated for rural development, and it is in the interest of state governments to under-represent urbanisation.
  • Besides, the Census’s stringent definition was first carved out in 1961 which do not reflect the realities of the 21st century.
  • India won’t be alone in changing these definitions for Census 2021.
  • Many countries, such as China, Iran, the UK, among others, have changed the definition of ‘urban’ from one census to another.

Getting the right picture of urbanisation

  •  A more liberal and realistic definition in the upcoming census will present the actual picture of urbanisation.
  • For instance, if we just use the population density criteria like 37 other countries, with the 400 people per sq km threshold, we will add around 500 mn people to the urban share of the population.
  • This pegs the urbanisation rate at over 70%!

What will be its implications?

  • First, the budgetary allocation will reflect the reality and scales will balance between rural and urban areas.
  • Second, the urban areas will not be governed through rural governance structures of Panchayati Raj Institutions.
  • Third basic urban infrastructure like sewerage networks, fire services, building regulations, high-density housing, transit-oriented development, piped drinking water supply.
  • Fourth, these newly defined urban areas could act as a new source of revenue for funding local infrastructure development.
  • This would ease pressure on state finances.
  • Lastly, the rethink of urban definition would have an impact on the regional and national economy.
  • These newly defined urban areas will open them to new infrastructure such as railway lines, discom services, highway connectivity, creation of higher education institutes which will together increase the connectivity and resource capability at the local level.
  • This will not only boost the local economy but also ease pressure on bigger cities and help in cluster level development.


A rethink of urban definition in Census 2021, particularly with some degrowth in urban areas due to Covid, will bode well for India for coming decades in more ways than one.

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