Much focus of urbanization and urban poverty tends to rest in South Asia’s megacities. With their huge populations and the enormous difference in income and living standards, as well as the opportunities for large-scale business together with the draw of politics, power and even the movie industry, cities like Mumbai, Karachi and Delhi hog the limelight. However, much of the record-breaking growth in urbanization is now happening outside of these megacities. It is taking place in second- and third-tier cities across South Asia. In India, these cities include, for example, Ahmedabad, Chandigarh, Lucknow, Guwahati, Kochi, Nagpur and Coimbatore. They are not as well established as the typical megacities, but still far ahead of rural India, and home to a large and rapidly growing Indian middle class.
However, not only is the middle class growing, but so too are the poorer populations of cities. Attracted by the possibility of jobs or pushed by the lack of opportunity in the rural areas they left behind, they move to these cities in search of a better future. Often they end up working on construction sites as temporary labor, lacking in skills for most of the jobs that newly relocated industry and large companies provide.
It used to be believed that the urban elite in megacities were at the forefront of consumer spending. However, the middle class of smaller cities now spend a larger share of their disposable income on consumer goods than do their Delhi- or Mumbai-based brethren. In fact, 51 districts in India have at least one town with a population of more than 500 000, and taken together, these towns or cities have twice the potential market size than the three metros of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata combined. This in turn “is giving rise to new markets and products. Spending power moved from downtown Mumbai’s Marine Lines to the distant suburb of Malad many years ago. Now it is going further, to Madurai and Moradabad.”
With the increased income of the middle class also comes the widening income gap between the rich and the poor of cities across India. However, it may also provide new employment opportunities for the urban poor, such as security jobs or shop assistants in malls. On the other hand, with a culture of big spending, material aspirations of young people grow markedly, compared to what it was in rural areas, and the menial jobs that the young urban poor are able to secure without education will not provide enough income to close that gap. There is a risk that this will create a class of disaffected youth.
With these new markets and spending power come booming services and manufacturing sectors, such as the BPO industry. Even new academic institutes, including the Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Technology, have recently opened in or near these smaller cities. These in turn are followed by more people moving to the cities looking for better livelihoods opportunities in growing economies.
Overloaded Infrastructure and Amenities
With the sharp increase in population growth, many smaller cities are finding it increasingly hard to cope with the extra population load when it comes to housing, public utilities and other services. As with most problems in India, those worst affected are the poor. Says N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the think-tank Centre for Media Studies, “The growth in the urban population is mostly because of the increase in slum-dwellers. Governments will have to spend more in the urban areas than they do now.” However, there are two problems here. Firstly, these towns and smaller cities are not used to continuous and large inflows of people as are the megacities and are therefore not as able to swallow large additional numbers of people, relying on existing facilities and insufficient planning. Instead, the public transport, electricity and water facilities, and housing and schooling facilities are fast becoming strained. The migrating poor end up in slum communities with access to few of these amenities. And being newly arrived, they are unlikely to be organized and empowered as some long-standing slums of megacities are. Instead, the slum habitat is more akin to migrant labor camps.
Secondly, outside of the larger metros, India is still a rurally focused country when it comes to policies and politics. The rural lobby groups are powerful, and much of the voter base for politicians originate in the rural hinterland, not in the smaller cities. While India is seeing urban development programs such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, it is unlikely that, the country will see a dramatic shift in policy focus from rural to urban India in the near future, implicating that many of these emerging cities will continue to increase the strain on their infrastructure and facilities, but will not be able, or willing, to do anything about it.
The Good News
Faster urbanization does bring good news with it too. Data from 2011 shows that the sex ratio among children was improving faster in urban than in rural India, giving rise to the hope that female feticide will become a thing of the past. At the same time, literacy rates are growing faster in urban areas and currently stands at 85% as compared to 69% in rural areas. Furthermore, with rents being cheaper than in the megacities, the chances of career advancement are better in the emerging second- and third-tier cities than in the more established urban centers, for instance. With so many large companies opening offices in smaller cities across India because of the perceived cost advantage, more employment opportunities are opening up, which, in turn, may trickle down to the urban poor, especially those that are able to benefit from a better education than they may have had in rural India, even if they live in a slum.
Looking to the future, it is evident that India must begin to change its policies to focus more not only on urban India, but on urban India beyond the main metros of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad. The growth of the urban population is much higher outside of these cities, and at the same time the infrastructure, such as healthcare or public transport, is much less developed. Even education in these cities need to catch up with the needs of the large services companies that are opening up offices there. At the same time, this opens up real opportunities for the urban poor in these cities, if they are given adequate education or vocational training.
However, there is also a risk that, if not given a chance, urban poor youth will become increasingly disenfranchised. They will see the rise in income and spending around them, and will not be able to participate since the income gap widens markedly. Perhaps one way to improve the future of the young urban poor in these emerging cities is to focus on vocational training that specifically targets the kind of skills that employers opening up offices there require. More generally, urban policy and debates on urban issues are currently strongly focused on the needs and problems of megacities. The future will see a more balanced debate that takes into account both megacities and their faster-growing cousins in the country.