Challenges of Urbanization and Environmental Degradation in India

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Challenges of Urbanization and Environmental Degradation in India

J. P. Singh

The author is Professor of Sociology at the

Postgraduate Department of Sociology,

Patna University, Patna-800 005, INDIA

A study of the process of urbanization and urban growth in India since the beginning of the twentieth century reveals a steady increase in the size of urban population, the number of towns and the degree of urbanization. But the tempo of increase became faster from 1951 onward. From 1951 to 1991, India’s urban population more than three times from 58 million to 216 million. The number of towns of different size-classes swelled from 2,257 in 1951 to 3,697 in 1991, an increase of about 39 percent. The proportion of the population living in urban areas increased from 16 percent in 1951 to 26 percent in 1991. The annual rate of growth of the urban population during 1981-91 was 3.1 percent-- slightly less than that in the previous two decades, 1961-71 (3.2 percent) and 1971-81 (3.8 percent). Thus it appears that the pace of urbanization has been somewhat slower, albeit imperceptibly so, in recent years.

Trends in the growth of population by different classes of towns reveal that the lion’s share of the increase in population since 1961 has been in Class I towns (i. e., towns with a population of 1,00,000 or more). The proportion of population living in Class I towns is steadily constituting two-thirds of the total urban population. Towns of Classes V and VI (i.e., below 10,000 population) have actually recorded decline in their share of population during the decade 1981-91. In 1981, India had 12 ‘million plus’ cities (henceforth metropolises) with a total population of about 42 million, accounting for 6.2 percent of the country’s population. By 1991, the number of metropolises had nearly doubled (23), with a total population of 71 million, constituting 8.4 percent of India’s total population. Thus, urbanization in India has essentially been the growth of large towns and metropolitan cities, at the cost of small and tiny towns.

India is witnessing an unprecedented rise in urbanization and cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta are over-crowded with people. Now nearly one-third of the population lives in towns and cities. The urban population, however, is economically very important and contributes 50 to 55 percent to the total GNP. It also means that the hub of all modern activity is concentrated in major cities, which continuously attract migrant workers in search of their livelihood.

However, unlike the big cities in rich countries, Indian cities are not able to take in more and more people because of poor urban management and resource constraints. The people continuously confront problems of safe drinking water, power, sewerage and garbage disposal. With rapid natural increase and inflow of rural population, cities are growing rapidly and there is an urgent need for better governance, transport and basic amenities for the growing population. Here it is worthwhile to point out that most people including many social scientists and journalists believe that rural to urban migration is the prime factor of urbanization. This myth has already been exploded by demographers. Studies have clearly established that natural increase has been the most potent factor behind rapid rise in urban population not only in India but also in most developing countries of the world.

Rural Backwardness and Cityward Migration

Rapid urban growth can be slowed down only if family welfare programs are vigorously pursued. In addition, rural development programs should also be augmented to create employment opportunities in the villages themselves. The village economy has to be made more vibrant by focusing on increasing non-farm employment. However, this can happen only if villages have adequate facilities for transportation and communication as well as power. Only then some small scale manufacturing units and service industries can be established. However, since the rural economy has been neglected for years and public investment has been declining in agriculture for the last 15 years, most Indian villages do not possess basic minimum infrastructure for civic amenities, transportation and communication. Consequently the prospective investors are put off and thus the unemployed rural youth are pushed towards cities to eke out their living.

Drastic reforms can substantially transform the scene for which a hefty increase in public spending would be essential. People themselves would then come forward and take the initiative of supplying services to big cities. This had already happened in China where the economic reforms were started in agricultural sector. Farmers were free to sell their surplus produce in the open market and they became so enthusiastic about taking their wares to nearby towns in order to get better prices that they developed the required service industries themselves. Entrepreneurs sprang up taking advantage of the trade liberalization in the villages and jobs were created in the non-farm sector. This subsequently brought down the overall poverty level and pressure of population on towns. The development of the rural sector thus became critical for the success of economic reforms in China.

If similar developments are to take place in Indian villages, many potential migrants may be able to find jobs in their own villages. It can also reverse the flow of migration and lessen the strain on the city’s basic infrastructure. There will also be a decline in both urban and rural poverty. However, the task is not so easy.

Problems of Slum Formation

As a result of burgeoning population in cities, the problems of space and housing for all have intensified. Slums have become an inevitable part of the major Indian metropolises. The proportion of the population in towns and cities living in slums has been increasing over the years, and has risen from 18.8 percent of the urban population in 1981 to 21.5 percent in 1991. In absolute terms, the population living in slums in Indian cities has increased from 30 million to 47 million. The State of Maharashtra is one of the most glaring examples of this state of affairs. Nearly 7 million people lived in slums in 1991, although as a proportion of the total urban population of the state-- the percentage works out to be only 22 percent, close to the national average. This is explained by the fact that the state’s urban population is a very high proportion of the total. The second highest slum population is in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which has 5.8 million, followed by West Bengal with 4.6 million. Slums of Delhi comprise 2.4 million people, accounting for 28.6 percent of the city’s population.

The proportion of people living in slums appears to be smaller than the actual, as the National Building Organization and the National Sample Survey (1988-89) have operationalized very liberal criteria of identifying slums in the country. The NSS has defined slum as a compact area with a collection of poorly built tenements crowding together, usually with inadequate sanitary and toilet facilities. If an effort is made to identify slums in India on the basis of a universal definition, the proportion of slum population would comprise more than 50 percent of the total urban population in the country and from western standard the proportion would be still higher— maybe around 80 percent of the total urban population.

Since most of the new migrants to cities are poor and homeless, slums and shantytowns spring up to accommodate them. Thus, the contrast between the rich and the poor becomes quite conspicuous. In fact, it is more visible in Indian cities than those in the West because the proportion of the population living in slums is much bigger and their living conditions far worse. The visible squalor of the shantytowns in big cities put off foreign visitors and many may decide never to return again, which is a loss to the tourism sector.

The people in slums live under the most deplorable conditions, with little access to effective social and health care services, potable water, or sanitation facilities and are therefore more vulnerable to epidemics and developmental challenges. Their low socio-economic status, low level of education and high fertility and mortality all indicate that they need special attention in terms of public health, family planning and reproductive health programs. But unfortunately reverse is the case with such segments of urban population.

The plight of the urban poor is no doubt real and 33 percent of a big city’s population lives below the poverty line, which often means living in sub-human conditions. About 19 percent of the population in cities still do not have access to running water. Poverty or the misery is so transparent in the life of slum dwellers that there is no need of any criteria, measurement, or probing analysis to recognize raw poverty and to understand its antecedents. Efforts have been on to remove the scourge of poverty since Independence. Ever since then the government has been trying hard through various developmental programs to raise the average standard of living of people. Nevertheless, our performances or achievements in the field of poverty alleviation have been quite dismal and disheartening.

In a recent survey of 27 big Asian cities with over a million population, India’s four largest cities have been ranked among the five worst with respect to availability of water per day. Physical losses due to water wastage in these cities are high despite low pressure and intermittent supplies. Low pressure can lead to ‘back syphonage’ and contamination, responsible for many water-borne diseases affecting the urban population. The lack of sufficient water affects the urban poor still more. In Delhi, when the official supply per capita is supposed to be 200 liters a day, around nine million people (a third of the population) get less than 25 liters a day. Also, 36 percent of the urban population does not have access to proper sanitation and most slum-dwellers do not have a toilet of their own.

Despite such dismal statistics, according to the latest National Sample Survey, poverty in big cities has decreased slightly as compared to rural poverty, which has increased during the last few years. However, unlike the rural poor, who can hide behind a picturesque countryside, urban poverty is depressing and visible. Extreme poverty and unemployment in big cities is giving rise to higher crime rates and social tension.

In order to cope with an increasing population, the municipal corporations could invite greater private sector participation in the urban infrastructure so that critical services are better managed. More money would also be needed by municipal corporations to look after the growing population. Corporatization of municipal finances is one way of raising additional funds. For example, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation has raised money through bond issues. A demand for greater accountability from municipal corporations will prevent corruption and cost over runs. This will need the involvement of local self-help and civil society groups. But providing adequate education, power, water and public transport to its poorest inhabitants will continue to remain a major challenge for any municipal governments when faced with continuous increase in urban population through natural increase as well as cityward migration.

Urbanization and Environmental Degradation

Rapid urbanization has caused wide spread environmental degradation in the country. The government has conceded that despite imposition of regulatory measures, the magnitude of pollution from industrial sources in the country has not shown any appreciable decrease during the last two decades. Increase in pollution levels in urban areas is also fuelled by ever-growing traffic. The number of registered automobiles in the country, mostly concentrated in the cities, has increased from 1.87 million in 1971 to 5.39 million in 1981 and 25.28 million in 1993. These figures show an extraordinary high annual (exponential) growth rate of 10.6 percent during 1971-81 and 12.9 percent during 1981-93, while the urban population grew only by about four percent annually during this period. Thus, the growth in the number of vehicles per capita in the past 12 years has been very high in the country. The highest growth rate has been recorded in the number of two-wheelers, at 15.1 percent during 1971-81 and 15.6 percent during 1981-93. These vehicles contribute the most to air pollution levels. Poor maintenance of vehicles and traffic congestion have been found to be critical factors of air pollution problems in urban areas. Most vehicles do not confirm to permissible emission limits.

It has been revealed by a survey of ten major cities of India by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur that there has been a substantial increase of the suspended particulate matter (SPM) in the air, which suggests the presence of dust and carbon particles coated with toxic gases. The highest level of SPM is reported to be in Delhi and Calcutta. It is as high as 460. The other metropolises, which cross the maximum, prescribed for SPM by WHO (200 micrograms per cubic meter of air) are Kanpur, Nagpur, Jaipur, Mumbai and Ahmedabad. The high levels of air pollution in these cities are largely attributable to incomplete combustion of diesel and leaded petrol, particularly in case of two- and three-wheelers, which use inefficient two-stroke engines and indirect fuel injection. The study has revealed that the SPM levels in the residential areas of all industrial cities have reached a critical level. Rapid urbanization together with other associated problems of shelter and provision of infrastructural facilities has caused a pernicious effect on the eco-stability of the country.

Yet, another serious problem is related to treatment of sewage collection and disposal of waste materials. Hardly any city in India has 100 percent sewage collection treatment and waste disposal facilities. Incidentally, of all the capital cities of different states and union territories Patna (the capital city of the State of Bihar) is considered to be the worst of all. The untreated and partially treated wastewater ultimately contaminates rivers, lakes and reservoirs causing manifold pollution problems. Rivers passing through cities such as Ganga, Yamuna, Krishna, Kaveri, Godavari, Hoogly, Damodar, Kshipra, Gomti, Mahanadi, Narmada, Tapti, Betwa, etc. are reported to be heavily polluted. Urbanization had also enhanced the solid waste problem in the country. With the present culture of use and throw and increasing use of biodegradable packing material, the quantity and composition of waste is likely to change in the coming decades.

Indian cities also have serious problem of noise pollution. It is considered to be a very big health hazard. Noise affects man physically, psychologically and socially. Intense noise or long stay in a noisy environment can cause permanent reduction of hearing sensitivity by damaging sensory organs of the inner ear. It can also influence blood circulation, cause stress and other psychological effects and could also be an accident risk by drowning warning signals.

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