Quiet numbers tell district tales – rural and urban India, part 2
The urban-centric bias of the Government of India and its principal ministries and agencies has influenced national policy for the last two Plan periods, and is a tendency that will continue for at least the duration of the 12th Plan and possibly beyond, for as long as the fixation with high annual economic growth rate continues.
Yet, if there are 53 cities whose populations are a million residents and more, and these are considered essential for the stimulation of economic efficiencies, then there are 355 districts whose rural populations are a million residents and more, whose agricultural outputs and surpluses not only provide them livelihoods, but feed the favoured residents of 53 million-plus cities and of 7,935 towns.
That is why it is worth examining, in greater detail, these rural districts and the people who inhabit them, insofar as the small data sets released by the Census of India 2011 will allow. The first indication that measures of the rural population describe an India quite different, in movement and settlement, from the force that shapes towns and cities is seen in the composition of the top of the list.
There are no familiar metropolitan names here, no powerful centres of commerce and influence which are so commonly found in contemporary reportage of the Indian condition. Of the 30 districts with the most rural populations, there are 8 in West Bengal, 8 in Bihar, 8 in Uttar Pradesh, 2 in Andhra Pradesh, 3 in Maharashtra and 1 in Karnataka. Of the top five West Bengal has 4 – South 24 Parganas (6.06 million), Murshidabad (5.69 million), Paschim Medinipur (5.22 million), Barddhaman (4.64 million) and Bihar’s Purba Champaran ranks fifth (4.68 million).
These districts and their rural residents describe India’s dependence on its diverse agricultural systems, its natural resources, its stock of traditional knowledge. The list of the top 10 districts with the highest rural populations is completed with Purba Medinipur (West Bengal), Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh), Madhubani (Bihar), Muzaffarpur (Bihar) and North 24 Parganas (West Bengal). The 30 districts with the largest rural populations have between 3.43 and 6.06 million residents in each.
Their historicity as the locus of population density in the subcontinent – as recorded in the early census reports from the late-19th century onwards, and described in lyrical detail in the Census of 1911 – has been overtaken by the market that the 53 million-plus cities represent, and the reckless pampering of urban growth at the expense of rural resilience. There ought not to have been a battle for financial resources between the 160.5 million residents of the million-plus cities, and the 693.9 million rural residents of the million-plus districts – but that is the bias with which the 12th Plan will approach both constituencies of Indians.
Odious as the urban flavour to national planning is, rural transformation and conurbation has been a feature of demographic change in India for well over a century. One hundred years ago exactly, the report of the Census of India 1911 attempted to encompass the dimensions of such change. “With the spread of railways and the general improvement in means of communication, the smaller towns are growing in importance as distributing centres, but the process is a slow one and comparatively little progress in this direction has yet been made,” said the section on ‘Area, Population and Density’ in Volume I of this landmark census. “The small market town so common in Europe and America is rarely found in India. Nor as a rule do the smaller Indian towns possess the other amenities associated with urban life in Europe, such as a better class of schools and public institutions of various kinds.”
[This is the second of a small series of postings on rural and urban India, which reproduces material from my analysis of Census 2011 data on India’s rural and urban populations, published by Infochange India. See the first in the series here.]