Coining the term ‘Subaltern Urbanisation’ can be seen as polemical but it seeks to embody two important strands that shape a common thinking around the potential role of small towns.
First, it attempts to make small places intelligible in contrast to their current level of invisibility in India and at the international level. Second, it tries to think of small towns as sites endowed with some level of autonomy and agency while the dominant paradigm, in particular in the New Economic Geography school of thought, sees small urban spaces as dependent on large metropolitan economies.
Research on urbanisation enabled building data at the lower urban settlement level. It demonstrated the importance of small settlements, which was confirmed by the 2011 census. It aimed at bringing to the fore issues involved in defining the frontier of the urban and its political dimensions as well as raising the important – and to some extent increasing – role small towns play in the urban transition process.
Small towns and economic growth
Small towns have remained an important feature of the Indian urban system. They might or might not account for a large share of the GDP but they represent a large and growing market and they also act as important service centres to the rural population. In a context of limited rural to urban migration, job destruction in the agricultural sector and very limited job creation, results show how small towns are, inter alia, places of adjustment where people cope with poverty, uncertainty through the mobilisation of their kinship networks and family resources.
Research has focussed on the nature of economic activities that range from traditional activities (such as the collection of Tendu leaves in Abu Road in Rajasthan), to natural resource extraction (such as coal mining in Barjora, in West Bengal), manufacturing, services and trade; as well as real estate and the private and education institutions (in Tamil Nadu and Haryana in particular).
Ethnographies of a variety of sites located in different states confirm the role of favourable land prices and regulation and cheap labour for the development of small towns. However, they also document how innovations and entrepreneurship are based on an ability to tap local resources and adapt to a very rapidly changing market condition, that include exploring international markets – such as the furniture industry in Kartarpur or drilling rig assembly industry in Tiruchengode).
Social dimensions of small towns’ economies
Research has pointed to small towns as sites of social change and not looked at these spaces as frozen in time or as places of entrenchment of parochial societies. On the contrary, many case studies underscore the dynamism and the innovation taking place in some of these small towns, an innovation based on the harnessing of transnational networks, as in the case of the fishing industry in Udupi, in Karnataka, or the symbolic and religious dimensions in handling land and financial capital, as seen in the temple towns of Tamil Nadu. These interrelated dimensions are inscribed in a field of social relations, or historically trade relations.
Small towns, governance and politics of classification
One the question of governance and the politics of urban classification, and whether it is important to have an urban status, the issue becomes particularly acute for census towns that are classified as urban by the Census of India but remain rural settlements in terms of governance. Beyond analysing the linked benefits and costs of an urban status, the focus on the governance issue is critical to engage with public policies regarding cities and urban development.
(The writer is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a Senior Researcher at the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development)