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The categorization of human settlements / regions into urban and rural is fundamental to developmental policy making in India. For instance, poverty is defined separately for urban poor and rural poor. There are Schemes targeting specifically the rural or urban population. Further, employment, inflation etc are all measured separately for urban and rural areas.

In India, the word “urban” is defined in the Census of India–which provides statistical information on different characteristics of the people of India. The responsibility of conducting the decennial Census rests with the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India under Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. (The 2011census report may be seen here.)

For the Census of India 2011, the definition of urban area is as follows;

  1. All places with a municipality, corporation, cantonment board or notified town area committee, etc.
  2. All other places which satisfied the following criteria:
    1. A minimum population of 5,000;
    2. At least 75 per cent of the male main working population engaged in non-agricultural pursuits; and
    3. A density of population of at least 400 persons per sq. km.

The first category of urban units is known as Statutory Towns. These towns are notified under law by the concerned State/Union Territory (UT) Government and have local bodies like municipal corporations, municipalities, etc., irrespective of their demographic characteristics asreckoned on 31st December 2009. Examples: Vadodara (M Corp.), Shimla (MCorp.) etc.

The second category of Towns (as in item 2 above) is known as Census Town. These were identified on the basis of previous census data (for 2011 census 2001 census data would be used).

The definition for “urban” has been in use since 1961. However, the 1961 Census had defined a census town as one with population above 5000 and at least 75 percent of total working population (not just male) dependent on non-agricultural pursuits. The density of population was specified then at 1000 per sq. mile or 390 per In the 1971 census onwards,it was specified that 75 percent of the total male working population only needs to be dependent on non-agricultural pursuits. In 1991 Census, the density of population was raised to 400 persons per sq. km. Thereafter, no revisions have been done to the definition of urban area[1].

For identification of places which would qualify to be classified as ‘urban’, all villages, which, as per the previously held Census had a population of 4,000 and above,a population density of 400 persons per sq. km. and having at least 75 per cent ofmale working population engaged in non-agricultural activity would be considered. Further, updated list of villages and towns are prepared after incorporating the jurisdictional changes that have taken place after the previous Census and up to a recent cut-off date. The Census Towns are not declassified if they fail to meet the criteria on the basis of new Census.

An indicator of development is “urbanization”which refers to an increase in the proportion of a population living in urban areas.

International Comparison

The definition of urban areas varies from country to country. Taking note of this UN (Principles and Recommendations for Population and Housing Censuses, Revision 2 (2008) had noted that:

“Because of national differences in the characteristics that distinguish urban from rural areas, the distinction between the urban and the rural population is not yet amenable to a single definition that would be applicable to all countries or, for the most part, even to the countries within a region..”

The criteria used for determining urban settlements across the globe are provided in the Demographic Yearbook - an international compendium of national demographic statistics provided by national statistical authorities to the Statistics Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Here Urban is defined according to the national census definition. The definition for each country is set forth at the end of the technical notes to the table. For instance, see the definitions as appearing in the Demographic Yearbook 2011 here.

The World Bank also gives information on urban development across the nations. Here also, urban population refers to people living in urban areas as defined by national statistical offices. It is calculated using World Bank population estimates and urban ratios from the United Nations World Urbanization Prospects. See here for World Bank data.

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