Problems of Urban India

With a rapidly increasing urbanization India's majour cities are now facing great social issues including housing problems, waste disposal and shortage of electric power.

The country went through the decennial census operations during 2010-11 culminating in the final count of population on 1st March 2011. On that day India’s population was just above 1210 million or 121 crores. Of these people 883 million live in rural areas and 377 million live in urban areas. In other words, as of 2011, 68.8 percent live in rural areas and 31.2 percent live in urban areas. Incidentally an urban area is defined as one where more than 5000 people live and at least 75% of them depend on non-agricultural activities for their livelihood. Compared to the census of 2001, the rural population increased by 90.06 million and urban population by 91 million. Percentage wise rural population was 71.2 percent in 2001 and the corresponding figure for urban population percentage was 28.8 percent. Thus it is seen that the proportion of people living in urban areas and depending on non-agricultural activities is increasing rather rapidly. This trend was noted even between 1991 and 2001. This trend is mainly because agriculture and related activities were the sole occupation available for people in rural areas and land being a limited resource, as the population grew by mid 1990s land could not support any further addition to the labour force in rural areas. Thus employment seekers started migrating to urban areas in general and in particular to the major cities like Bombay, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad etc. The spurt in urban population has put tremendous pressure on available public utilities and facilities in the cities. The problems have become so serious that a few years ago a separate Ministry of Urban Development with a cabinet rank minister in charge was created by the Government of India. It is the purpose of this article to highlight some of these problems which seem to afflict almost every big city in the country.


The most important problem in all cities has been housing the sudden and large scale influx of migrants from rural areas to urban areas especially the metropolises and state capitals. Due to lack of housing, in every city almost fifty percent population live in slums. Slums are actually illegally created colonies of housing on open spaces in the cities. The structures are temporary they are very crowded and rows of such houses are separated by very narrow lanes through which household drainage is allowed to flow. As these are illegal colonies, they do not have any civic amenities like drinking water, sewage, electricity etc. As the slums start growing a local mafia gang takes over the control of the area through muscle power and both old residents and new entrants have to keep the mafia gang happy by paying regular doles. In return the gang assures the inhabitants security.

Many slums in big cities have been there for two or three generations. Families residing there develop their own inter linkages, mutual help, service providers of all sorts, retail shops and so on. Usually when a new slum comes up, it is first outside the city at that time but very soon, as the city grows the slums become a part of the city itself. Very often real estate dealers eye such slums for clearance so that they can build luxury apartments and make huge profits both on land value and on the apartments. The slum dwellers are uprooted and resettled in the outskirts of the city far away from their place of work. In addition the slum dwellers are broken up into groups and resettled in different locations thus causing much misery as the old linkages and mutual dependence are disrupted. On the eve of elections some of the unauthorized slums are “regularized” by the party in power to garner votes of the residents. Certain civic amenities like public taps, public toilets are provided. These facilities do not make much difference to the slum dweller because after elections, the facilities are neglected by the authorities. The slums however gain permanency.

At the other end, colonies of old houses of well to do families are demolished and multi-storeyed apartments are built to accommodate the richer immigrants to the cities. The old owners are usually compensated by allotting a few flats in the new building or partly through cash and partly through flats. Thus in these colonies where a few hundred families were living the number of inhabitants suddenly increases many fold putting tremendous strain on the civic amenities in the area like water supply, sewage, roads etc. Very often the municipal water supply is supplemented with a bore well. As more and more apartments get built, the ground water table sinks deeper and bore wells have to be drilled deeper. In many cases, the quantity of ground water taken out is much more than the replenishing rate and hence in due course existing bore wells go dry and new ones have to be drilled to greater depth. The strain on sewage disposal system is a different story. Individual apartments can do nothing in the matter. It requires the local administration to intervene and lay new drainage lines with larger diameter pipes. This involves major work and also damages the existing roads. For lack of funds, this work is not undertaken easily and the residents find existing sewage lines completely clogged and the sewage overflowing on to the roads.

Ideally, slums should be cleared and modest housing apartment buildings constructed by the government to accommodate all the slum dwellers. Preferably the flats should be leased out at affordable rents to the occupants. This way the slum dwellers remain in the area where they used to live and the linkages among the residents retained.

Waste Disposal

Another big problem that has arisen due to the large increase in population has been the enormous amount of solid waste generated. In a city like Bengaluru the solid waste generated daily is estimated to be around 5000 tons. The collection, transportation and disposal of this huge quantity of solid waste is posing serious problems to the municipality. Finding dumping grounds for this waste has become difficult. Dumping this sort of waste has created serious problems of pollution, ill-health and stink to inhabitants even a kilometer away. Recycling the solid waste material and converting much of it into usable products seems to be the only solution.

A new type of hazardous waste has come up in recent years, namely electronic waste. Unserviceable cell phones, their accessories, other electronic goods, are being thrown away indiscriminately. Many of them contain toxic chemicals like mercury and other heavy metals and compounds. Their disposal is going to become a very serious problem in due course.

Much research needs to be done on the disposal of various types of solid waste without causing any harm to the environment or the people. Incidentally, it has been suggested that even in the case of human excreta, it would greatly revolutionize the civic amenities provision if a method can be invented to dispose of this waste at the site where it is generated.

Public Transport

After housing and waste disposal, another major problem faced by people in urban areas is the lack of adequate public transport. As the cities are growing, distances to be travelled for work and other reasons are increasing. With more than half the population being poor or belonging to low income groups, public transport is a very important facility to be provided in urban areas. Unfortunately while the richer classes are buying more and more two wheeler and four wheeler automobiles, the average and below average citizen does not have access to adequate and affordable transport facility. As the number of motor vehicles increases, roads get cluttered, pollution increases and it takes longer to reach one’s destination. Pedestrians and slow moving vehicles do not get sympathetic treatment either by the authorities or the other road users. Only recently local and state governments have woken up to this problem and metro rail systems are being set up at great cost for mass rapid transportation. Calcutta and more recently Delhi have very well managed metro rail systems but they are still not adequate. Mumbai and Chennai have had a long history of local train services but even they are proving inadequate with populations in these cities growing rapidly. Cities like Bengaluru and Hyderabad have just initiated action to provide elevated metro rail on a limited scale. Presently people rely mostly on bus transport but their number is not enough nor the roads able to accommodate all the vehicles now in use. There are frequent traffic jams further delaying people from reaching their destinations. The way forward is to restrict severely individual transport and increase manifold public transport both by road and rail. Public transport must be made much more efficient, regular, punctual, attractive and adequate. Then the need for individual transports will go down and the state would be able to put severe restrictions on use of individual transport as is being done in Singapore.

Shortage of Electric Power

A very serious problem facing the entire country is the acute shortage of electric power both in urban and rural areas. This can be solved only by generating much more electricity than at present.  However, this solution has met with almost a wall-like obstruction. Conventional methods of generation like coal based thermal power, nuclear power and hydro electric power are being opposed by people for reasons of environmental pollution, displacement of people submergence of land and forests etc. There are some gas based power stations which are less polluting but due to lack of sufficient quantity of natural gas they are working at less than half their load capacity. Non-conventional sources of power like solar power and wind power are not that economically viable or affordable by the consumers. The power generation is also intermittent requiring large storage capacity for energy. One does not know what new problems will arise in storing energy on such large scale.


Finally a very recent problem in large cities where all sorts of people have settled down has been the security situation. Well to do citizens are being forced to organize their own security. This is the reason for the coming up of gated communities with private security arrangements. Entry to these communities is strictly controlled and monitored by the security staff. This is a sad reflection on the capacity of the authorities to provide security to their citizens.

Thus almost all major cities in India are facing serious problems of slum clearance, housing, inadequate civic amenities for a fast growing population, absence of efficient public transport system, the growing insecurity in the cities and so on. Problems will become more acute and may go beyond repair if immediate steps are not taken to solve at least some of these problems. Meanwhile the forecast is that half the country’s population will be living in urban areas in another two to three decades. This trend needs to be reversed urgently by providing urban facilities in rural areas and locating several industries and providing employment opportunities in rural areas.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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