Policy Engagements and Blogs

Understanding Subaltern Urbanisation in India and its Impact

Marie-Helene Zerah

November 17, 2017




This first piece introduces a series on Subaltern Urbanisation in India that aims at understanding the dynamics of small towns, their place and role in the Indian urban transition process. It summarises the origins, the rationale and the methodology of a collective research project that involved a team of around 25 researchers, including the urbanisation team at CPR. The series will detail some of the results produced in a recently published edited volume, point towards future directions for research, and open up debates on public policy.

The background of this project is located both in empirical and theoretical concerns. One out of 10 urban dwellers in the world lives in India and small towns (less than 100,000 population) account for 90% of Indian cities and over 40% of the urban Indian population. Therefore understanding India is necessary to understanding global urbanisation, and understanding Indian urbanisation requires an all-round view beyond the overwhelming attention given to metropolitan and large cities. There is therefore a need to return to a more complete idea of the urban and this includes the study of the dynamics of small towns.

Defining subaltern urbanisation

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.


From a methodological point of view, the project was launched by a collective formed around 2009 assembling researchers from different disciplines, in order to engage in a multidisciplinary dialogue combining both GIS (Geographic Information Systems), quantitative data and qualitative methodologies. Nevertheless, this mixed method approach has not only been used to capture diversity and multiscale analysis but also in order to understand small towns as abstracts entities. It goes deep into capturing the varied types of interactions that produce the diversity of these urban environments.

Redefining urban, its scope, and the urban transition process

The point of departure of this research and its content was to interrogate anew the definition of the urban, the scope of the urban world and the urban transition process itself.

Our research questions were shaped both from theoretical debates and from a prior research project that aimed to refine the UN’s (United Nations) efforts to build comparative data sets to measure urbanisation worldwide. It is grounded in a questioning of the existing restricted representations, measures and explanatory models of urban expansion.

For India, this data base enabled us to build 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. From a more theoretical point of view, our aim was to add to a growing body of work that reclaims the diversity of the urban phenomenon beyond the global metropolitan cities and highlights the range of national and regional trajectories.

Small towns and economic growth

An important aspect of the research was also concerned with the relationship between small towns, the larger employment story and growth. Indeed, 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, our 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. This result, in particular, is confirmed by additional work carried out in Bihar and funded by the World Bank, which will be elaborated upon in a forthcoming podcast.

We have also been interested in 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).

The social dimensions of small towns’ economies

To answer this question, the project has also been concerned with understanding the kind of capital (human, land, social networks, etc.) that actors mobilise. It has observed small towns as sites of social changes 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 Udipi, in Karnataka), or the embeddedness of 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. In other words, by paying attention to the multiplicity of interactions and the multiscale shape of networks, this project attempts to reclaim an embedded view of economic and social changes.

Small towns, governance and the politics of classification

Another research theme has dealt with the questions of governance and the politics of urban classification, as to whether it is important or not to have an urban status. This question is 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 questions that the Subaltern Urbanisation book has raised and some of the answers it has provided is not only relevant for India but for other global contexts as well. By giving flesh and emphasising the diversity of urban processes, it can open up or contribute to a dialogue with other countries and continents for instance China, Asia and Latin America where the process of in-situ urbanisation is discussed, or even with Europe where interest in the place and the role of small towns has been renewed.

The next piece will discuss the nature and the extent of urbanisation in India and its evolution based on Census data analysis.

This piece has been authored by Marie-Hélène Zérah.

The other piece in the series can be accessed below: