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January 15, 2020

The problem with Kerala's urban growth

Recently, The Economist put out a graph highlighting the fastest-growing cities (by population) in the world today. Three of the top ten are Indian — and all of them are in the state of Kerala.


Figure 1: Top Ten Fastest-Growing Cities

Source: The Economist


This is intriguing. Kerala is, quite literally, the last state in the country that should benefit from a population boom-driven urban growth. As per the 2011 Census, it had the lowest decadal population growth rate in the country, 4.6%. That is unlikely to have changed to any significant degree in the years since. At 13.4%, Malappuram — which tops The Economist’s chart — had the highest rate in the state. But that was still a fair distance behind the national average of 17.6%.


The reason for the rankings is a bit more nuanced: The Economist has looked at urban agglomerations (UAs) — the spillover growth happening on a town's peripheries, taken in conjunction with the town itself. As The Indian Express points out, between 2001 and 2011, the Malappuram and Kollam UAs grew substantially as urban areas around the towns were included in them. The rankings, which are based on 2015-20 projections, extrapolate from this.


But IDFC Institute and the Urban Expansion Observatory's research points to the extent to which de facto urbanisation may still remain unrecognised, here and elsewhere. Here's the problem: the way India defines urban areas opens up a substantial gap between the official numbers and the true extent of urban growth. According to the 2011 Census, India is only 31% urban. The statutory definitions used by state governments, meanwhile, suggest India is just 26% urban. IDFC Institute analysis by Tandel et al used two commonly used population thresholds — a 5,000+ population and 2,500+ population — and re-classified Census settlements from rural to urban if they met these criteria. If we apply a population criterion of 5,000, India is 47% urban. If we apply a population criterion of 2,500, India is 65% urban.


And Kerala? It goes from 16% statutory urban to almost 100% urban if we apply the 5,000 population definition. Take a look below at what this means for Kozhikode, fourth on The Economist’s list.


Figure 2: Kozhikode - Built up area vs administrative boundaries (1975, 2014)

Source: IDFC Institute and UXO Analysis


What happens to growth in neighbouring districts? Malappuram is the district to the south of the Kozhikode district. With a population of 4,110,956, Malappuram is an example of an area that appears to operate as an urban area when considered as a contiguous area with Kozhikode but it isn’t officially classified as urban.


Figure 3: Kozhikode + Malappuram: Built-up area vs administrative boundaries (1975 vs 2014)


Source: IDFC Institute and UXO Analysis


This mismatch between de jure and de facto urbanisation can hamstring the economic and ease of living benefits of urban growth. When cities grow but the growth goes unrecognised, there is a severe impact on public service delivery and resource allocation. The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments contain the Eleventh and Twelfth Schedules listing the powers, authority, and responsibilities of rural local bodies (RLBs) and urban local bodies (ULBs) respectively. Items listed for ULBs and not RLBs include: town planning, slum improvement, public amenities including street lighting, parking lots, bus stops, solid waste management, building regulations and fire services.


The wasted potential of growth in the cities on The Economist’s list — and all over the country — is obvious.


Local administrations see this. A 2011 District of Kozhikode Urbanisation Report classifies the gram panchayats around the municipal corporation as rural, semi-urban or urban according to their own set of parameters (see Figure 3):


  • Gram Panchayats – Feroke, Kadalundi, Olavanna just south of Kozhikode Municipal   Corporation are all classified by as urban

  • Ramanattukara is semi-urban

  • Gram panchayats to the east of the MC boundary are semi-rural


The report recommends a master plan boundary that includes the municipal corporation boundary +4 gram panchayats. This indicates that the district recognises that these administratively rural areas, are in fact urban.


But from what we can tell, officially, these continue to be governed by Rural Local Bodies (RLBs) rather than urban administrations.


Figure 4: Classification of gram panchayats as rural, semi-urban, urban by the District of Kozhikode Urbanisation Report


Source: RTPO, Kozhikode


Roads are an illustrative example of the declining urban fabric of Kozhikode as a result of not recognising functionally urban areas as administratively urban. The NYU-UN Habitat Atlas of Urban Expansion measures the quality of urban growth pre-1990 compared to peri-urban expansion from 1990-2014. Most often, we see that the quality of growth drops off sharply due to the unplanned nature of the growth. For instance, average road width in the Kozhikode 1990-2014 expansion area was 4.03 meters, compared to 9.84 meters in its pre-1990 area. The share of built-up area in Kozhikode occupied by roads in the 1990-2014 expansion area was 10% compared to 19% in the pre-1990 area. The logic is that a higher share of roads allows for greater mobility, and for ease of movement across what appears to be a unified labour market. Urbanist Alain Bertaud argues that if cities are primarily labour markets, efforts should be undertaken to improve mobility across the market and reduce transaction costs of relocating within the market.

Figure 5: Kozhikode - Average Street Width (1991-2014)

Source: Atlas of Urban Expansion

Similarly, the density of arterial roads in Kozhikode’s 1990-2014 expansion was 0.74km/km2, compared to 2.16km/km2 in its pre-1990 area. The share of built-up area within walking distance of an arterial road in Kozhikode’s 1990-2014 expansion was 88% compared to 98% in the pre-1990 area. These arterial roads not only carry transport, but can also house core infrastructure like sewerage lines.

Figure 6: Kozhikode - Density of Arterial Roads (1991-2001, 2001-2014)

Source: Atlas of Urban Expansion

In terms of resources, according to the Fifth State Finance Commission and Issues in Fiscal Devolution, Kerala the share of funds allocated to municipalities and municipal corporations was just 18.1% of the total funds devolved by state government vs. 54.4% to gram panchayats.

Table 1: Financing of local self governments in Kerala, excluding central government sources, borrowing and other minor sources


Share of state transfers

Share of own-tax + non-tax revenue

Gram Panchayats



Municipal Corporations



Source: Rural Local Body Core Functions and Finances, CPR 2014


The Kerala problem is replicated throughout India. For instance, Tamil Nadu is around 84% urban if we use the population criterion of 2,500, instead of 49% urban as estimated by the 2011 Census. India’s cities are growing — but without all the benefits that should come with this.

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