Posted by: Vikram | January 17, 2009

Why do India’s cities have extremely high population densities ?

That they do have high densities should not be a surprise, it is after all the second most populated country in the world. But the fact is that, after Dhaka, the top 7 densest cities in the world are in India ! Also, high densities seem to be the norm everywhere in India, except the North East. Even cities like Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad which are in states that have below replacement fertility rates (or close to it) have the same densities as Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkota. Finally, the most populated (UP, MP) and densely populated (Kerala, Bihar) states dont seem to have big or densely populated cities. By comparison no Pakistani or Chinese city is even in the top 20. This is a surprise because much of Pakistan and China is desert, in the latter’s case 95 % of the population lives on a third of the land.

One must understand that countries like India, with large urban-rural disparities tend to have large migrant populations. The cities are an economic magnet attracting rural migrants. A city like Mumbai, which was never historically significant became a major economic center due to its location, and after the original boom based on trade and manufacturing it now has a large service economy that keeps attracting migrants. Similarly for every tech sector job created in Bengaluru, 3 or 4 migrants are attracted to the corresponding service industry. In India, there are relatively few magnet cities and a huge number of potential migrants in villages, leading to a sudden population boom. It would be interesting to evaluate the population of a major city in India that is ‘native’ born, but I think it will be relatively less.

There is a paragraph in the book Maximum City (about Mumbai), where author Suketu Mehta asks a Dharavi family why they would live in a slum. They mentioned among other things, the prestige that living in Mumbai gave them in their village. Some others mentioned, “Nobody starves in Mumbai”. So the opportunity to migrate is a very important power that being Indian citizen provides. And they make full use of it. However, with their galloping populations, Indian cities are urban nightmares, with problems that seem to be growing rapidly. To ‘rescue’ Indian cities, the government needs to think about how to generate good livelihoods and provide basic facilities in rural India, especially the heartland. One possible step that can be taken is rural non-farm enterprises that manufacture for the growing middle class.

Of course, simple migration is not the only reason. Government in India is pretty centralized administratively at the state level, and fiscally centralized at the union level. The mayor is pretty much irrelevant, the guy really in charge is the Municipal Commissioner, appointed by the state chief minister, who is resposible mostly to the vast rural population. The demographics and districting have made the cities politically irrelevant. So in India’s cities have suffered from a rural majoritarianism. They raise most of the revenue, but are effectively ignored in elections. I dont know what the solution to this problem is. An important step could be administrative decentralization, i.e. having the mayor and not the CM make administrative appointments. Delhi has effectively done this (by becoming a psuedo-state), Sheila Dixit who appoints the administrators of Delhi answers to the population of Delhi not that of entire UP or Haryana.

The third reason is that while governments in other countries have ‘enlarged’ their cities, this has been stiffly resisted in India. The only cities that seems to be having some success in enlarging their boudaries seem to be Delhi and Pune, but even then their new ‘satellites’ do not fall under the administrative purview of the city-proper.

Having high densities can be both a blessing and curse. The curse part is obvious. But the blessing is the fact is that in my home city, getting anything done, from buying toothpaste to buying clothes is in walking distance. If you are lucky enough that the place of your work is close to home (like many people in the slums are) life becomes a lot easier. If not, life becomes a traffic jam. Indeed, learning from this, places like Magarpatta in Pune, are showing the way forward with their way walk to everything in life paradigm.

Perhaps, these ‘first’ cities of India are bearing the brunt of unplanned and uncontrolled growth, hopefully the second and third tier cities of India (places like Nashik, Jabalpur and Lucknow) where the bulk of the Indian population might live in the coming decades will be more livable. But that will take thoughtful policies and careful urban planning.


  1. They should either build more cities or they should expand what they have. Also it is necessary for cities to ‘merge’ a phenomenon common in many parts of the world. For example Chandigarh, Panchkula and Mohali can merge to form one giant city or Delhi, Noida, etc etc can merge as well. Small towns can similarly be merged to make large cities. Local government must have more powers of course for that to work.

    I think Chandigarh needs to ‘overthrow’ this Union Territory nonsense and proclaim itself a full-fledged city with its own elected government.

  2. People in the larger cities I feel are somehow not looking at the charms of a smaller town. In my point of view, Mysore is more charming than Bangalore, Pondicherry is more charming than Chennai. But people look at the amount of money they earn in a absolute point of view, without considering the cost of living factor. That is one of the reasons I feel why people flock to bigger cities blindly. Perhaps Government also needs to have a balanced growth policy, concentrating on the development of smaller towns as well as the bigger cities.

    Destination Infinity

    Yes, DI that is definitely true. A couple of AIDers from Austin recently moved back to Mysore from Austin and they seem very happy with the move. And they also said that the quality of life in Mysore is much better than Bangalore, much less traffic and more choices of things to do as far as nature is concerned.

    You are right, big city life means money and also prestige for money. This is somewhat understandable, because only in that environment can you quickly find work or set up a business. Markets are bigger. Also our films play a role by emphasizing the rags to riches story that is only true of a few migrants.

  3. The thing you said about bangalore is so true. A lot of my friends are there either for their education or for job purposes.

    A very informative article indeed.

    Welcome Abhishek and thanks for the comment. Bangalore is indeed a magnet, and a very young and thriving city.

  4. I think I know why Indian cities are crowded compared to Chinese and Pakistani cities. The Chinese have what is called ‘Hukou system’, a residency permit, which discourages rural chinese to migrate to their cities. But things are changing fast now with relaxation of these age-old laws. Pakistani cities doesn’t offer the same kind of opportunites as Indian cities do, so less migration.

    I also think that since Chinese, Japanese and Indian civilizations are old civilizations, the population densities are high. Try putting back all the white people from Americas and Australia back in Europe, you will probably have much more denser Europe cities.

  5. @ Vikram : I agree we are too big now to be a small city managed from Delhi. However the problem is the territorial claims of both Punjab and Haryana. I think this country must have a system of referendums on important issues.

  6. odzer, what are the current disadvantages of having separate cities like Chandigarh, Panchkula and Mohali, and will those be taken care of if the three are administered as one single city? I guess from your perspective, the pros of merging will outweigh the cons? I’m asking out of curiosity, and not to prove/disprove anything.

  7. @ Naveen, welcome. Not just migration but the world wars also took out a significant portion of Europe’s young population.

  8. @ Amit : There are many pros. There is a great variation in the level of infrastructure present in all three cities. The suburbian area of all these cities is neglected because everyone thinks that it is the other’s problem.

    So here are some pro’s and con’s at your request :
    Administration : At this time we have three governments administrating an area where there is a huge amount of movement of people between 3 states and 1 UT. Also combined it may be possible for all 3 to form a state which can finally give some representation to the people of Chandigarh who can only choose a MP but not elect a local parliament.

    Resources : Power and Water when shared between these three cities can solve problems of power in Mohali and Panchkula because Chandigarh has quite an efficient engineering department and I believe it meets its quota of electricity drawing etc from the grid.

    Infrastructure : Chandigarh has built an ‘IT Park’ and so has Mohali. It is so stupid to keep repeating these things over and over in such a small geographical area.
    District status : Mohali and Panchkula have attained district status. They may or may not lose it after such a merger should happen.

    Local representation : Both of these cities elect MLA’s to state legislatures. If this merger happens there may be a need for massive reorganisation.

    Capital status : We act as capital of ourselves, Punjab and Haryana. Should we become a seperate state Punjab and Haryana would need new capitals. However I believe Punjab and Haryana both have cities that can act as Capitals.

    There can be other factors. However I think the time has come for this debate to start in this part of the country.

  9. A very good post..the quality of your posts and the selection of topics is good!

    Thank you Reema. 🙂

  10. Vikram,

    We just produce a lot more people than everyone except Sub Saharan Africa.

    Tazeen, my very first line, “That they do have high densities should not be a surprise, it is after all the second most populated country in the world.”

    And this impression of producing more people than anyone else is only true of MP, UP, Bihar and Rajasthan, alongwith a couple of North East states. The rest of the states have fertility rates near or below replacement. Particularly the Southern states have among the lowest rates in the world.

  11. It is interesting that Indian cities are so densely populated…even newer ones like Bangalore. I would have expected a newer cities to be more spacious as people own more cars.

    Do people in India expect to have a house with a yard and garage like people in the US? Or spacious apartments? Have expectations changed much?

    Maybe in Bangalore the city grew too quickly? Those 3-4 migrants who are providing services for the techies need to live close to their work if there isn’t a good public transportation system.

    Or people in India are used to being around people a lot so it is more comforting than stressful to be amongst so many in such a small area? People just don’t expect to have much space when they live in a big city?

    What do you think?

  12. @ MmeetsK, Bangalore grew very fast indeed and thats part of the reason why its that dense. In comparison Mysore, in the same state is much more spaced out.

    I dont think the density of Indian cities has anything to do with any pecularities of Indians. In fact cities themselves are new to Indians, 70 % of the population lives in villages even today.

    One cultural factor might be that Indian culture is fairly community rather than individual centric. People expect to be part of a community at all times, although this is changing somewhat superficially in some cities.

    But still, the densities in India are simply astronomical. If cultural factors were important, then neighbouring Pakistan and Sri Lanka would have similar densities, but they are not even close, Pakistan’s densest cities, for example are about 1/7 th as dense as India’s !

  13. Indian cities have extremely high population density because of the greatness of the fertile soil and alltime flowing rivers on this historic land. The environment is suitable for human beings to reproduce fast. Such viable situations are not everywhere around the world.

    Even in india, the planar Himalaya of Uttarakhand, UP, Punjab, Delhi, is highly dense, Rajasthan is not so dense nor is MP. Same reason. UP Punjab, Uttarakhand etc are more viable for human to live easily. Jammu Kashmir is not dense. Why? Life is difficult out there.
    Similarly, in south those places are highly dense where living is much better and easy than other parts.
    We may talk of present too. Pune is not so dense as Mumbai is, why? more industrialization is the cause. No part in Tilangana as dense as Hyderabad.

    If you compare city and villages, well its obvious, more ways to make a living in city hence city is more dense. If you compare vilages of India and other countries like those of europe or america, indian villages are too much dense. Compare it with Srilanka, or Pakistan or afghanistan, yes more denses, reason is same.

    Although if you towards Punjab pakistan, you won’;t find much difference in density.

    Anyways, i came here to inform you that anyhow I ractified the problem of evidential supports which i had already mentioned in post but weren’t visible.
    Now if you know that Islamic groups of northern pakistan and afghanistan were staged and strengthened against Russian troops by CIA and ISI, you will understand the facts given in the post.

    Its a nice plugin I discovered last night which gives me a way to provide footnotes properly to mention sources.

    Take care, keep your academic views coming on and on, using mind is always good.

  14. Ohh yep, about Cultural factor, Indian philosophy is full of individualism. people do not look for it in general.
    people here love to be herd of sheep.

    About Pakistan’s densiest city and indian densiest city, and the abnormal comparison you are trying to put forth, you must understand that India has cities like Mumbai and bangalore which are technically comparable to world’s top 100 cities.
    Pakistan has just islamabad, that also not as comparable to Mumbai on grounds of progress, industrialization, routing, business, jobs employment, opportunities.

    Why will a person live at a place?

    One more thing, In Mumbai, the Individual culture is much more visible than in some other place. although mumbai is densiest.

  15. There are three key factors in explaining variations in urban density:

    1. Transportation – When the only transportation is walking, cities are very dense (think of Old Delhi 100 years ago). Next are cities dependent on bicycles (Chinese cities before 1980). With automobiles AND highways, the most decongesting takes place (suburbanization in America). Beijing is now constructing its 6th Ring Road and a bullet train has linked it to Tianjin (100 km away) in 30 minutes so people will start living in Tianjin and working in Beijing.

    2. Availability of land. Hong Kong, Singapore and Manhattan have no room to expand, they have to build up. Cities in Texas can sprawl as far as they wish too.

    3. Urban policies especially Floor Area Ratios (Floor Space Index – FSI – in India). Atlanta and Barcelona have the same population; Atlanta’s footprint is 27 times that of Barcelona – attributed entirely to urban policies. Portland (Oregon) has an Urban Growth Boundary to force concentrated growth.

  16. […] Why do India’s cities have extremely high population densities ? January 200915 comments 4 […]

  17. Indians ( specially hindus) LOVE to live together. It’s cultural. Since long, hindu pandits have explained that nature is a menace. Only nomads ( i.e. dalit), tribals and sadhu can live there, far from the civilization.

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