The Paradox of Urbanization

Urbanization is, predominantly, perceived as the engine for economic growth in the current wave of development. Urban centers are believed to be the spaces for enormous opportunities. The opportunities that cities provide are concomitant to distress in hinterlands that propels the city-ward migration in huge proportions. To define urbanization, it is the process of increase in area of urban centers and proportion of the population living in that area. In contemporary times more than 50 percent of the world’s population is living in cities while it is approximately 31 percent in India. The current 50 percent of world’s urban population share will be increased to 60 percent by 2030. The significance of urbanization has been paramount in today’s development trajectory considering the overall share of urban centers in world’s GDP and job creation. UN-Habitat accounts urban centers share as 70 percent in global GDP. In India, although the urbanized population is 31 percent in proportion to total population the urban areas contribute to the GDP will rise to a whopping 70-75 percent in 2020 from the current 63 percent as per a report by Barclays. A World Economic Forum study revealed that there are 5 Indian cities in top 10 most dynamic cities in the world based on a city momentum index which focuses on socioeconomic and real-estate indicators (Kelly, 2019).


The multi-dimensional need, pushing for city-ward migration is stressing cities that are already burdened with existing populations. Ideally, a city requires inward migration when its population is outnumbered to fill all the opportunities created within and then the emerging gaps are to be bridged by migration. In the current development paradigm, more than the pull factors in cities, it is the push factors in hinterlands that are causing massive migration patterns. India is experiencing a huge city-ward migration, without much investment in new cities creation, historically; the existing cities are over-burdened with the relentless influx and further crippled with poor urban management. Hitherto failure in formulating a comprehensive agrarian policy to create self-reliant farming communities has increasingly pushed the limits of distressed migration into cities in search of livelihood. Most of these city-ward migrants are semi-skilled and unskilled labourers set out for livelihood quench in cities in order to serve their distressed families back at home. There are 100 million circular migrants in India contributing to the relentless fluctuations in regional migration patterns (Bhide, 2013). These circular migrants are susceptible to several vulnerabilities emerged from territoriality of the policy, dependency and financial inability to access basic amenities and decent housing (Ibid).

Related: Emergence of Urban Areas as Spaces for Opportunities

As discussed above, historically, the urbanization is viewed as a phenomenon rendering economic prosperity but the discrepancies like rapidity and size of current urbanization process is analyzed as ‘urbanization of poverty’. The distressed migration into already saturated large cities in circumspection due to fallacious planning, inefficient management and exhausting resources is creating depriving externalities in the lives of poor migrants. The poor migrants in the cities of India and other middle and low-income group countries are unable to avail basic amenities and decent housing. Most of the informal housing, in the rush for shelter, is sometimes situated on unused land left due to its unsuitability.

Unplanned Development

The urban development in mid-income countries is described as socially segregated, characterized by unequal access to urban areas, infrastructure, services and security (Mitlin and Satterwhaite, 2013). The unplanned building construction and settlement extension, mismanagement of sewage and garbage, lack of drinking water and electricity can be considered as unplanned development. Basically, it is to develop town or area without planning infrastructure which is unhygienic and unhealthy for the settlement. The 2015 (a) report by United Nations International Strategies for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) revealed that 90 percent of people in urban areas in low-income countries live in unsafe, exposed housing. The encroachment involved in unplanned development is a major environmental degrading factor in cities. It can be in multiple forms like land-filling or reclamation of lakes, swamps, riverbeds and sea and deforestation of already declining green spaces and farmlands.  The institution of Mechanical Engineers revealed in their report that the degradation of natural calamities is one of the major contributors to increasingly recurring calamities (IMechE report, 2013). The unplanned and unauthorized development or urbanization has become the poor’s only pursuit to gain footholds in the city due to transient nature of state policy (referring to cut off dates and security tenures) and market repulsion to their unaffordability. Lack of an agency to let people build their own houses and an increasingly closed system created by the state and market agencies in land and housing are rendering homelessness and unsafe housing in Indian cities.  These haphazard settlements are often built on unsafe areas such as steep slopes, riverbeds, floodplains, saltpans, swamps, low lying areas and railway tracks. In both formal and informal economies the urban informality is often associated with low pay and high exposure to environmental hazards (Brown et al, 2014). The unplanned development will result in increasing disaster risk to the marginalized urban poor considering their settlements on unsafe lands.


Vulnerability as a socioeconomic differential

There is a close correlation between disasters, poverty and environment (Chambers, 1989). Without the resources to protect themselves the pressure induced by socioeconomic status of poor households’, forces them to live on haphazard locations. As the poor exploit the sensitive environmental resources for survival disaster risk increases. The continuous state led displacement into suburbs and absence of alternative sources of income is making the urban poor exploit the natural environment to attain subsistence.  Poverty as a factor influences both the choices for safer environment and the ability to recover from a disaster. As per UN-Habitat, the world’s slum population decreased by 20 percent from 2000 to 2014 but it grew in absolute numbers from 807 million to 883 million in the same period. The high population growth rate in low-income countries is an alarm for dire consequences if not mended with planning strategies to reduce the risk and integrated livelihood creation to alleviate the poverty and formalize their lives. Ex-mayor of Barcelona Dr. Clos stated that the 98 percent of the world’s urbanization growth by 2050 is to be accounted from global south of which 50-60 percent will be informal.

The rapidly growing small and medium towns are the most susceptible to increasing disaster risk than the rural areas and large cities (UNISDR, 2011). The current urbanization trend in India that is small and medium towns largely absorbing the city-ward migrants and the increasing share of census towns suggest that the Indian urbanization is prone to disaster risk. Concentrations of people, poverty and disaster are increasing the susceptibility of cities to risk.

Related: The Urban Renewal, Climate Change Action in Asia


  • Bhide, A. (2013). ‘The Invisible Migrant’. Urban Transition. Infochange Agenda. Pg 10-13.
  • Brown, D. Mcgranahan, D. Dodman, D. (2014). Urban informality and building a more inclusive and resilient green economy. IIED. London.
  • Chambers, R. (ed). Vulnerability: How the poor cope. IDS Bulletin. Vol. 20. 2 April 1989.
  • Kelly, J. (2019 Jan 04). These are the world’s 20 most dynamic cities. WEF.
  • Mitlin, D., & Satterthwaite, D. (2013). Urban Poverty in the Global South. Scale and Nature. New York: Routledge.
  • UN-Habitat. Concept Note- World cities day. Building resilient and sustainable cities.
  • UN-Habitat. Economy:



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