India and its Fast-Growing Urbanization – the New Narrative

International Futures is a program featuring young aspirants from across the globe. The fourth in our series of interviews with participants is with Shruti Yerramilli, a research fellow at Tata Trusts, India. She’s passionate about human settlements and land policies and is on a mission to improve policy making for the holistic development of her country

How did you get interested in urbanization?

I have been interested in the idea of cities and settlements before I knew what urbanization meant. Growing up, I stayed in several cities in India and had the privilege of calling them home. As a child, moving to a new city was always about meeting new people, experiencing a different culture and of course, food. It was like enjoying the beauty of a painting without appreciating each brush stroke, the mood of the painting, the story behind it, and the artist. But as I grew older other elements became more visible. For instance, why did city A get electricity for less than 15 hours a day, even when it was a million-plus city and geographically so close to the capital; or was it because it was so close? Why were certain areas in a city better serviced than others? In a country as diverse as India, what did it mean to be a migrant? When I started to notice the interactions between people, resources, power and social structures, my interest in urbanization was a natural step towards a nuanced understanding of cities, a step beyond curiosity.

How fast is urbanization happening in India and does that affect the situation of women? 

Urbanization has been growing at a rapid pace in India. Although it has been associated with greater independence and opportunities, I think its impact cannot be generalized for all urban women. Every added layer of vulnerability creates a different set of constraints. While cities continue to boast growing economic opportunity, the urban infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing swell of people moving to urban areas for livelihood. In terms of safety, with respect to mobility and accessibility for women, we still have some distance to go. A lack of sense of safety in public spaces or transport reduces a woman’s access to whatever opportunity the city might offer. For instance, one part of this promised independence through urbanization is also read in terms of economic emancipation for women. However, as the data goes, less than 15% of women in urban India are part of the labor force – this ratio is lower than that in rural areas. But numbers aside, urbanization alone is not likely to circumvent the social hurdles that discriminate based on gender. Gender is a social construct and so is its perceived role/place in the society. On the other hand, urbanization coupled with the growing influence of social media has expanded the reach of platforms available for widespread social movements, including those against gender-based disempowerment of people. The strength of online communities has grown and the conversations around gender-based discrimination have grown louder still. Perhaps not just urbanization but the times we are in today are shaping the narratives around gender.

Do you think urbanization is good for a country like India with a massive rural population?

This is not a simple city versus village question. To understand the possible effect(s) of urbanization on the rural population, we will have to dive deeper into the question of what is urban and rural in the Indian context. The massive rural population you talk about here is largely dependent on agriculture for sustenance. Urbanization per se is not bad for rural areas because it generates diversified economic opportunities that have the potential to benefit these rural areas. The greater problem is the migration of the younger workforce from villages to cities for jobs (most often low skill or low paying) and the inadequate capacities (in terms of opportunities) in the rural areas to encourage the return, or inward-migration, of such a workforce. This problem is also a reflection of disempowered local governments that could prioritize development in their jurisdiction.

On a positive note, there have been concerted efforts to strengthen the local governments and there’s a push towards the formulation of integrated development plans across different levels of administration through community-driven participatory planning. Policy focus, also at the central level, is coming to recognize the different development needs of the urban and rural areas.

How does urbanization affect land policies?

The spatial spread of urbanization and its nature are deeply connected with the available land in the area and its permitted uses. Land is a finite resource and growing urbanization means that land resources are becoming increasingly contested. Land policies, directly and indirectly, affect the socio-economic and political fabric of a community – it is connected to everything from property rights, the legality of access to a city’s resources, use of land, its role in financial markets as collateral, and so on. For the longest time, our land policies were not nimble enough to keep pace with the changing realities in urban areas. Our cities continue to grow, even as the land policies continue to grapple with the gap between written policy and actual land usage and property rights.

At the moment, our ground realities are slowly forcing land policies outside their neatly defined boxes and embrace the heterogeneity of Indian urbanization – with families running small utility shops from a part of their houses and street vendors selling alongside brick-and-mortar shops, universal access to basic social infrastructure irrespective of property rights, among other things. While I do not suggest the existence of loose land policies to support the status quo in the cities, I do think that they need to be more cognizant of ground realities and promote greater overall benefits, without making legality an end unto itself.

What’s your takeaway from the International Futures training program?

If we are to truly be global citizens and move together towards our collective sustainable future, we need to understand each other’s culture, context, and voices better. The International Futures training program (in 2016) brought together people from six emerging economies along with colleagues from our host country, Germany. Over two weeks of the program, as we interacted over discussions around diplomacy, negotiation, and international relations (among others), we drew from our experiences and found agreements and/or difference of opinions in our group. And through all this, my biggest takeaway was not from the curriculum of the program but its design. At the end of two weeks, we walked as friends who had learned to better understand each other’s context – that in this sustainable future a northern or a southern perspective alone could not win. Even as we head for the same destination, our paths will be different, more suited to our contexts. In the realm of global governance, this is the most important lesson, learned not through books but interaction with people who represent these different realities.


The International Future Program

Every year we open two slots for German civil society.

If you are interested in the programme please contact programme manager Isabel Reible (isabel.reible@diplo.de) to get more information or visit our websites:



This year’s program will take place from September 14 – September 28
(Deadline to apply will be June 30)

We are looking forward to hearing from you!


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