The acceleration of urbanization is profoundly affecting the transformation of Indian society. Slightly more than one-quarter of the country’s population is urban. Mumbai (Bombay) is currently the sixth largest urban area in the world at 18 million, and Kolkata (Calcutta) ranks fourteenth at 13 million. In recent years, India’s largest cities have grown at twice the rate of its small towns and villages, with many of the increases due to rural-urban migration.
The largest cities are densely populated, congested, noisy, polluted, and deficient in clean water, electricity, sanitation, and decent housing. Slums abound, often cheek-by-jowl with luxury apartment buildings, with the roads overrun with pedestrians, cattle, refuse, and vehicles spewing diesel fumes.
Traditional caste hierarchies are weak in cities, but caste ties remain important, as scarce jobs are often obtained through caste fellows, relatives, and friends. Ingenuity and tenacity characterize poor urban workers supporting themselves through a multitude of tasks as entrepreneurs, petty traders, and menial laborers.
The ranks of the growing middle class are increasingly evident in cities, where educational and employment opportunities benefit them. For them, as for all in the city, linkages are affirmed through neighborhood solidarity, voluntary associations, and festival celebrations.
Cities, of course, are the great hubs of commerce, education, science, politics, and government, upon which the functioning of the nation depends. India’s movie industry is the world’s largest, centered in Mumbai and Chennai, and popular television stations are proliferating. These bring vivid depictions of urban lifestyles to small-town dwellers and villagers all over the country, affecting the aspirations of millions.
Social revolutions, too, receive the support of urban visionaries, such as those shaping the growing women’s movement. Largely led by educated urban women, the movement seeks gender justice on a wide variety of issues, focusing particularly on the escalating issue of dowry-related murders of young wives, which number in the thousands annually. The overwhelming economic needs of poor female workers are being addressed by organizations such as the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) of Ahmedabad, led by Ela Bhatt.
Now numbering over one billion, India’s population grew by more than 18 million—the equivalent of an Australia—every year over the past decade. In ten years, the most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, expanded more than 25 percent to some 166 million, equal to 60 percent of the population of the United States. India supports a population more than three and a half times the size of the American population in an area about one-third the size. Family planning is gaining in popularity, so the rate of population increase is gradually declining, but it is estimated that by the year 2050, India’s people will number some 1.5 billion, and India will have surpassed China as the world’s most populous nation.
In India’s vociferous democracy, different groups are increasingly demanding their share of scarce resources and benefits. While new agricultural crops and techniques are expanding productivity, forests, rangeland, and water tables are diminishing. As competition grows, political, social, ecological, and economic issues are hotly contested. Justice in matters pertaining to class, gender, and access to desirable resources remains an elusive goal.
India is but one of many nations facing these crucial problems and is not alone in seeking solutions. For many centuries, the people of India have shown strength in creating manageable order from complexity, bringing together widely disparate groups in structured efforts to benefit the wider society, encouraging harmony among people with divergent interests, knowing that close relatives and friends can rely upon each other, allocating different tasks to those with different skills, and striving to do what is morally right in the eyes of the divine and the community. These are some of the great strengths upon which Indian society can rely as it seeks to meet the challenges of the future.