ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Living in a Category

A History of India’s ‘Census Town’ Problem from Colonial Punjab

The 2011 Census revealed that the most dynamic sector of urban growth in India is taking shape within rural institutions, given the unprecedented growth of “census towns.” The long-term difficulty in India of finding an appropriate term and mode of governance for rural areas that are also urban, is not simply a nomenclatural conundrum. A brief foray into the travails of local self-government in colonial Punjab demonstrates important continuities with urban processes today, providing essential insights to securing more humane urban policies in contexts like the census town.

It has been almost 20 years since historian Gyan Prakash drew attention to a renewed interest in exploring city life on behalf of scholars of India, something he described then as an “urban turn.” This was a turn away, in part, from earlier nationalist preoccupations with India as a nation of villages, one in which cities were either “places of corruption and evil” in a Gandhian idiom, or abstract endpoints in a linear process of modernisation (which the village, too, might one day attain) as Nehru would have it. A postcolonial erosion of faith in nationalist mythologies coupled with the emergence of new, anti-elite, often violent, urban-based politics in post-liberalisation India, Prakash (2002) argued, brought questions of urban experience sharply into focus by the start of the new millennium.

The urban turn, if we can call it that, produced numerous scholarly, literary, and cinematic works over the last two decades that collectively transformed older assumptions about urban India and the roles cities have played in India’s modern economy, culture, and imagination. These works have proffered a partial view, no doubt, one dominated by experience in India’s most populous megacities—or the “metros,” especially Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, and Hyderabad—which is also where most urban scholars, not coincidentally, lived and wrote from. And while concerns are occasionally raised about unwarranted projections of “metro” urban experience onto urban experience in general, the richness of discovery in this dynamic multidisciplinary field often made such concerns seem ungenerous, parochial even.

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Updated On : 18th Jan, 2018
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