The dawn of the twenty-first century unfolded with the world entering the ‘urban age’ with more than half of the global population living in urban areas. It is believed that this century is going to be an ‘urban century’ as more people will be living in cities compared to rural areas. The period is also marked by a southward shift in the mean latitude of the world’s urban population. The current century will be characterised by Asia and Africa accounting for a mammoth share of the global urban population in the present century. As per the UN population estimates, in 2020 Asia and Africa accounted for around 70 per cent of the global urban population. The figure is estimated to increase to 75 per cent by the middle of the twenty-first century. This report brings fresh understanding the macro scenario of urbanisation in Asia and Africa with a special focus on India. It also highlights the regional differences and determining factors behind the process of urbanisation in this region.

Authors: Debolina Kundu, Tania Debnath, Swastika Chakravorty, Pragya Sharma and Biswajit Kar (all are members of the SHLC India team at National Institute of Urban Affairs India)

Executive Summary

The dawn of the twenty-first century marked the world entering the ‘urban century’, which was accompanied by a southward shift of the mean latitude of urbanisation. In contrast to Europe and North America, which had a long history of urbanisation starting soon after the industrial revolution in the 1800s, countries in the global South started urbanising mainly in the second half of the twentieth century. Among the regions in the global South, Latin America started much earlier and has already become predominantly urban. On the contrary, Asia and Africa are the two least urbanised continents. However, in absolute terms, 2.4 billion people lived in the urban settlements of Asia in 2020, which is estimated to rise to 3.5 billion by 2050. It is projected that they are going to have around 90 per cent of the additional urban population in the next three decades (till 2050), which brings them to the centre stage of the global urbanisation trajectory. Asia alone is projected to contribute an additional 1.1 billion urban population in the next three decades, and Africa is likely to contribute 0.9 billion in the next three decades. Unlike Africa, where high fertility rates is driving urbanisation, Asia’s urbanisation is predominantly fuelled by rural-urban migration, in-situ urbanisation and expansion of urban areas.

The demographic weight of these two continents, especially Asia, is expected to have an overwhelming effect on the changing dynamics of planetary urbanisation, with Africa continuing to urbanise at a faster pace as compared to Asia. Growth rate of urban population in Africa is projected to be 3.1% and 2.8% in 2030s and 2040s compared to Asia’s figures of 1.3% and 0.9%, respectively. Moreover, the two least urbanised regions in these two continents, i.e. Eastern Africa and Southern Asia, are expected to experience the highest urban growth and rural-urban transition in the next three decades.

Although both the continents are expected to play a crucial role in promoting urbanisation in the coming decades, the Asian trajectory will be very different from that of Africa. Whereas Asian urbanisation is characterised by population concentration in megacities, African cities are yet to experience such urban concentration. Asian urbanisation, which has been top-heavy with population concentration in big cities, will continue to be so even after the slowdown in urban growth in this region. By 2035, six of the ten most populated megacities of the world will be in Asia, and Delhi will be the most populated urban agglomeration with 43.3 million people. The expected sluggish growth of megacities could be attributed to the lack of growth of unskilled or semi-skilled jobs in these cities. Unlike East Asian Tigers, which have reaped the benefits of its demographic dividend, many Asian countries, particularly South Asia, would urbanise without harnessing the economic benefits of their demographic dividend. South Asia is going through a rapid decline in fertility and projects to reach the peak of youth bulge in 2028, before regions like Southeast Asia, West Asia and Central Asia, which indicates the urgency of a balanced regional development policy for this region.

On the other hand, African countries will experience urbanisation associated with persistently high fertility rates, distress-driven rural-urban migration and a lack of economic vibrancy in cities. Africa will continue to have an increasing size of its working-age population (15-64 years) and add 2.1 billion working-age population by the end of this century. Urbanisation in Africa, currently with few megacities, will follow the Asian experience with the rise in the number and population of megacities. However, contrary to the Asian counterparts, most of the new megacities of the continent will be ‘places of consumption’ in place of ‘growth engines’. In short, rapid-paced urbanisation in Africa in the coming decades will be

Furthermore, Asia and Africa are poised to be the epicentres of urbanisation, without a corresponding increase in their income levels. Much of the urban growth will be concentrated in the countries with very low urbanisation and income levels and poor infrastructural base. As overcrowded Asian megacities have crossed the threshold of reaping the benefits of agglomeration economies, Asian countries need to focus on the development of secondary cities to take benefit of their demographic dividend. On the other hand, African countries need to focus on infrastructure investment and developing high-value-added manufacturing activities to interlink the process of urbanisation with growth. India is expected to become the most populated country in the world by 2023. However, the country is currently experiencing a slow but steady pace of rural-urban transition. However, it is projected that India’s pace of urbanisation will speed up in the coming decades, owing to sectoral diversification resulting in in-situ urbanisation.

Also, Indian urbanisation will continue to be top-heavy. Also, the country is going through a demographically favourable phase with a bulging economically active population. By the year 2025, India will peak its youth bulge. This demands immediate creation of jobs to stop demographic dividend transforming into demographic disaster. Also, the big city bias is going to affect the growth of the secondary cities, which have a high potential for employment generation. To take advantage of India’s demographic dividend, India should focus on education and health, skill development, infrastructural development and the creation of a regionally balanced urban system.