Friday, February 12, 2021

Biggest cities in India before independence: Census reports show huge changes in growth of Indian cities, their population


Shams Ur Rehman Alavi

There has been a staggering rise in population of cities in India, since indepenence.

More people migrated to cities and the rapid urbanisation led to cities turning into  mega cities. 

The increase in population has been huge in the last few decades. Bagalore, Surat and Pune have emerged as big cities, among the top ten in the country. If we go back and check census figures, we find out they were much smaller cities. 

Prior to Independence, there were just two million plus cities--Calcutta and Bombay. The population of Kolkata was more than 21 lakh or 2.1 million. Bombay was 1.489 million i.e. 14.89 lakh, the second largest city in terms of population. 

All others didn't even have a population of 1 million or 10 lakh. Madras [Chennai] was third at 7.77 lakh and Hyderabad was 7.39 lakh. At fifth place was Lahore--6.71 lakh. The remaining five in the top ten included--Ahmedabad, Delhi, Kanpur, Amritsar and Lucknow. 

Ahmedabad was 5.91 lakh, Delhi 5.21 lakh** [see note], both just a bit more than half-a-million. Kanpur was 4.87 lakh, Amritsar 3.91 lakh and Lucknow 3.87 lakh. Then, three other cities had more than 3 lakh population--Howrah, Karachi and Nagpur. 

All others were under 3 lakh and this included the cities that are huge now and are past or getting close to 10 million population now. For example, Dhaka and Bangalore. It was still a very predominantly rural country. It was undivided India and things were to change, soon. 

Post-partition, Delhi, Dhaka and Karachi became big cities

Till 1947, Dhaka was not such a big city. Even Karachi was much smaller, compared to Lahore. Delhi also saw a huge influx of population after independence and it also kept growing, very fast in the years to come. 

In pre-partition era, the last census figures suggested that after the top ten cities, the order:

1. Calcutta, 2. Bombay, 3. Madras, 4. Hyderabad, 5. Lahore, 6. Ahmedabad, 7. Delhi** [see note], 8. Kanpur, 9. Amritsar, 10. Lucknow. The cities that came next included 11. Howrah, 12. Karachi, 13. Nagpur, 14. Agra, 15. Benares, 16. Allahabad, 17. Poona, 18. Bangalore, 19. Madura(i), 20. Dacca, 21. Solapur, 22. Srinagar, 23. Indore. All of them had a population ranging from 2-3 lakh or slightly above.

The cities with population less than 2 lakh included: 24. Bareilly, 25. Lashkar, 26. Rawalpindi, followed by 27. Jabalpur, 28. Patna, 29. Surat, 30. Meerut et al. Today, Delhi, Bangalore, Surat and Pune have seen a huge population rise. In neighbouring countries Karachi and Dhaka are now two of the biggest cities of the world.

Pre-indepenence population of certain other middle-level cities

Howrah 3.79 lakh

Karachi 3.59 lakh

Nagpur 3.01 lakh

Agra 2.84 lakh

Benares 2.63 lakh

Allahabad 2.60 lakh

Poona 2.58 lakh

Bangalore 2.48 lakh

Madura 2.39 lakh

Dacca 2.13 lakh

Solapur 2.12 lakh

Srinagar 2.07 lakh

Indore 2.03 lakh

Bareilly 1.92 lakh

Lashkar [Gwalior] 1.82 lakh

Rawalpndi 1.81 lakh

Till now, we were talking about, the population in the past. Coming back to our times, Solapur [or Sholapur] that was equal to Dhaka [Dacca] once, is now far behind and its position is at the 49th place  in terms of population in India. Surprised! That's how demography works.

In Pakistan, Karachi is now the biggest city. Its population was 1.6 crore or 16 million, a few years ago. Similarly, Dhaka was 9 million in 2011. The population of Greater Dhaka is also getting close to 20 million or 2 crores. Both are among the biggest cities in the world now.

Indian cities NOW: Metropolitan areas and urban agglomerations

A distinction is necessary between a municipal coporation area and a city. Sometimes, city is much bigger than municipal corporation or a mega city may be divided among several municipal corporations for administrative purposes.

Hence, for comparison, it's better to go for Metropolitan population as per latest Census report. 

This census was undertaken in 2011. The report had come a few years later. Next census' report will take many years. 

Many of the big cities have become so huge--Mumbai crossed 18 million i.e.1.84 crore. 

Delhi 16 million or 1.63 crore, Kolkata 14 million or 1.41 crore, followed by Chennai 86.96 lakh, Bangalore 84.99 lakh, Hyderabad 77.49 lakh, Ahmedabad 63.52 lakh, Pune 50.49 lakh, Surat 45.85 lakh, Jaipur 30.46 lakh.


Two more Kerala cities will enter the club of big cities, soon. The trends and projections suggest that not much will change as far as top cities are concerned. Calicut and Malappuram could make it to the top ten list. 

Both these cities will cross 5 million or 50 lakh by 2030. This will happen as Jaipur and Lucknow will be relegated further. Besides, two more cities of Kerala will be part of Top 15--Thrissur and Kochi [Cochin]. 

NOTE 1ABOUT DELHI. In the census, Great Delhi that included population of New Delhi, the other population in and around, including smaller settlements and the inhabitants of rural Delhi, made it slightly higher. 

In 1941 Census, Delhi had three categories. I, II and III. Adding all, it was higher than 5.21 lakh, New Delhi 93,000 and the rest 80,000, adding to almost 6.95 lakh. Also, it was treated as a province then as well in Census. 

This is the reason that there is lack of consistence and Delhi's population before partition shows variation in different articles and sources on the internet. After partition, Delhi saw influx of refugees from Pakistan and it grew astonishingly.

Being a national capital, it has the status of state. In 2001 census, Delhi's population has been recorded as 1.1 crore or 11 million and that of Delhi metro area as 1.6 crore or 16 million. So that's the reason for variation. 

Delhi region has a municipal corporation, municipal council (NDMC) and 12 Census Towns apart from a Cantonment Board. A list of towns, areas that fall under Greater Delhi, the Metropolitan Urban Region, is available at Census website.

NOTE 2: The order of cities kept changing earlier too. For example, if someone goes through reports of Census 1891 or 1911, 1921, it could be even more surprising to see how cities became bigger or smaller in terms of population. However, the figures here are from the decade of 1940s, as this is base for pre-partition figures, the last count before independence.

NOTE 3: Current population ie. metro area population figures are from Census 2011 figures. Spellings have changed--Dacca to Dhaka, Bangalore to Bengaluru, Cawnpore to Kanpur, Bombay became Mumbai and Madras is now Chennai. Poona is now Pune, Calcutta is Kolkata and Madura is Madurai.