A little over a quarter of the South Asian population is classified as urban (that is, as living in towns and cities of over 5,000 population), with Pakistan leading at 33 percent urbanized and the Himalayan kingdom’s at merely 5 to 7 percent. Those low levels are, however, deceiving considering the total numbers involved. For example, in India 270 million people belong to the category of urban population—a figure substantially greater than the combined populations of West Germany, Italy, and Great Britain, the three largest countries of western Europe.
Twelve cities were classified in 1981 as “millionaire” cities in India. Four of the world’s largest cities, predicted to emerge as super conurbations (super-large cities) by the year 2000, are in South Asia: the Indian cities of Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, and Karachi. The distribution of cities predictably conforms fairly closely to the overall pattern of population distribution. Thus, most cities are located in the densely populated Indus-Ganga plains, and on the costal lowlands.
Most of these were established as centers of commerce or industry or as trading posts by the Europeans (Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Karachi, Dhaka, Colombo). Elsewhere, inland cities often began as administrative centers of the native provinces or the British provinces.
Examples of this category are Jaipur, Poona, Nagpur, Hyderabad, Kabul, Kathmandu, Delhi and Lahore. For the most part, smaller cities and towns are strongholds of cultural orthodoxy; by contrast, larger cities are centers of cultural and economic advancement. Larger cities are the foci of political and social power and are likely to play an increasingly influential role in development of these countries.
The basic element in the design of cities is the sharply differentiated old and new urban components. The old sections generally consist of congested settlements, tortuous and narrow alleys, generally caste and religion-based neighborhoods, a mix of commercial-residential functions in the central business section (bazar); and contain a melange of transport modes.
In sharp contrast to the chaotic world of the old cities are the modern, and well laid-out recent sections. Built mainly during the 20th century to house British officers, government personnel, and the growing elite community of businessmen, these sections present an aspect of comparative spaciousness, comfort, greenery, and peace.
Here, wholesale, retail, and recreation areas tend to be clearly separated from the residential neighborhoods. Built in a distinctive colonial style of architecture, they are commonly separated from the old cities by open spaces. Since the independence of the nations of South Asia there have sprung up, especially around the larger metropolises, vast suburban developments.
These new suburban dormitory settlements depend on a very inadequate mass transit system to transport workers to their jobs in the urban cores. A direct consequence of the rapidly growing urban areas is the chronic and ever-increasing problem of over-crowding, housing shortages, and high rents; and the accompanying racketeering and loan sharking.
So acute is the shortage of housing that in the larger metropolises, thousands of people must sleep in the streets. A related phenomenon is the mushrooming growth of shantytowns, tin- roof structures, often juxtaposed with the well-developed modern and more open sections of the cities, but lacking in city services. If urbanization has been an instrument of economic, social and political progress, it has also led to serious socioeconomic problems.