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Let’s Get Real about Sri Lanka’s Urbanization!

11 November 2015 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The level of urbanization is an indicator of a country’s economic development and the living standards of its people. 

Some  purists might disagree, but it is universally agreed that urban areas --  cities and towns of various size and shape -- offer better facilities  and opportunities for their residents. 

So how urbanized Sri Lanka is? Many among us keep repeating a notion that ‘we are predominantly rural’, but is it really so?

The  2012 Census of Population and Housing categorised only 18.2% of the  Lankan population as being urban. However, that figure is highly  misleading because we currently use a narrow definition.

Currently,  only those living in Municipal Council (MC) or Urban Council (UC) areas  are considered urban. However, some Pradeshiya Sabha areas (the next  local government unit) are just as urbanised.

At the recent  LBR/LBO Infrastructure Summit 2015 held in Colombo in early November,  Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Champika Ranawaka took on  this myth head on. He argued that Sri Lanka’s urban population share is  probably as high as 48% -- which is two and a half times higher than the  current figure.

He mentioned as examples Pradeshiya Sabha  areas like Homagama, Beruwala and Weligama that are administratively  classified as ‘rural’ despite having many urban characteristics. 

His  concern: misconceptions such as this distort the country’s policy  decisions on infrastructure planning and urban development. 

The  World Bank’s global lead for urban development strategies, Sumila  Gulyani, who spoke during the opening session, agreed with the  Minister’s contention of nearly half of Sri Lanka’s population having  already become urban.

The Bank’s own estimates are roughly  the same, she said. “The official statistics of urban population in Sri    Lanka is from 14% to 18% -- but if you look at the agglomeration, it  is (actually) around 47%”.

She added: “All South Asian  countries under-state their urbanization level relative to, say, Latin  America. In India it’s the same story. The reason has traditionally been  that the rural areas got more national subsidy programmes -- and no  administration wanted to be called urban!”
Taking South   Asia as a whole, 30% of its combined population now lives in cities. A  massive rise in this urban share is expected in the coming decades. Sri  Lanka cannot buck this trend.

Despite this, old myths  linger on for years. The problem, as Gulyani highlighted, is in the  mismatch of capabilities: “If the (local government) council that is  managing an urban area is a rural council, you are not going to see the  kind of planning and urban management you need to see for productive  urban growth.” 


Hidden Urbanization

Meanwhile,  a new World Bank report on urban trends in South Asia reminds us that  Sri Lanka’s share of the population officially classified as living in  urban areas actually fell slightly between 2000 and 2010.  

“These official statistics, however, miss considerable ‘hidden’ urbanization,” says the report, titled Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Liveability 
(September 2015).

The  report (available at http://hdl.handle.net/10986/22549) suggests that   as much as one-thirds of Sri Lanka’s population may be living in areas  that, while not officially classified as urban, “nevertheless possess  strong urban characteristics”.  

This report tries to  overcome our region’s data deficiencies by drawing on some  unconventional data sources -- such as night-time lights and other forms  of remotely sensed earth observation data. 

Analysis of  night lights have also revealed a more general growth of multi-city  agglomerations -- continuously lit belts of urbanization containing two  or more sizeable cities -- across South Asia. Their number has risen from  37 in 1999 to 45 in 2010.  

In Sri Lanka, the report says,  such ‘ribbon development’ radiates out from Colombo along major  transport arteries to link it with both Kandy and Galle/Matara,  revealing a dynamic urbanization process.

A general  conclusion of the report is that South Asian countries’ urgent need to  increase higher quality and more comprehensive data on urban trends and  conditions.  



Anomaly of 1987

In  Sri Lanka, the low figure for urban population is the direct result of  an administrative decision to count all Pradeshiya Sabha areas as being  rural. This has long been critiqued by experts such as town planner Prof.  Ashley L. S. Perera of the University of Moratuwa. 

When the  new local government unit was created in 1987 for political expediency,  their demarcations totally ignored the existing ground realities, he  says. That has led to much confusion about ‘urban areas’ in Sri Lanka  for the past quarter century .

Statisticians in Sri Lanka’s  government are also well aware of this. Analysing the key findings of  the 2012 head count, the Department of Census and Statistics says that  the country’s urban percentage “would have been much higher if the  definitional issues were resolved”. 

In its Census of  Population and Housing 2012: Key Findings, the Department notes: “Areas  coming under all Municipal Coun­cils (MC) and Urban Councils (UC) are  currently considered as urban sector in Sri Lanka. Prior to 1987, Town  Councils were also included in the definition of urban areas. With the  setting up of Provincial Councils in 1987, these Town Councils were  absorbed into Pradeshiya Sabhas which fall into the rural sector since  then.” 

After 1987, some towns lost their urban status and  overnight became ‘officially rural’. The Department acknowledges that  there are many areas outside MCs and UCs that “have urban outlook but  still classified as rural”. This leads to underestimation of the degree of urban­ization and comparison becomes difficult over the years, it says.

The  Department highlights the need to “introduce a realistic definition of  urban areas taking into account of the characteristics of the population  rather than based on pure administrative considerations.” 

At the time of the 2012 Census,  Sri Lanka had a total of 23 MCs and 41 UCs.

According to the Census findings, the country’s eight largest cities --  Colombo, Kaduwela, Dehiwala-Mt. Lavinia, Moratuwa, Negombo, Kotte,  Kesbewa and Maharagama -- made up nearly half (48%) of what is officially  considered the ‘urban’ population. All these are located in the Western  Province. 
The balance 56 urban areas include 26 small  cities with population below 25,000. “This shows the uneven distribution  of the urbanization” says the Department. 

The Census  found that in the Colombo district, three out of four people (77.6%)  already live in urban ar­eas. Batticaloa (28.7%), Ampara (23.6%),  Trincomalee (22.4%) districts in Eastern province and Mannar (24.5%),  Vavuniya (20.2%), Jaffna (20.1%) districts in Northern province all have  urbaniza­tion levels higher than the current national average of 18.2%.



Misleading the world

Adopting  a more pragmatic and realistic definition of ‘urban’ is thus a policy  priority for Sri Lanka. That can help better planning of our rapidly  urbanising human habitats. 

Such a move can, hopefully,  also awaken those Lankans who insist about their ‘very rural island’  contrary to what the evidence suggests.

It would also stop  international organisations and researchers from mistakenly labelling  Sri Lanka as a country with only a small urban population.

For example, World Urbanization Prospects 2014,  a global overview published by the UN Department of Economic and Social  Affairs, has listed Sri Lanka as one of 16 countries worldwide that  “still have low levels of urbanization; i.e. below 20 per cent”. (As an  inter-governmental body, the UN goes by national governmental data).

The  largest (by population) among these ‘low urbanized countries’, were  listed as Burundi, Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, South Sudan, Uganda, Nepal  and Sri Lanka. “By 2050, all of these countries are expected to become  significantly more urbanized, with as much as twice their respective  proportions urban in 2014,” the UN report noted (see full text at:  http://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Highlights/WUP2014-Highlights.pdf).

However,  as Minister Ranawaka just publicly declared, that doubling has already  happened in Sri Lanka! Now if only official data custodians can change  definitions, we can finally move away from the illusion of being a rural  country.

Census of Population and Housing 2012: Key Finding scan be accessed on line at: http://countryoffice.unfpa.org/srilanka/?publications=12333

(Science  writer Nalaka Gunawardene writes regularly on science, development and  media issues. He blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com) 

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