India country overview

The people of India

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

india information index

Demography of India

Settlement patterns

Population density

A negligible portion of India’s geographical expanse remains uninhabited. Over fifty percent of the land is under active cultivation annually, with very little set aside as fallow land. The territory designated as forest, which constitutes approximately one-fifth of India’s total land area, is predominantly utilized for activities such as grazing, collection of firewood and other forest resources, commercial forestry operations, and in certain tribal regions, for slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting, occasionally in contravention of legal regulations. Arid regions unsuitable for crop cultivation without the aid of irrigation are primarily employed for livestock grazing. The higher altitudes of the Himalayan range represent one of the few substantial expanses not exploited for human use. Despite India’s largely rural demographic, it is home to three of the world’s most populous urban centers—Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi. These cities, along with other major urban areas in India, exhibit some of the highest population densities globally.

The majority of the Indian population is concentrated in areas of uninterrupted agricultural activity, which also include the urban centers within these regions. Variations in population density within these zones are significantly influenced by the availability of water resources, either through direct rainfall or irrigation, and the fertility of the soil. Regions that receive in excess of 60 inches (1,500 mm) of rainfall annually can typically sustain the cultivation of multiple crops each year without the need for irrigation, thereby supporting higher population densities. Over sixty percent of India’s populace is settled either on the rich alluvial plains of the Indo-Gangetic basin and the deltaic stretches of the eastern coastline or on the diverse alluvial and littoral soils along the western coast of the country. In these fertile agricultural belts, such as certain areas of the eastern Gangetic Plain and the state of Kerala, population densities can surpass 2,000 individuals per square mile (800 individuals per square km).

Rural settlement

A significant portion of India’s rural populace resides in closely-knit villages, which are often characterized by their irregular and compact formation. These villages, despite their lack of formal planning, are organized into separate wards based on caste distinctions, radiating from a central core. Typically, the more influential and higher caste members inhabit the central areas, while the lower artisan and service castes, along with Muslim communities, are situated towards the outer regions. As the population of the central castes grows, they may expand their homes vertically, extend their living quarters, establish new settlements at the village periphery by moving past lower-caste wards, or, in exceptional circumstances where space permits, create an entirely new village.

The village layout includes narrow, winding streets, often unpaved and culminating in dead ends. Common gathering places are found near religious sites, wells, threshing areas, mills, and the residences of prominent families. Depending on the village size, one might also find the panchayat building, shops, tea stalls, a public radio setup, a small post office, or a dharmshala. Educational facilities are typically situated on the outskirts to afford ample recreational space for students, and it is common to find a grove at the village’s edge, providing a shaded area for the community and its livestock.

The rural architecture varies across regions. For instance, in the eastern Gangetic Plain, caste-specific hamlets often encircle larger villages, while in the south and Gujarat, villages display a more systematic grid pattern. Tribal areas, until recently, featured linear settlements along one or two streets. In mountainous regions, the settlement shape follows the contours of the land, resulting in smaller communities. Conversely, in water-abundant areas like the Gangetic delta and Kerala’s backwaters, isolated or small clusters of homes are prevalent.

The majority of village homes are modest, single-story mud structures, accommodating both people and livestock. Roof designs vary with climate, ranging from flat mud in arid zones to sloped thatch or tile in rainier regions. In humid and tribal areas, bamboo construction is common, and homes are often elevated. These homes are typically devoid of windows and minimally furnished, with spaces dedicated to storage, worship, and cooking. Utilities such as electricity, plumbing, and toilets are usually lacking, with villagers relying on secluded outdoor areas for sanitation.

In contrast, the residences of wealthier villagers are more substantial and constructed from durable materials like brick or stone, featuring stronger roofs and barred windows. The number of rooms and overall aesthetic, including the entrance gate, mirror the family’s prosperity. These homes often contain a private well or pump, bathing areas, and a latrine within a secure compound separate from areas designated for animals, storage, and equipment.

It is observed that a variety of nomadic populations can be found throughout India. These include diverse groups ranging from itinerant entertainers and metalworkers to livestock traders, often forming communities known as tandas. Notably, a community referred to as the Banjari or Vanjari, also known as Labhani, with origins traceable to Rajasthan and ethnically linked to the Roma of Europe, is dispersed across vast expanses of central India and the Deccan plateau. Their primary engagements include working as agricultural laborers and in the construction industry. Numerous tribal groups engage in comparable vocations on a seasonal basis. For instance, shepherds predominantly from the Gujar caste practice seasonal migration in the western Himalayan region. In the less fertile semi-arid and arid zones, where traditional farming is challenging or unsustainable, pastoralists herding cattle, sheep, goats, and camels maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with the cultivators in the vicinity or local areas.

Rural settlement

In India, a country where urban living is experienced by less than one-third of its population, there exists a notable classification of over 6,100 locales as urban areas. This urban proportion is more pronounced in the agriculturally affluent regions of the northwest, west, and south, as opposed to the northeastern rice-producing areas, where population growth is inherently restrained by the limited agricultural surplus.

Urban expansion in India has seen a trend where larger cities are developing at a more rapid pace compared to smaller towns. The most significant growth is observed in the major metropolitan areas, where, despite high levels of congestion, as seen in Kolkata, urbanization continues. Factors contributing to this growth include the expansion of administrative services, the commercialization of agricultural practices, and the proliferation of industrial and service sectors.

Historically, cities such as Delhi and Agra, which predate colonial influence, feature highly dense urban centers encircled by ancient city walls, some of which remain intact. In these historic cores, the segregation of residential areas by religion and caste, as well as the configuration of streets and public spaces, bear resemblance to the disorganized structure of rural villages. Contrary to many Western urban models, it is common for affluent families to reside in the congested centers of these cities. The traditional bazaars, with their specialized offerings ranging from textiles to jewelry, are a hallmark of these areas and often house a combination of workshops, retail spaces, and living quarters for the craftsmen and their workers.

Cities that developed during the British colonial era, such as Kolkata, Mumbai, and Chennai, also exhibit densely populated urban cores. These cities, however, are characterized by broader avenues, a more systematic street layout, designated parklands, and central business districts that encompass historical government buildings, high-rise commercial structures, and various cultural and commercial establishments reminiscent of the colonial past.

British colonialism also introduced distinct urban sections tailored to their administrative and military needs. These include the ‘civil lines,’ residential zones with spacious homes for European officials; cantonments for military personnel; and industrial areas with factories and associated worker housing. Post-independence, India’s rapid urbanization necessitated urban planning, leading to the creation of planned towns and residential areas, commonly referred to as ‘colonies,’ to accommodate the influx of refugees and job seekers. These colonies typically feature multi-story apartment buildings, retail centers, educational institutions, and recreational spaces, with commuting to inner-city jobs predominantly by bus or bicycle.

For the less affluent migrants, residing in these planned colonies is not feasible. Some manage to inhabit slum apartments, sharing the space with previous settlers from their hometowns. Others resort to living in ‘bastis’ (shantytowns) or as street dwellers, both lacking proper shelter, found in various marginal urban spaces tolerated by city authorities.

Additionally, the British era gave rise to hill stations like Shimla and Darjeeling, established as cool havens for Europeans and as seasonal administrative centers. These hill stations are equipped with hotels, guest houses, and recreational amenities. Post-independence, these retreats have become equally popular among India’s affluent citizens.

Demographic trends

India boasts a predominantly youthful demographic, with a significant majority of its citizens being under the age of 30, and less than a quarter aged 45 or above. The nation’s birth and mortality rates approximate the global mean, and life expectancy stands at an average of 68 years for males and 70 years for females.

The Indian population witnessed a dramatic surge post the catastrophic influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. This growth accelerated until the 1961 census, after which it plateaued, albeit at a high level. Within the confines of modern India’s borders, the population was recorded at 251 million in 1921 and rose to approximately 340 million by the year of independence in 1947. The population doubled from 1947 to the 1981 census and exceeded one billion by the 2001 census. Notably, the growth observed between 1991 and 2001, which was over 182 million, exceeded the total population of most countries globally, a trend that continued between 2001 and 2011. Despite a noticeable decline in birth rates, a sharper decrease in death rates has significantly contributed to the nation’s population growth. The sustained rate of women reaching and surviving through their reproductive years has also been a factor in maintaining high birth rates. As per United Nations estimates, by 2023, India’s population has surpassed that of China, making it the most populous country in the world.

Throughout modern history, the impact of emigration from or immigration to India on its population growth has been minimal. However, internal migration, particularly from less affluent regions to urban areas with better economic prospects, has been a primary driver of varied growth rates across different states and regions. Larger cities tend to attract a higher percentage of migrants, resulting in a more diverse population mix. For instance, in Mumbai, over half of the population speaks languages other than Marathi, the main language of Maharashtra. The influx of migrants into Indian cities places significant strain on urban infrastructure, often leading to inadequate housing, water, and sanitation facilities, and in some cases, forcing migrants to live in extremely poor conditions without permanent shelter.

Another notable group of migrants is refugees, some of whom have been displaced since the 1947 partition of India, while others, particularly in Assam and West Bengal, were affected by the 1971 secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan. There are also internal refugees who have fled periodic communal violence and ethnic conflicts in various parts of the country.

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