The earliest known cities on the Indian subcontinent date back to the Indus Valley civilization around 2600 BC. This ancient era set the foundations of a continuous civilization till today. When the British arrived the country was perhaps the most urbanized in the world. However, two hundred years of colonial rule reduced India to an agrarian economy. Today, India is one of the least urbanized of the populous countries, given that only 28 percent of the nation's population live in urbanized areas. Although the proportion classified as urban is small, in absolute numbers India's urban population today exceeds 300 m people.
After independence urban population grew significantly quicker than the overall population. At times, urban growth rate was twice the national figure. Researchers assumed that the urban rural growth differential would increase or remain stable until a 50 % level of urbanization is reached. In fact, urban growth rate came down well before reaching a 30 % threshold. To put it in other words: The percentage growth of urban population was declining over the decades. While the growth rate during the 1970s was 3.9 %, it dropped to 3.1 % in the 1980s, and fell to an average 2.7 % during the 1990s. If this trend continues, the level of urbanization will not exceed 40 % by 2050.
Most urbanized among all states and territories is the National Capital Territory of Delhi with a share of 93 % urbanites followed by the Union territories of Chandigarh (ca 90 %) and Puducherry (67 %). Among the major states, Tamil Nadu is most urbanized with 44 % of the population living in urban areas followed by Maharashtra (> 42 %) and Gujarat (> 37 %). The proportion of urban population is the lowest in Himachal Pradesh with less than 10 % followed by Bihar with 10.5 %, Assam (13 %) and Orissa (15 %).
In terms of absolute numbers of persons living in urban areas, Maharashtra leads with 41 m people which is 14 % of the total population of the country. Uttar Pradesh accounts for about 35 m followed by Tamil Nadu with 27 m.
Though, India is characterized by relatively moderate urban growth rates, population growth of towns and cities is formidable in absolute numbers. Attendant problems include slum proliferation, and rising numbers of street dwellers.
According to projections for the years 2006 – 2020 six Indian cities are expected to be among the 25 cities worldwide experiencing highest annual growth rates. These are (global ranking in brackets) Ghaziabad 5.2 % (2), Surat 5 % (4), Faridabad 4.4 % (8), Nashik 3.9 % (16), Patna 3.7 % (21), Rajkot (22), and Jaipur (24) approx. 3.6 %.
The location of modern urban centers reflects India's colonial past. The British founded Kolkata, and developed Mumbai and Chennai as regional trade hubs and as harbors for export and import. In the 1911 the British moved the colonial capital from coastal Kolkata to the inland, where New Delhi was built adjacently to the old Mogul headquarters of Delhi.
India's urban pattern reveals regional specifics.
In 2007 more than 30 Indian cities recorded a population in excess of 1 m inhabitants. Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is the largest city of India in terms of population, being home to 13.1 m people. Delhi ranks second with approx. 11.5 m inhabitants followed by Bengaluru (5.3 m), Kolkata (4.6 m), and Chennai (4.4 m). Mumbai and Delhi are among the five most populous cities in the world.
Indian core cities are – like next to all major cities in the world – surrounded by urbanized areas. The most populous metropolitan areas are Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata. To give an impression regarding the dimensions of this areas: The Netherlands are populated by approx. 16.6 m people.
As of 2007. Source: World Gazetteer
India's towns and cities are still rapidly growing. However, it seems not adequate to speak of "unprecedented growth". In fact, the process of urbanization slowed significantly down. It is reasobable to assume that India will stay one of the less urbanizied countries for the foreseeable future.