Op-Ed: Migration and its Discontents

There is no doubt that the issues of migration and urbanization within India are wrought with controversy.  In the case of rural-urban migration, which is overwhelmingly the case, the impact on the social, economic, and psychological structure of villages and cities, both on a macro and micro level, is significant. 

In my experience within the Adivasi, rural communities of Gujarat, migration holds a sense of urgent promise, of a future with exponential financial dividends for the family.  Local community members themselves believe that village life is inferior to that of urban India, and that migration / urbanization leads to social and economic development, both on an individual and community level.  Therefore, instead of looking inwards by initiating local-resource driven campaigns for the development of their respective villages, local inhabitants tend to look outward, towards the city.  Rural communities, therefore, come to signify stagnation, whereas the city comes to represent progress, opportunity, and most importantly, money.  Artisanship, agricultural expertise, and other local-level skills atrophy as community members come to regard these skills as unvaluable, or in many cases, unmarketable, in comparison to more the more “lucrative” skills necessary for “urban jobs.”  This mentality, I believe, is a self-destructive one, as it leads to the devaluation and decomposition of potentially rich local resources within the rural landscape.

More after the jump…

As articulated in a WSCSD journal article entitled, “Impact of Rural-Urban Migration on the Sustainability of Cities,” there are more deeply entrenched, long-term factors involved in the rural-urban migration phenomenon as well:

Until a recent past, with 80% of India in rural regions, it was reasonable to say that villagers in India manifest a deep loyalty to their village, identifying themselves to strangers as residents of a particular village, connecting back to family residence in the village that typically extends into the distant past.  A family rooted in a particular village does not easily move to another and even people who have lived in a city for a generation or two refer to their ancestral village as our village.” But today, the scenario has changed, as migration has obliterated this factor of life from villages and, this new trend of greater urbanization has created a profound social, environmental, political and economic dilemma for all segments of society. Rural poverty is bad enough, but its problems are compounded when families leave their rural homes to seek a livelihood in overcrowded city slums, leaving behind deep-rooted traditions and ties to the extended family and the village seniors.

Formerly, rural-urban migration within India was formerly “deemed socially beneficial because human resources were being shifted from locations where their social marginal product was often assumed to be zero to places where this marginal product was not only positive but also rapidly growing as a result of capital accumulation and technological progress.”  The theory, today, however, is grounded in an alarming reality:

In contrast to the pro-migration viewpoint, Indian research and experience has made clear that rates of rural-urban migration have greatly exceeded rates of urban job creation and swamped the absorptive capacity of both formal-sector industry and urban social services. Migration can no longer be casually viewed by economists as a beneficent process necessary to solve problems of growing urban labour demand. On the contrary, migration today remains a major factor contributing to the phenomenon of urban surplus labour; a force that continues to exacerbate already serious urban unemployment problems caused by the growing economic and structural imbalances between Indian urban and rural areas.  

In light of these developments, some questions need to be asked – what is the carrying capacity of cities?  How can this kind of population growth be sustained over the long term unless government programs place a priority on boosting employment and instituting reforms in the housing, transportation, and utilities sector?  Effectively, what are we proposing by championing migration and rapid urbanization?  Can these two phenomena be equated with development if they lead to stagnation in rural India?  What kind of message are we sending to rural and urban children when they see stereotypical images of wealth and prosperity in urban India and poverty in rural villages?  Are we reinforcing a false dichotomy, and in the process, marginalizing the growth of the vast majority of India’s population? 

I’m not proposing an end to all forms of migration.  Neither am I saying that rural Indians should not migrate to urban India, as this would be equivalent to asking individuals to stop exercising their free will.  Instead, what I’m asking is that we value local skills, resources, and knowledge within rural India as much as those in urban India.  Only when a hierarchical order does not exist between rural and urban India can the two develop equitably. 

I’m interested in hearing your comments – how do you envision India’s growth?  Do you see a rapidly urbanizing India, or one that will be able to balance growth sustainably in both rural and urban sectors?  How can we begin to repair rural India’s image? 

What do you think?

3 Responses

  1. I agree with your comments and concerns – but I believe you and Mr. Ratha are speaking of two different types of migration. Mr. Ratha focuses on origin and destination countries, while you are speaking of cities within the same country. The factors and consequences associated with both are very different.

    In speaking of countries, linking migrants and their origin country has a lot of potential (diasporas involved in development of their heritage country!).

    In speaking of rural-urban migration – I definitely think more thought and efforts need to be put into types of village development that allow villagers to continue to have the choice to live where they want. Established access to services and opportunity would be a step in changing rural India’s image. When villagers have pride and reason to stay in their villages, they will be the ones who change the image of rural India.

    What can we do? I think it’s great to see organizations, like Barefoot College, which was featured in an earlier post, that work with local resources to solve local problems. Organizations and individuals that invest locally is one way forward.

  2. Point well taken. I should have mentioned that the article on Ratha sparked this thinking, and not equated the two types of migration, as one is international in scope, and leads to a very different kind of development.

    In terms of mining local resources, another very effective model is the one used by Lok Mitra. The founder of this organization believes that in order to sustain development in rural India, people must have access to basic services – healthcare, sanitation, education, governance. He has dedicated his life to helping the village of Deduki (as well as those nearby) become self-sustainable by mobilizing the community around these issues. Of course, this is a micro-model, but how can we scale these types of initiatives up?

  3. I think initiatives can be scaled up when there is either a political will/government buy-in, or major interventions from the private sector. Whether that’s good or bad is another debate, but those two players really have the teeth, capacity, and decision-making power to implement widespread programs.

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