Another failed development policy in the works?

A few headlines regarding the World Bank recently caught my eye, mostly because they are not the usual development headlines I am used to reading.  In the Business Standard‘s “Migration to urban areas is good, says World Bank,” and domain-b.com‘s “India’s rural job schemes are barriers to development: World Bank news,” the focus is on a new World Bank report that encourages a population shift from villages to cities.  More than that, the World Development Report 2009: Reshaping Economic Geography says that current schemes to improve rural life are contrary to development, as pointed out by domain-b.com:

The central government’s National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREGA) scheme and other poverty alleviation schemes act as policy barriers to economic development and perpetual alleviation of poverty, according to the World Bank.

In short, the report encourages the process of rural-urban migration.   This approach seems to be the  opposite of the upswing of efforts to address rural poverty and improve rural life so that the majority of India’s population has the same economic opportunity as in urban areas.  Instead of focus on rural schemes, the report advocates improving infrastructure in cities to boost economic activity.   Here is a quick look at the reasoning, as quoted by the Business Standard article:

“The world’s most geographically disadvantaged people know all too well that growth does not come to every place at once,” said Indermit S Gill, director of the World Development Report (WDR) and chief economist, Europe and Central Asia. “Markets favour some places over others. To fight this concentration is tantamount to fighting prosperity,” Gill added.

What does it mean for India when an international force such as the Bank supports a shift from rural to urban areas?  Will improving basic infrastructure in urban centers really address the pressure of large increases in city population?  While I’m not against migration as a whole, I remain skeptical about putting emphasis on encouraging rural to urban migration and discouraging rural schemes for poverty alleviation.  This debate also points back to an earlier post I wrote on urbanization.  Is this another development report gone bad?

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Is Urbanization Really The Answer?

Atanu Dey’s article and analysis on the Urbanization and Development of India lends itself to interesting opinions and conclusions on an important topic that encompasses many cross-cutting issues. Dey follows the model of linear development in his conclusion:

Therefore the rural people have to be urbanized for India’s development and growth. Every economy has followed that path which begins with agriculture being the main source of income for the majority of the population and ends with agricultural employment being a very small fraction of the total labor force.

While the general tone of development in countries across the world is centered around cities, I wonder if such a model is healthy for a place like India, where most of its population lies in rural areas. The implications of the migration shift could be destructive, from family issues to shifts in labor markets to environmental impacts.

Another surprising aspect of the article is that Dey asserts that people actually prefer to live in urban slums:

Most Indians living in villages would welcome the chance of living in well-designed efficient cities. They are already doing so as is evidenced by the fact that tens of millions of rural people migrate to cities – often choosing to live in urban slums. They are voting with their feet saying that life in an urban slum is preferable to life in a village.

Perhaps the issue is more about the lack of economic opportunity in villages – given good employment prospects and the availability of basic services in rural areas, I’d venture to say that more people would opt to stay in a place where they have stake over the land and the possibility of a higher standard of living.

Although I believe his conclusion is arguable, the question Dey sets out to answer is a valuable one: is urbanization really the answer? Should India focus more on creating these “mega-cities” rather than developing rural infrastructure?

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… Continue reading