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A workforce on the move, literally

S CHANDRASEKHAR | Updated on October 21, 2014 Published on October 21, 2014

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The number of people commuting between rural and urban areas and across geographies has risen dramatically

In the last couple of decades, the number of people commuting between rural and urban areas on a daily basis has seen an explosive growth. This includes unskilled workers without a fixed place of work.

According to the National Sample Survey Organisation, between 1993-94 and 2009-10, India saw a nearly fourfold increase (from 6.34 million to 24.62 million) in the number of two-way commuters. These estimates do not include those who commute long distances within rural areas (across villages) or within an urban agglomeration (for instance, across the five districts that are part of the Mumbai metropolitan region), across cities or across States as in the National Capital Region. To be fair, in the larger Indian urban agglomerations, the issue of commuting time and distance to place of work does feature in popular discourse, but there is hardly any data that can claim to reliably quantify this phenomenon.

Obsessed with migration

For too long, Indian policymakers and city planners have obsessed about the much anticipated surge in migration. This surge did not quite happen in the inter-censal period of 2001-2011. Kanhu Chandra Pradhan, a researcher at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, estimates that less than 24 per cent of the urban population growth can be attributed to migration. During 2001-2011, net rural-urban migration accounted for 21 per cent of the urban population growth.

If only the Census of India had canvassed information on distance commuted for work, we could have contrasted the growth in migration with that of commuting. Ironically, according to the documentation available on the Census of India, in 2001, “a new question on distance travelled by a person to his/her work place and also mode of travel was canvassed for persons engaged in non-agriculture activities”. For reasons unknown, the tabulations on distance travelled were never released. Similar information appears to have been canvassed in the 2011 Census.

Back of the envelope calculation suggests that the number of commuting workers is at least twice, if not higher than the number of short-term migrants and nearly eight times the number of individuals who migrate in any one year.

On the job trail

Looking back, in the years following Independence, people followed jobs. An example would be the migration to industrial townships such as Bhilai where steel plants were built. This trend continued into the 1980s. However, since the beginning of the 1990s — the era of reforms on account of relaxation of industrial location policies — there was a dispersion of fresh investments to newer districts.

In the book, Made in India, Sanjoy Chakravorty and Somik Lall document the churn in the ranking of districts in terms of investment flows. For example, if Durg figured in the pre-90s ranking sweepstakes, in the era of reforms its adjoining district, Raipur, entered the rankings. These developments did not come as a surprise since there is one view that while import substituting industrialisation policies lead to the rise of huge central metropolises, open markets could possibly discourage them.

Recent evidence documents the redistribution of manufacturing from urban to rural areas. Since the 90s, while people continued to follow job creation, the need to migrate was reduced; improvements in transport connectivity allowed people to commute for work rather than relocate or migrate. Some credit should go to the National Democratic Alliance government, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which made investing in roads a priority. A decade later, the Narendra Modi-led government has promised to create jobs. Assuming that the Government does deliver, a spatial mismatch is inevitable between where people live and where jobs will be created. This again brings forth the question: to migrate or to commute?

Trumping migration

There is an increasing likelihood that, given the option, individuals would prefer to commute rather than migrate. Why would commuting trump migration? The same macro factors that drive migration will drive rural-urban commuting: a lack of jobs in rural India and small towns; an increase in employment opportunities just outside city boundaries; rural-urban wage differentials; and a shift in the location of the formal (informal) manufacturing sector from urban to rural (rural to urban) areas.

From the perspective of rural residents, since the benefits of rural development programmes are not portable, commuting, if feasible, is more attractive than migration. Urban residents would rather commute than migrate to rural areas since urban amenities are better than rural amenities.

We need to put commuting on an equal footing with migration in any conversation on worker mobility, since it is no longer a case of either/or. Researchers at the Institute of Human Development (IHD) in New Delhi found that in Chandkura (a village near Patna, the capital of Bihar), commuting is important, while in another village, Mahisham (which is not near a large city), migration is observed. In Chandkura, workers commute up to 30km every day while in Mahisham, individuals commute only as far as the edge of the village. Nearly 25 per cent of the male workforce in Chandkura is able to take advantage of the local urban labour markets without having to migrate.

Better incomes, too

Another interesting finding from the IHD study states: “If only income within the village (including commuting) is taken into account, the mean household income in Chandkura was 78 per cent higher than in Mahisham (where migration is more important). After adding in remittances, the gap is reduced to 27 per cent (these are averages for the whole village, including both migrant and non-migrant households).” That commuting makes households better off is also borne out from NSSO’s data. Households with rural-urban commuters have a higher average and median consumption expenditure than households where all workers live and work in rural areas, as well as rural households with workers having no fixed place of work.

In a survey conducted by Ajay Sharma, a researcher at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, in some villages in West Bengal where commuting is observed, he found that, on average, individuals commuted 28 km one way and incurred over ₹300 on transport costs. Half the individuals used one mode of transport, 15 per cent used two modes, and the rest used three modes. The most common owned vehicle used is the bicycle. Workers using two modes of transport typically used trains or their own vehicle as the first mode and then the bus. Respondents using three different modes mentioned that they used their own vehicle from home, then the train, and reached their workplace by bus, bicycle, or on foot.

The findings from Bihar and West Bengal provide support for what is often conjectured on the phenomenon of commuting, but we still do not know much about it. In that sense, it is a black box. We need rich data on the costs of commuting, its benefits, and how one can reduce commuting time.

The writer is an associate professor at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai. This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

Published on October 21, 2014
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