Mega challenges of rural-urban migration

Santosh Mehrotra | Updated on October 03, 2019 Published on October 03, 2019

A dispersed pattern of urbanisation leads to sprawl with higher motorisation and pollution. A new urban vision is needed

India’s demographic dividend cannot be realised if young entrants to the labour force as well as potential migrants from agriculture do not gain new livelihoods. Hastening of the structural transformation brings with it three mega-challenges for policy-makers: employment of migrants; growing urbanisation; and ensuring better education and vocational training for increasing labour force entrants. India’s planners must manage these three processes much better over the next two decades as India’s demographic dividend draws to a close by 2040.

Facets of migration

Never in India’s post-Independence history till 2004-05 did the absolute number of workers in agriculture fall; the Lewisian turning point took over a half-century to arrive. During 2004-05 and 2011-12, non-agri job growth was as high as 7.5 million per annum. At the same time, the number of young entrants into the labour force was only about two million per annum. The remaining five million plus workers were migrants from agriculture, and were mostly absorbed in construction activity.

Net migrant flows at the all-India level have averaged close to nine million annually (between 2011-12 and 2016-17), peaking around 2013-14, considerably above levels suggested by the Census (of 6.9 million in 2011). The largest recipient was the Delhi region, which accounted for more than half of migration in 2015-16,. This is consistent with our finding that of the five million leaving agriculture per annum there were 3.5 million from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar alone.

The Report by the Working Group on Migration (GoI, 2017) has identified 54 districts with a high level of inter-State out-migration intensity. These districts account for half the male inter-State out-migration in the country. Of these, 36 districts are concentrated in Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with certain districts in other States — like Nadia and Midnapore (West Bengal), Ganjam (Odisha), Gulbarga (Karnataka), Jalgaon (Maharashtra), Pali (Rajasthan), and a few in western Uttar Pradesh.

Internal migration has been rising over time, nearly doubling in the 2000s relative to the 1990s. This suggests the rewards (prospective income and employment opportunities, a la Harris-Todaro model, 1970) have become greater than the costs and risks that migration entails.

Structure of jobs

The jobs challenge created by migration will be monumental in scope. In the manufacturing sector in urban areas, 38 per cent of the male workforce is composed of migrant workers, with a similar share in modern services. In contrast to the stereotype of migrants being largely in low-income occupations like street vending, etc., they are employed across all sectors and are essential for manufacturing growth (see Table). It also contributes to the very high share of informality in India’s workforce. There is high likelihood that due to the sharp increase in construction work, especially in urban areas, work-related migration is turning more short-term. Though the proportion of short-term migrants is much lower than long-term migrants, they are definitely drawn from the lower consumption quintiles.

There is a certain concentration of migrants in specific sectors (see table). Moreover, in construction, the concentration of ST and SC categories is rather high. The SCs tend to be more landless, poorest, and with the least education. Hence it is not surprising that they are found to be in manual work in construction. But NSSO (2018) data shows that construction generated only 4.4 million new jobs over 2012-18, compared with 25 million between 2004-2011.


Faster urbanisation

This migration has been and will, to a greater extent than before, be accompanied by faster urbanisation in India. Asia is going through a historic demographic transformation from a rural society to an urban society that is far larger than any transformation seen in the past, in any other part of the globe (ADB 2011). By 2025, the majority of Asia’s population will be urban. India's urban population is expected to grow from 410 million in 2014 to 814 million by 2050.

Rapidly growing cities, increasing slum populations, and corrupt officials could combine with high open unemployment among educated youth and under-employment among less educated adults and can cause violent social conflict. Latin America’s wave of urbanisation is roughly 65 years ahead of Asia’s (ADB 2011).

Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela were unable to manage rapid growth of illegal, unserviced settlements, and failed to provide adequate services. In many cases urban gangs filled a gap left by weak local governments. The difference in the Indian case will be that the total population involved will be much large. This combination, together with delayed action, will be explosive.

Most unfortunately, contrary to successful cities in the world, India has been locking itself into more dispersed patterns of urbanisation. Car ownership is increasing so fast that carbon emissions could increase by 2.5 times over current levels in PRC and by four times in India by 2035 (ADB 2011). Lower densities are leading to sprawl, which is leading to higher rates of motorisation, leading to more sprawl in a vicious cycle.

Higher density cities are less expensive on a per capita basis than are low-density cities. Clearly, the country needs a far more sophisticated planning framework, to imagine and implement a new urban vision, to ensure that India prepares to receive its migrants in its burgeoning cities.

What governments, both Union and State, will have to focus on is infrastructure for middle-tier cities, since it will be much too expensive to invest in the 193 tiny towns with populations below half a million; but at present, these tiny towns are home to half of India’s urban residents (as against a quarter of China’s urban residents). In other words, the missing middle in respect of urban India will need to be filled, to attract the migrant population to middle-tier cities.

The education challenge

Major rural to urban migration went hand in hand with the economic growth of the 19th to mid-20th century in today’s high-income countries. As high-income countries transition to urbanised, ageing societies, these movements have subsided. Today, the largest internal population movements occur in low- and middle-income countries, particularly China and India.

When male migrants move, they leave behind children going to school. If families migrate all together, children must be found schools in urban locales. In India, 10.7 million children aged six to 14 lived in rural households with a seasonal migrant in 2013. About 28 per cent of youth aged 15 to 19 in these households were illiterate or had not completed primary school, compared with 18 per cent of the cohort overall. Out-of-school children will need to be diverted to vocational schooling/training.

A difficulty is that historically, barely 2.4 per cent of India’s workforce has acquired vocational skills formally (NSSO 2018). Together with low levels of general academic education, the minuscule workforce with any formal vocational skills is a mega challenge if the manufacturing share of GDP is to rise above 17 per cent, where it is stuck for the last quarter century (since 1991).

The three mega-challenges will be hard enough to handle even with synergy between actions. Without urban planning to ensure synergy between actions, the demographic dividend will peter out.

The writer is Professor of Economics at JNU


Published on October 03, 2019
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