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Migration to cities: How to arrest the rapid urbanization?

By: K Parthasarathi
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With the liberalization in full swing and its impact on all sections of economy we are witness to the inexorable urbanization of the country. Our development programs have been geared towards economic growth and GDP growth with the belief that once GDP growth occurs there would be a spin off in all areas like employment, health, education and living conditions Our planners work for 9% growth while agriculture cannot grow faster than 2% at the most As a sequel either the villages get relatively poor and disadvantaged and/or large scale rural-urban migration continues. If this trend is not reversed quickly the rural income would become a small fraction of urban income. The urban population will grow beyond manageable levels with most living in slums.

The unemployed people and the seasonal workers who have no work all though the year move to big cities in search of employment. Those who are slightly better off move to cities for other reasons like greater educational opportunities, better health facilities and higher standards of living. Some are forced to leave the land where it is inadequate to support them or where the land is forcibly acquired by the government. It is expected that in a decade the urban areas would house, sixty percent of the country’s population and there would be corresponding reduction in rural population.

A look at the population figures as on 1991 and 2001 in some of the major cities would reveal the relentless and steady shift of people towards the urban centres.

City - 1991census - 2001census
Gr. Mumbai - 9.93 - 11.91
Delhi - 7.27 - 9.82
Kolkata - 4.40 - 4.58
Bangalore - 2.66 - 4.29
Chennai - 3.84 - 4.21
Ahmadabad - 2.88 - 3.52
Hyderabad - 2.96 - 3.45
Pune - 1.57 - 2.54
Kanpur - 1.87 - 2.53
Nasik - 1.50 - 2.43
Patna - 0.92 - 1.38

Between 2001 and 2007 there should have been further influx at a faster pace of rural population into the cities. While urbanization is an inevitable sequel to social and economic development, it is not without its adverse consequences. The fast paced urban population growth on the scales seen from the accompanying table has caused great strain on the capacity of urban or municipal corporations to provide even the basic utilities like housing, water, electricity and sewerage. This is bound to aggravate to unbearable levels. Unauthorized slums spring up in every available space with no municipal facilities whatsoever. Such an unplanned squatter settlements is a clear index to the unbearable living conditions in the villages than to any planned urban development. These immigrants are prepared to put up with much hardship in the cities than face hunger in the villages. What does this transformation to the complexion of cities indicate? Is it development of cities or degeneration of the rural areas? It is felt that as cities expand without matching infrastructure and job opportunities, the poverty of the rural side just gets urbanized. The location merely gets changed with nothing better in living conditions to the displaced people happening. The appalling living conditions like slums, lack of safe water, absence of sanitation, overcrowding with the attendant increase in crime, insecurity for women, sexual abuse and exposure to frequent epidemics and AIDs are the immediate outcome of this population shift. The rate of rural–urban migration is far in excess of the rates at which urban jobs for the unskilled are created and very much beyond the capacity of both industry and urban social services to absorb this surplus labour, mostly unskilled. Eventually this will give rise to the social and economic inequities besides urban decay and social unrest.

But then can the government forcibly stop the poor leaving the countryside for finding better lives though they end up on the platforms, bus shelters, shanty towns and inhabitable slums? How should the government prevent such outflow from villages and at the same time make their lives better.NREGs started with good intention is a feeble attempt and touches only the periphery of the problem. Firstly its coverage is minimal. There is no assurance of a lasting and steady job and there is no up gradation of their skills. There is no creation of lasting assets in the villages. NREG scheme is at best a temporary palliative even if the scheme were to be administered efficiently without the siphoning off the money in the middle man’s hands. To enlarge this scheme as is contemplated may be politically convenient but economically without sense and socially purposeless. It is a waste of scarce public resources that could be put to better uses.

Why are the cities engines of economic and employment growth while villages languish? It is because cities provide economic opportunities with the available infrastructure. Large manufacturing units are situated in or close to the cities considering the available infrastructure like power, roads, rail and ports. In every state there are about half a dozen big towns with two or three big cities. The industries cluster around these places with larger units nearer to metros. The jobs are not seasonal as in farming but all through the year. Ancillary industries grow and service industries also thrive side by side. Both skilled and unskilled labour find ready jobs.

The government also focuses its investment only around cities where there is a clamour for more to the utter neglect rural areas. Even the small resources spent on villages are lost in microeconomic interventions like NREGs to help individual villagers and not the macro economy of the village as a whole. While the government invests in the macro economy of cities it is at the microeconomic level in rural areas. Most of the employment in rural areas is agricultural or dependent on agriculture. This often tends to be seasonal and therefore unreliable. For the villagers to overcome poverty, villages should provide economic opportunities throughout the year other than in the agricultural areas also. A large percentage of the rural population should be able to make decent living thro non-agricultural occupations. The government strategy and investment should be directed towards this goal. Small scale industries that can be linked with agricultural operations spread over rural areas and smaller towns nearby may be the answer. Villagers from rural areas should find that it is possible to make a decent living without migrating to big cities. The false lure of the cities as an attractive place for better living should be removed by making living in villages better. The government as a long term measure should promote economic prospects and required infrastructure development in rural areas. It should also cover the creation of market for supporting the agricultural economic activities and also development of sustainable agricultural practices in the rural sector.NREGs are mere doles in nature providing to limited people small amounts for temporary earth work jobs done for short period. The planners should take note of this and allocate substantial resources for developing villages (not villagers individually thro doles).Sadly the strategy of government is centred only on GDP growth without carrying the rural population along. It is hoped corrective measures would be taken before it becomes late. The increase in growth of violent outfits in the impoverished rural areas is the direct outcome of such skewed policy of the government.

Any rural development programme can be successful only if the unfettered population growth is curbed. Indian population is burgeoning at feverish pace adding about 16 million each year. Most of the increase happens in the rural side. Whatever little economic improvement is made possible by the governments, they are eroded by the faster increase in number of mouths to feed. The scanty health services, the negligible primary education facilities, sparse housing are further strained keeping the poor always in poverty. India’s economic growth would be seriously hampered if the population growth is not checked. The available resources are spread thin leaving the poor unhappy. The poor think children are means to augment earning, while the increase in population would never lift them from poverty. Population control is the immediate imperative with two child norm and sterilization thro incentives and gentle persuasion. Rural poverty and high fertility are closely linked. One cannot be solved without tackling the other.

K Parthasarathi

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