A Rocky Road as India Migrates to the Cities

By Neeta Lal 8 August 2013

Dharigaon, a tiny village in the northern state of Uttaranchal, stretches no more than a kilometer from start to finish. Though hauntingly beautiful—surrounded by misty meadows and the contiguous Garhwal hills—it is equipped with only rudimentary infrastructure: a ramshackle water pump, a dirty public toilet and a primary school teaching up to standard five. The main occupation of the men folk is agriculture and cutting forest wood which barely sustains families.

Unsurprisingly, Dharigaon’s population (about 1,000 people) has been dwindling steadily over the last decade. Fed up with the village’s lack of development, its residents have been migrating to nearby cities like Dehradun, Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur, Moradabad and Srinagar.

Kisan Ram has been contemplating migration too. “Most people in Dharigaon pray for an opportunity to leave the village and live in the city,” the poverty-stricken farmer said in an interview. “A city is considered a gateway to innumerable facilities, benefits and opportunities that open up new career avenues and prospects for a bigger and better lifestyle. Alas, our village offers no such promise.”

Dharigaon isn’t alone. Village after Indian village this correspondent traveled to was characterized by a toxic cocktail of official apathy, lack of development and governmental neglect. Mahatma Gandhi once said: “the soul of India lies in her villages.” However, that “soul” now seems haunted by non-existent roads, lack of sanitation, schools without teachers, hospitals sans doctors and beds and a lack of community welfare centers.

India’s cities are increasingly chaotic as these millions of rural migrants seek out a better life, with seemingly little planning on the part of government leaders, unlike China. According to a 2010 report by the McKinsey consulting company, “While India has barely paid attention to its urban transformation, China has developed a set of internally consistent practices across every element of the urbanization operating model: funding, governance, planning, sectoral policies, and the shape, or pattern, of urbanization, both across the nation as a whole and within cities themselves.

At the same time, the villages continue to get short shrift. There is a dangerous chasm between “inland” India—the urban, largely stable and increasingly prosperous part—and much of its rural outland, a neglected, poorer, lawless place.

“This is what divides the country into two halves; the primitive, agrarian Bharat [the Hindi name for India] and the modern, progressive ‘India,’” said Dr Swati Prabhakar, an urban historian who is currently working on a book “India Vs Bharat.”

Is it any wonder then that from 1951, when India’s urban population was 62 million, comprising 17 percent of the country’s total, it had shot up to 377 million, or 31 percent by 2011? By 2025, demographers reckon 42.5 percent of the country’s population will be urban dwellers. Faced with the erosion of their traditional way of life, caused by economic and social distress in the village, rural folk are fleeing to the cities.

Migration Mess

Dr Ashish Bose of the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University, who has written more than 20 books on India’s population and development, theorizes that the policy of the government to “simply discourage migration to the city without taking care of the rural population will not work.”

In an interview, Bose argues that this movement will have another fallout—slackening in farming as a livelihood due to shrinking land. “As land is sold off for non-agricultural purposes to build housing colonies and more importantly for industries which acquire large tracts of land from villagers to setup new industries, poor villages are deprived of land they own so that big industrialists can benefit. The compensation paid is never adequate. In the process, the poor villages become poorer.”

Analysts say that like India, China too has a huge population, a dependence on agriculture and a trend toward urban migration. But while China has far better mechanisms in place to attempt to ensure a seamless transition, India has continued to falter. For instance, while Beijing follows a registration system and strict control over migration, India sticks to the antiquated tradition of conducting census. In China, there is a systematic and continuous study and redress of urban problems in their manifestations unlike India.

The rural migration to cities in India has other pitfalls—uneven economic growth which has birthed a new phenomenon—what economists call “in-betweener” towns. These census towns are characterized by their “in-betweenness”—part city, part village, posing fresh challenges for policy makers due to their skewed development pattern.

The urban challenge in India, planners say, is usually addressed in policy circles by focusing on cities alone. In the process, the rural backdrop against which urbanization is taking place is largely ignored. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), a mammoth city-modernization scheme launched in 2005, envisages investment of over US$20 billion over the next decade to bring phased improvement in their civic service levels.

But despite this colossal investment, urban India continues to grow in a haphazard fashion contributing to the increase of slums and degradation of cities.

Narendar Pani, an urban affairs specialist, writes in an essay that though a sharp focus on cities alone may be acceptable in the developed world where the process of urbanization stabilized long ago, and the rural areas account for a small share of the population, in India the process of urbanization is still far from complete and therefore requires out-of-the-box thinking.

Rural Exodus

One of the greatest challenges for urban planning in the cities of developing countries, Pani says, is that local governments do not have the ability to track population growth together with basic infrastructure for the community. On the other hand, the growing exodus of rural population to cities ends up creating a great congestion making city life even more difficult.

“We need to create a minimum of basic conditions for coexistence in small urban centers to prevent people from migrating to all major urban centers,” adds Prabhakar.

Is this really possible? Can India effectively stop the migration of people from rural areas to towns and cities, especially in a democratic setup where one is free to live and work anywhere in the country?

This migration, planners fear, may never cease, considering the sorry state of affairs in Indian villages where the benefits of social welfare measures aren’t percolating down to the grassroots. MGNREGA, a $73-billion rural employment guarantee scheme that provides a legal guarantee for at least 100 days of employment in every financial year to adult members of any household willing to do public work-related unskilled manual work at the statutory minimum wage of US$2.20 per day at 2009 prices, has come in for a lot of criticism.

The Comptroller and Auditor General’s 2012 report on MNREGA reveals that the scheme has failed to ensure the primary objective of livelihood security to the rural population by providing 100 days of guaranteed employment. This, concludes the report, is due to improper and ineffective planning without any strategy to create long-term employment generation opportunities.

The China Example

China’s urbanization ratio went from 20 percent in 1980 to 52 percent last year. However, unlike India, the country is seeking to prepare for this shift. Beijing’s new urbanization plan is sharply focused on removing institutional barriers to rural migrant workers living permanently in cities. Beijing is also working on a pilot program of land reform to make the shift as seamless as possible.

Encouraging migrant workers to settle in cities, Chinese planners believe, will help turn them into urban spenders which would in turn drive private consumption. Meanwhile, access to better welfare would lure more surplus farmers to urban sectors, especially considering the large rural-urban income gap. About 100 million people, it is estimated, will leave China’s villages for cities in the next decade, hopefully providing a new source of sustained growth in labor productivity and, therefore, the economy.

Deb Mukherjee, an urbanization expert at a Delhi-based think-tank, compares the intellectual discourse on cities between India and China. “We need to think through our problems and find our own solutions,” says the analyst. “There are a lot of people in India trying to change cities but very few who are trying to understand them unlike China where they change cities to fit their understanding.”