Is India in the throes of 'distress migration'?

Migrant worker in Gurgaon, India Millions of villagers are migrating to cities in search of work

Are millions of Indians being forced to leave their villages for cities and towns because there aren't enough jobs at home and farm incomes are drying up? Is this "distress migration" unprecedented in India's history?

Award-winning journalist P Sainath thinks so. Examining the latest census data, he finds that India's urban population has risen more (91 million more than in the 2001 census) than the rural population (90.6 million more than in the 2001 census). Nearly half the people in states like Tamil Nadu already live in urban settlements.

The last time, writes Mr Sainath, the rise in India's urban population exceeded the rise of the rural population was 90 years ago and reflected in the 1921 census. The decline in rural population then could be possibly linked to the 1918 flu pandemic that killed several million people.

This time around, Mr Sainath says, the increase in migration is driven by the "collapse of millions of livelihoods in agriculture and its related occupations". He writes that massive migrations "have gone hand-in-hand with a deepening agrarian crisis": more than 240,000 farmers, mostly broken by debt, committed suicide in India between 1995 and 2009.


Mr Sainath has spent a lifetime reporting on distressed farmers and how the poor live in India. He admits that the census is not equipped to examine the complexity of migration in India. In a fast urbanising country, rising migration from villages to cities and towns is natural. Also, newer "urban areas" are being added all the time. The big picture is also not strikingly unusual. According to the census, 31.16% of Indians live in urban areas, up from 27.81% in 2001 - a rate which is actually significantly lower than the rate in many developing countries with similar income levels.

But, argues Mr Sainath, these "natural" factors which triggered migration from villages to cities have been valid in the earlier decades too when additions to the village population actually outstripped those to the cities. So why is the last decade throwing up a radically different result?

Jobs for work scheme in Andhra Pradesh, India Many say the jobs for work programme has checked migration

Mr Sainath believes that millions of Indians are trapped in "footloose" migrations - the poor drifting from place to place "without a clear final destination". He talks about a "despair-driven exodus" in the countryside.

Many economists believe that it may be a little too early to conclude that the rising migration from villages to cities is being triggered by economic distress at home.

For one, they point to the fact that 90% of the increase in urban settlements - 7935 in 2011, up from 5161 in 2001 - is from the rise in the number of new "census towns". A settlement is declared such a town when its population exceeds 5,000; when the number of male farm workers falls to less than 25% of the total; and where population density is at least 4,000 people per sq km. "It is also likely that a very significant part of the 'urbanisation' that is being talked about is actually a reflection of this reclassification of settlements rather than of rural to urban migration," says renowned economist Jayati Ghosh.

Many economists believe that India's landmark multi-billion dollar jobs guarantee scheme scheme has checked migration of workers from villages to cities. Thanks to guaranteed wages and days of work, many villagers prefer to stay back and work. Others believe that India's big cities are becoming more and more uninviting to rural migrants: they are offered very few and appalling amenities, including housing and sanitation, have to pay bribes even for a basic vending business, and cough up steep rents. All this should slow down the rate of migration from rural to urban areas, economists like Amitabh Kundu of Jawaharlal Nehru University say.

There may be other pressing questions to ponder. How does India cope with its increasing urban population? Its cities are choking under power cuts, scarcity of water and polluted air. Also the increase of new urban settlements with poor amenities and limited access to jobs could easily lead to massive social unrest among the migrants in the new "cities". Which could actually end up wrecking India's cities faster than its villages.

Soutik Biswas Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

India's Arvind Kejriwal makes an epic comeback

Written off by his rivals and the media, India's most famous anti-corruption campaigner has bounced back.

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Many Indians believe that "we are so intelligent that US-EU can't do without us". The are fooled by high technical coolie supply from India in form of "scientist", IT prof, doctors etc.Our naive Bollywood films strengthen that foolish idea.
    We are "so intelligent" that we "develop" other countries & destroy our own; stand in the ques in-front of foreign embassies to beg visas & green-cards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    These traditional knowledge, those people who knows it (mostly tribal) are highly exploited & sometimes neglected. It still has huge potential to revive rural economy, bring some sense of usefulness and value for those people, minimize extremism in rural India and also minimize migration.I know that is too much to ask from our "elite" people who decide national policies & lives of common people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Just check the fate of rice based traditional wine/alcohol. Many countries including the Japanese (now Chinese and few others) successfully commercialize rice based wine (Saki) globally. While elite Indians r obsessed with whisk. Leave along commercializing or improving its quality, manufacturing etc., we started "hating" it, practically branded as "untouchable"

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Many believe that some Intellectual Property laws (mainly for gene & living organism) have slowed down growth of knowledge & its use. But that must not be the excuse to hide our inability. We even do not know what is good for us. We purchase third rate technology at a very high price from abroad but do not have the ability even to understand its usefulness, leave alone developing it ourselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    We wasted the knowledge of Vedas & other ancient scripts.India could not develop a single NOVEL drug since 1921, after discovery of medicine of kalaAzar by Dr Upen Brahmachari. Germans & many others effectively used Indian knowledge to develop drugs, plant varieties. We pathetically failed despite of having many “research” institutes in that area. We start blaming others when they develop it.


Comments 5 of 47



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.