|Friday 15 June, 2001
Goodbye Village, Hello City
BBC World Service examines the greatest mass migration in human history. John Pickford reports on the powerful and unstoppable forces that are driving millions of the world’s rural people out of villages and into cities.
In the slums of Delhi they call them ‘rat-pickers’. These are the people who collect the rubbish no one else will touch. Even by the standards of the slum-dwellers, who occupy the bottom of the city’s employment pyramid, it’s a dirty job. But someone has to do it. Without rat-pickers a city like Delhi would soon become overwhelmed by its own filth.
And who are these rat-pickers? Where do they come from? I met one, a young man, in Yamuna Pushta, the shanty cluster with the unenviable reputation as the most unsavoury area of Delhi. It lies on the banks of the Yamuna river.
During each monsoon its inhabitants find themselves wading in their own detritus, just as every night in the rainy season the mosquitoes come to feast on the hundreds of thousands of exhausted human bodies, packed like sardines into their flimsy shelters.
As this young rat-picker in Yamuna Pushta shook my hand I felt a stab of recognition. He had a boyish face, dark brown eyes, jet black hair. Surely this was the same young man whom I’d met in a Himalayan village two days earlier at a farmer’s harvest fair. Had he not been one of the dancers on the makeshift stage the villagers had built? There had been songs and pageants, drums, flutes and dancing; there had been dark flashing eyes, bells and brilliant colours.
A World Away
On the narrow shelf of flat ground where this village was perched there was a sense of nestling, even of being cradled by the landscape. All around were steep, thickly wooded hillsides, dark green under a clear blue sky; then there were the freshly ploughed terraces, carved by human hand from the contours of the hills, that revealed this as a farmed environment, in spite of its wildness and remoteness; just visible in the distance were the snowy peaks of the Himalayas.
All this was a world away, and more, from the rat-pickers’ existence in the slums of Delhi, and it turned out I was mistaken in thinking I’d met this young slum-dweller in the hill village two days earlier.
This young migrant was from a village in west Bengal and yet he could so easily have been the villager I thought I had recognised: the fact is that today rural migrants are entering the city of Delhi at a rate of around 8,000 a week, and this awesome human flow is mirrored across India and throughout the developing world.
|The flow of people from village to city means that today for the first time in human history more of the world’s population is living in urban areas than in the countryside. |
This demographic shift is set to continue and accelerate through the new century, so that in 50 years only about 30 per cent of humanity will be rural dwellers.
Just 50 years ago a world existed where most people led a rural existence. The trend is therefore very significant, more significant in many respects than global population increase.
So what changes in the world’s villages and in rural economies lie behind this momentous drift of population from countryside to city? At village level you find the unique human stories, individuals and families caught up in a process which they are virtually powerless to control.
But very few rural communities are truly remote or isolated any longer and in many respects globalisation is making its greatest impact on the lives of the rural poor.
Economic globalisation, and especially the creation of a world market in food, is tending to marginalise many traditional economic activities in the countryside, and subsistence agriculture is the most marginal and vulnerable of the lot. Families which a generation ago would supply their own food needs outside the cash economy now find themselves increasingly dependent on money for survival.
In part this is a consequence of better services and higher expectations: when electricity reaches a village, those who want it have to find the money to pay for it; when the new road is constructed and a bus link to the nearest town is established suddenly you need cash for the fare.
The biggest problem for farmers in developing countries is the low prices they are paid for their produce. When a taste for Western foods, like wheat, has been developed in the cities and this commodity is available at subsidised rates from the developed world, how can producers of traditional and unfashionable crops, such as millet, compete?
Globalisation of the Mind
Alongside these economic pressures, what might be called the ‘globalisation of the mind’ is tending to obliterate cultural diversity, especially at the local level. In the villages of northern India festivals such as Holi and Diwali are a shadow of what they were 20 years ago. Why go out and join the singing and dancing in your village when you can watch the definitive (urban) version of these celebrations on TV?
At an early stage in my research for Goodbye Village, Hello City an African journalist made a comment which has stuck in my mind as I have moved between developed and developing countries collecting material for the programmes.
“It is good you are doing this project,” he said, “because the people who live in rural areas are the world’s ‘forgotten people’.” Governments are just beginning to recognise that neglect of the rural sector can have serious unforeseen consequences, even (as in Britain) when only a minority of the population actually live in the countryside.
Education: A Passport Out of the Village
But solving rural problems is incredibly complex. Ghana, for example, has tried harder than many other African countries in recent years to bring investment to the countryside, where 80 per cent of its population still lives. Investment in education has been a feature of its rural programme, but for many people in Ghana a good education is seen as a passport out of the village.
As I talked to people in the rural areas it became increasingly clear that farming, especially subsistence farming, is widely seen as the loser’s option - what you do if you can’t do anything else.
I met one middle-aged woman in eastern Ghana who had successfully supported her substantial family through her labours on the family farm. But she was pleased and proud to tell me she had educated her children away from the way of life she’s had. Who can blame her?
She talked about the sheer back-breaking effort of subsistence farming in a tropical climate. She didn’t want that for her children. At the same time she lamented the fact that her children would never share her relationship with the land. She told me about some of the medicinal plants and herbal remedies that she used. It would be hard for her to pass on much of her knowledge to her children and they certainly wouldn’t learn about it in school.
Town and County
The relationship between town and country, with the rural hinterland around an urban area supplying it with food and raw materials, has been the bedrock of human society since the invention of farming 10,000 years ago: indeed it was the first agricultural surpluses which began to make it possible for some people to live in cities, instead of growing their own food.
But today more and more cities, especially in the richer countries, exist independently of their rural hinterland. Fifty years ago, for example, apples from the orchards of neighbouring Kent were a major source of vitamin C for Londoners. Today the main fruit content in their diet is oranges and bananas, imported from thousands of miles away.
This is a feature of the emerging global market in food, but what happens to the countryside whose food is no longer wanted? Will the only viable future for it be as a weekend urban playground and dormitory for city workers?
Suicides and Depression
Suicides and depression among Britain’s farmers have reached an all-time high as they come to terms not just with the erosion of their living standards, but with the collapse of their self-esteem. Several farmers I talked to in Britain spoke despairingly of their likely futures as rural theme-park wardens or recreation managers with funny accents.
Optimists versus Pessimists
But does any of this matter in the long term, except to those most directly involved? The optimists say that India, for example, could cope perfectly well with, say, 15 or 20 super-cities of 20 million people. The pessimists say cities like Delhi and Bombay are becoming environmental nightmares, while the size of their slum populations will sooner or later pose a threat to social order.
The optimists say we have become astonishingly successful at feeding ourselves - the world almost has a glut of food - and as agriculture gets ever more efficient so more labour will be shed from the less productive countryside and these people will find new jobs in the expanding cities.
The pessimists say we are risking our human future by allowing the equilibrium between countryside and city to be destroyed: civil unrest, war, disease and possible ecological catastrophe will be the ultimate price we will pay for so recklessly urbanising our planet.
The jury is still out on this issue. But making this series has convinced me that change and upheaval in the world’s villages will touch the lives of all of us in the decades ahead.
| Top 10 Most Populated Cities
|1. Tokyo, Japan - 28,025,000
2. Mexico City, Mexico - 18,131,000
3. Mumbai, India - 18,042,000
4. Sáo Paulo, Brazil -
5. New York City, USA - 16,626,000
6. Shanghai, China - 14,173,000
7. Lagos, Nigeria - 13,488,000
8. Los Angeles, USA - 13,129,000
9. Calcutta, India - 12,900,000
10. Buenos Aires, Argentina - 12,431,000
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau and Times Atlas of the World, tenth edition