Places or people

Nov 20 2009, 22:00 IST
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SummaryThis year’s Human Development Report (HDR), Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility and Development, focuses on migration, casting light on some ‘misconceptions’ on the subject.

This year’s Human Development Report (HDR), Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility and Development, focuses on migration, casting light on some ‘misconceptions’ on the subject.

It proposes a series of policies to increase people’s freedom and improve their lives. The report lays out the case for government to reduce restrictions on movement within and across borders so as to expand human choices and freedom. It argues for practical measures that can improve prospects on arrival for migrants, which in turn would have substantial benefits for the places of origin and the destination. Thus the HDR calls for a people-oriented view of migration.

This year’s HDR is interesting because the conventional view has been that migrants contribute to social costs in the destination region, for which they do not adequately compensate. Hence, the solution might be to either close the cities to migration or to correct the pricing of public services such as water supply. In the place of origin as well, rural communities lose human capital. The local social and economic structure changes as working members migrate, leaving communities with children, women, and the elderly.

In research we recently completed for the South Asia Network of Economic Research Institutes (SANEI), taking off from Todaro’s model, we examine the factors that explain rural-urban migration in India’s context. We find that the lower the level of education of the migrant, the greater the importance of the push factors—such as lack of enough non-agricultural jobs, limiting size of agricultural holding, poor public services, lack of adequate income, and size of the household—in migration decisions. With increasing level of education of the migrant, we find pull factors such as better job opportunities, employment, marriage, existence of family networks, education or higher expected income become more important in migration. We find that unskilled migrants (irrespective of age at migration) are ‘pushed’ out of rural into urban areas, whereas skilled migrants are ‘pulled’/attracted towards urban areas. We also find skilled men are ‘pushed’ out of their places of origin compared with skilled women. Women, particularly the skilled, are primarily ‘pulled’ towards urban areas for job opportunities and higher expected income.

Thus, we expect that the decision to migrate often results in improved conditions for migrants (as the HDR argues), and surveys conducted around the world reveal that the vast majority of migrants are satisfied with their decision. Even in our study, we found that a majority of the migrants (more than 80%) did not want to return to their place of origin.

The evidence then is that migration has been taking place for various reasons, and it has beneficial impacts on the sending and receiving communities, as the HDR points out. In India’s context, however, given the absolute numbers of those migrating, it might still make sense to check rural-urban migration. The migration data of 2001 Census indicates that 20.5 million people enumerated in urban areas are migrants from rural areas who moved in within the last 10 years. Clearly, haphazard migration is not the way to urbanise. Quite in contrast to the HDR, which takes a people-oriented view to migration, programmes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS)—a flagship programme of the Indian government launched in 2006—are meant to prevent rural-urban migration among other objectives like rural poverty alleviation, creation of durable and productive assets, and environmental conservation. These programmes are place-oriented.

Under NREGS, rural households willing to do unskilled manual labour are constitutionally entitled to demand employment up to 100 days in a year from their respective Gram panchayats. It is expected that the government might spend 41% more to create rural jobs in 2009 under the NREGS, following a nationwide assessment of village administrations’ ability to undertake work. About Rs 48,000 crore will be made available to local bodies, which is expected to boost rural demand for consumer goods, cement and steel. Gram panchayats will spend the amount to create productive assets like roads, bridges and other facilities, and give 100 days of work for every rural household whose adult members volunteer to work. This is well-taken since rural areas need to be better connected to urban areas (via better roads and transportation systems, communication facilities) so that the rural population will find a way to sell their products and services to urban market without having to migrate, as was evident from our study.

There is some anecdotal (not systematic) evidence that NREGS has stemmed migration. Contractors have had to raise wages in cities to attract workers from the surrounding countryside. Even states like Bihar are sending fewer agricultural workers to work in Punjab and elsewhere. What NREGS has reduced most is seasonal distress migration of whole families, including women and children who can now stay back in their villages to avail the huge benefits of the children’s health, education and nutrition.

However, it is important to understand whether NREGS has created any hysteresis effect on the local labour markets; that is, increased the long-term employability of the rural workforce at whom it is targeted. They need new skills in the interests of the economy’s higher productivity.

So, policies need to train them in skills that are in short supply. If we would like to ensure that such large-scale employment policies create positive net benefits for employees, there is also a need to understand if NREGS wages have been above the workers’ reservation (or ‘asking’) wages.

The above implies that we need much more research regarding place-based and people-oriented policies than has been the case thus far.

Kala Seetharam Sridhar is senior research fellow, and coauthor Venugopala Reddy is research officer, Public Affairs Centre

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