India's Villagers Flock to the Cities

The quintessential Indian village, eulogized in Bollywood movies and Indian folklore as a Utopian vision, is fast turning into a liability for millions of the country's rural poor, who are migrating to the cities in an effort to create a better life.

In 1951, India's urban population was 62 million, 17 percent of the country's total. By 2011, it had shot up to 377 million, or 31 percent. 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, villagers are fleeing to the cities, with some Indian villages putting up all their land for sale for mass migration.

While India faces the situation with a kind of dread, the scenario is starkly different from that in China, where government officials have made urbanization a national goal, and where people living in its towns and cities now outnumber those in the countryside, making it a predominantly urban nation for the first time in Chinese history.

Urban dwellers now account for 51.27 percent of China's entire population of nearly 1.35 billion – a total of 690.8 million people according to the National Bureau of Statistics. McKinsey, the consulting firm, forecasts that 1 billion of China's citizens will be in cities by 2030 – its urban population growing by more than that of the entire US in just two decades.

Li Keqiang, China's new premier, says the country intends reinvigorate its economy by building the towns and cities needed to accommodate the newly urbanizing citizens.

"Urbanization is not about simply increasing the number of urban residents or expanding the area of cities," Li wrote in a seminal statement of his aims in People's Daily last November. "More importantly, it is about a complete change from rural to urban style in terms of industry structure, employment, living environment and social security."

By contrast India is actively working on programs to keep its poor in the countryside.

Economists say urbanization trend underscores the disenchantment of a sizeable demographic with the lack of opportunity in villages and with disintegrating rural economies. This disintegration is transpiring because of the economic shift from a subsistence economy model to a cash-based one.

James Cassidy Sterling in his essay "From Village to City: the Migration of India's Farmers" theorizes that as water and other agricultural inputs have become "cash commodities" in the new rural economy, it is adding to the villagers' woes. The situation is so bad that occasionally farmers even have to sell their cattle as there's not enough water or wells to keep cows and buffaloes.

Sterling's case is that as more goods and services produced outside the village are introduced—medicine, petroleum products, fertilizer, pesticides, tractors, motorbikes, plastics, higher education, etc.—the need for cash to pay for these imports increases. Consequently, small farmers, and in some cases even entire small villages, are being driven out.

In the meantime, the overload of an increasing number of people is distressing the urban infrastructure, where unemployment and underemployment are rampant along with a glaring shortfall of basic amenities like water supply, sanitation, sewage, electricity and housing. Mass migration is also fueling pollution, social unrest, demands for political reform and crime.

Large slum populations are also developing. According to data released by the registrar general and census commissioner's office in March, 17.4 percent of urban Indian households currently live in slums. They are dilapidated, cramped, poorly ventilated, unclean, or "any combination of these factors which are detrimental to the safety and health."

Vikram Garg, in his collection of essays on emerging India, writes that high-density Indian cities should not be a surprise. It is after all the second most populated country in the world. Indeed, after Dhaka, the most dense seven cities in the world are in India!

"Countries like India," writes Garg, "with large urban-rural disparities, tend to have large migrant populations. The cities are an economic magnet attracting rural migrants. A city like Mumbai, which was never historically significant, became a major economic center due to its location, and after the original boom based on trade and manufacturing, now has a large service economy that keeps attracting migrants."

Similarly, for every tech sector job created in Bengaluru, three or four migrants are attracted to the corresponding service industry. In India, there are relatively few magnet cities and a huge number of potential migrants in villages, leading to the sudden urban population explosion.

"With their galloping populations, Indian cities are becoming urban nightmares," said Sushant Bishnoi, a civil engineer and demographer. "To salvage the situation, administrators need to think out of the box about how to generate good livelihoods and provide basic facilities in rural India."

To be fair, the Indian government and state governments have taken steps to develop rural areas through a wide range of rural development programs. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), a US$73-billion rural employment guarantee scheme launched in 2009, for instance, 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 works-related unskilled manual labor at the statutory minimum wage of Rs120 (US$2.20) per day in 2009 prices. If they fail to do so, the government has to pay the salary at their homes.

However, the program has come under fire for being no more effective than the government's other much-touted poverty reduction programs. MGNREGA is also beset with controversy about corrupt officials, deficit financing as the source of funds and poor quality of infrastructure built under the program.

But why is the situation so dire in rural areas? India is largely an agrarian society but youngsters are not able to get enough land to cultivate. Unlike in European countries, said K. L. Narayan, a demographer, where only the eldest inherits property, here all children get a share in their father's property. This leads to fragmentation of landholdings with many landholdings becoming so tiny that they are untenable and uneconomical.

Interestingly, in India migration is happening not just to urban areas but also from less agriculturally developed states like Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan to the verdant fields of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

However, there's light at the end of the tunnel. According to economist Stephen Green, urbanization goes hand in hand with economic growth. This is because when rural residents relocate to urban areas, they immerse themselves in more economically productive work, learn more skills, earn more money and buy more goods. They also drive demand for urban infrastructure and housing, which in turn bolsters economic growth.

However, striking a balance between GDP growth, urbanization, farmers' rights and food security is a tightrope act that administrators are struggling with across the globe. No wonder economists and demographers label urbanization as a `double-edged sword'.