“On average, close to 2,000 people a day abandon farming in the country.”

Says P. Sainath in a recent article based on his analysis of recently released 2001 Census numbers.

This article reminded me of a very simplistic calculation I had done during a debate with a NGO friend who was insisting that migration is bad.

Let’s imagine a village with 100 families. Let’s assume that the village is doing “well” economically and that all 100 families earn enough for their needs from their farming activities.

Since rural Indian families have an average of 3.4 children, assuming no male-child selection in an ideal world, they will still have 1.7 boys on average.  So the next generation will have 1.7*100 = 170 families to be supported.  However the village farmland is large enough to only support 100 families, so the remaining 70 must find employment in non-agri professions either within the village or outside it.

So unless we figure out a way to either create manufacturing or service sector jobs in the village, these families must migrate elsewhere for employment or accept a reduced standard of living (by dividing the farm-land into smaller plots for each son).

The above simplistic calculation leads us to the quite believable conclusion that we can’t just label migration as “bad” without doing something to increase the ability of the rural economy to create jobs and income for every new generation.

So what options do these migrants have?

“For instance, take those from the Bolangir or Nuapada districts [in Orissa]. Typically, they might spend a month or two in Raipur pulling rickshaws. Then work two or three months at brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh. Then serve as construction labourers shuttling around Mumbai or Thane for a few weeks each (where they are often used on the higher floors in risky scaffolding; local labour would demand more for that).”

What happens to these migrants?

“The migrations of these past 15-20 years are overwhelmingly distress-driven, footloose and often disruptive of the lifestyle, roots and family bonds of the migrant,” says economist Dr K Nagaraj, professor at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. “Very few of them gain in terms of acquiring skill and capital unlike those from the middle and upper classes. When the latter migrate, they usually make big gains in skill, capital and mobility in the jobs ladder.”

“And yet, this great outflow of human beings from their homes in the villages is not spontaneous. A massive chain has sprung up of middlemen and labour contractors who gain heavily from this exodus and thus seek to organise it to their benefit. They supply labour at cheap rates to a variety of patrons — from town and city contractors and builders to corporations, including multinational companies. This not only helps depress the local wage, but also offers the patrons a pool of cheap labour that is desperate, unorganised, and thus relatively docile.”

With the prevalence of such exploitation, it is inevitable that some NGOs see migration as “bad”. But unless the rural economy is able to support natural population increase, the migration will only strengthen in numbers which is what the 2011 Census is most likely to show.

  • Richa Govil

(Richa shares her thoughts on rural businesses at ‘Stirring the Pyramid’)