This article was written by Nishat Anjum, a Masters student in Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. She discusses the migration to urban centers in India, and how the current system has come under pressure as a consequence of the COVID-19 crisis. 

This piece is part of our Student Contributions series. Find out how to contribute here. Student Contributions are written in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the opinion of The Futures Project.

During the pandemic, developing countries like India have seen a large-scale phenomenon of reverse migration arising mainly because of the unsustainability of urban structures. A lack of a rights-based framework in accessing basic amenities in urban areas have together moved these workers to destitution and their immediate response is to migrate back home. Reimagining urban policies and realizing the SDGs can not only ensure a sustainable absorption of the rural workforce into urban areas but also contribute towards enhancing the quality of lives in both rural and urban sectors. If the future in India holds more migration to urban centres, then we should evaluate the sustainability of the current model.

Many of the decolonised countries have depended on migration models that encouraged industrialization in the metropolis by rapidly absorbing labour from the ‘unproductive’ agricultural sector. The higher wages in the metropolis caused workers to migrate until it was not profitable for them to migrate anymore. India followed a similar migration trajectory in which the surplus labour would be productively employed in the growing urban sector with urbanisation completing the process of industrialization.

However, the unsustainability of the migration model has been exposed during the COVID-19 crisis as migrants have returned to the rural sector, which is already in shambles. It points to the fact that structural transformation/urbanisation of the surplus labour in rural areas is not complete. Migration in India is predominantly distress migration and rarely ever takes place for lucrative job opportunities or because of a higher standard of living in urban areas. Most of the migration from the low-income states of Chhattisgarh, Bihar, and Jharkhand takes place due to the unviability of the agricultural sector. Due to the lack of investments, irrigation, land management practices, etc., income from this sector remains low. Impoverishment of the villages triggers migration to urban areas whereas crises in urban sectors cause reverse migration to rural areas.

Major reasons for recurrent urban crises are two-fold: firstly, the tension between fiscal and human rights, and secondly, the structural nature of urbanisation which produced ineffective governance structures and insufficient social security for the urban populations. The two are interlinked and are in no way mutually exclusive.

Unrestrained capitalism and increasing informalisation of the workforce have created conditions where ‘a huge reserve army (of labour) waiting to be incorporated in the labour process becomes stigmatized as a redundant mass, an excessive burden that cannot be included, now or in future, in economy or in society’. The low bargaining power of labour under these conditions has led to poor social protection and degrading working conditions of labour in most developing countries.

As has been argued by many economists, one cannot talk about the economy without talking about human rights. They argue for human rights principles to be the driving force behind implementation and designing of fiscal policy and not the other way around. The neoclassical economists defend fiscal policies for human rights for efficiency reasons (for example, the right to healthcare for a healthy workforce subject to fiscal constraints on budgetary expenditure). However, in the presence of limited economic resources for public allocation, human rights should be a policy imperative for the organization of the economic system itself. It then becomes contingent on the State, as a guarantor of constitutional rights to provide for their rightful exercise. Budgetary allocation should be focused around meeting the adequate rights to life for all, which can prevent distress migration to urban areas and make rural areas self-sufficient in the provision of basic livelihood facilities. This will not only prevent the overcrowding of urban areas but also lead to viable wages in the rural sector as the standard of living and general purchasing power rises.

Due to the budget making exercise by democratically elected governments, there is constant pressure to curtail expenditure (inducing cut in welfare expenditure). The problem of expenditure rationing brings us to the second factor in triggering reverse migration: the sedentary bias in policymaking that makes it compulsory for every city dweller to prove his domicile status to be eligible for availing a range of public services. This emerges from the problem of allocation of scarce budgetary resources, making only the domicile dwellers the rightful beneficiaries for urban facilities, excluding the ‘external’ working population altogether. This manifests in lack of safe shelter spaces leading to an urban sprawl, low sanitation levels, lack of access to public distribution systems etc. The bias around absorption of migrants into the urban process has been evident from Zachariah’s survey of Bombay migrant settlers (1966). This survey found that rural migrants are likely to have greater representation in low skill, low education sectors in industries and tend towards marginalization. Moreover, there is a greater tendency among migrants to be driven towards marginal sectors than non-migrants of similar educational standing. Contractualization ensures that the survival of migrants within city spaces is dependent on contractors who involve them in petty jobs at exploitative rates.

Moreover, federal Governance structures in the Indian context remain flawed. The crisis posits an opportunity where states develop their own economic hotspots and harness their own comparative advantage to become dynamic centres of growth with inclusion. The states, however, have been given too many responsibilities and have too little revenue-generating capacity. Delayed payments of Goods and Services Tax (GST) dues to the states is a further drag on their finances. A highly centralised system will have its own imbalances with resource paucity being a major constraint. Decentralisation of economic power can help in building self-sustaining models of economic development. Urban investments may then become an important complement to rural investments in poverty reduction strategies.

The ILO has predicted that with subsequent lockdown and crisis, nearly 400 million workers will fall deep into poverty with most of them returning to rural areas. Rights are as important as, if not more important than, regeneration of economic activities. A post-COVID 19 India should focus on guaranteeing rights and improving the conditions of labour if it wants to avoid going through this disastrous process of reverse migration compounding any crisis again by opting for sustainable and resilient migration patterns. An established system of social welfare goes a long way in minimising the effects of the crisis. Much can be learnt from the Kerala model of extensive public delivered healthcare system within the domain of healthcare expansion.