Author : Ramanath Jha

Published on Mar 22, 2024

India’s cities have to be more liveable and have better infrastructure and economic opportunities

The role of migration in India’s urban growth story

Source Image: Courtesy Vajiram & Ravi Institute

Migration is the movement of people from their usual place of residence to another. It may be within a country or across an international border, temporarily or permanently. In 2020, IOM (International Organization for Migration) estimated that there are 281 million international migrants in the world, or about 3.6 percent of the global population. This is 128 million more than in 1990, and three times the estimated number in 1970. Besides international migration, individuals and families move from one area of a country to another. 

Migration could be voluntary or forced. Voluntary migration is usually for better opportunities, mostly economic opportunities. India witnesses the movement of students for education or of young men and women for jobs. Women and parents may move to join their husbands and children working in a faraway town. Others want to move to cities for a better quality of life. On the other hand, forced migration or distressed migration happens when people migrate to overcome some difficulties in life.

In such cases, people move to safer places due to war or political upheaval, famine, collapse of economy or other forms of strife.

This article analyses the impact of migration on urban development. Urban demographic growth happens on account of four factors. The first is internal reproduction or the natural multiplication of the existing population living in that city. The second is the geographical expansion of a city’s boundaries by merging with peri-urban or rural areas. The third factor is reclassification, where rural settlements are classified as urban by administratively converting a village into a municipality. This is done mainly because of urban characteristics—larger demography, greater density, a higher percentage of non-agricultural economic activity, and an increase in internal revenue capability in an erstwhile village.

The fourth method is migration, which occurs when people move from a country’s villages to a city or a town, or from one town to another town/city and from one country into towns/cities of another country. However, there could also be people who leave a specific town and go to other places.

Hence the growth through migration is calculated by using ‘net migration’. This means the total number of people coming in from outside minus the number of people going out from inside.

Migration makes multiple positive contributions to cities and urban development. Firstly, it adds to the process of urbanisation and thereby to the economic development of the cities and the country. An indirect consequence for the rural areas is that outmigration from villages lightens the employment load on agriculture, estimated to be 42.86 percent in India in 2022. It thus aids higher agricultural productivity. Cities that are starved for labour find migrants filling up that requirement. For instance, in the last decade, migrants made up 47 percent of the increase in the workforce in the United States (US) and 70 percent in Europe, learning new skills and trades and handsomely contributing to the process of economic diversification and growth.

In countries with ageing populations, migrants boost the working age numbers. They also help redress labour market imbalances in a city. The professional migrants bring in knowledge and special skills that the city lacked and add to the quality and variety of production in cities. They are also a source of innovation, increasingly becoming the mainstay of modern economies. A recent study on innovation in the US found that highly skilled immigrants drove American innovation. As a mass of people, migrants help the city economy not merely as producers but also as consumers. At the same time, they provide human resources to recipient states and support the donor states through remittances. Socially, they contribute to the diversity of people and cultures in their place of new residence, making cities socially and culturally more vibrant. 

In India, international migration into its cities has been minimal and cannot be considered a meaningful factor towards urban growth. The data provided by IMO for India shows a larger outflow than inflow. Since 1950 up to 2020, international migration out of India minus international migration into India has been (-)7.6 million. In contrast, the US received (+) 53.6 million migrants between 1950 and 2020.

Regarding internal factors, over the last three decades in India, natural increase has been the largest cause of urbanisation—a little more than half. Reclassification, mergers and other causes have totalled about a fourth of all additions. Migration has accounted for about a fifth of the urban addition. As per the National Statistical Office of the Government of India, the search for employment and marriage have been the two leading causes of migration.

Contrary to popular perception, India’s urbanisation over several decades has not shown the speed that the country would like. Since the 1950s, there has been no decade in which the decennial census has recorded urban growth higher than 3.88 percent (Census 2011). On the other hand, it recorded a decadal growth as low as 0.68 percent between 1951 and 1961. This trend suggests that natural increase or reclassification will not accelerate urbanisation. Since fertility rates in India are declining, it would be fair to expect that urbanisation through natural increase may show a downward trend. In any event, it is unlikely to make a significant breach with its current levels. Urbanisation through net reclassification and mergers of rural areas into towns and cities is not capable of generating a great pace for urbanisation, as is evidenced by past data.

On the other hand, migration has the potential to speed up urbanisation and, if appropriately incentivised, has the strength to emerge as the most vital component of urban growth. However, even this has not been happening at the pace the country would want.

More importantly, the quality of contribution by migrants can be further enhanced partly by international migrants into key knowledge sectors and industries and partly through a reversal of migration of professional Indians who leave for careers abroad. For example, the Indian diaspora has been among the most productive groups in the US, outperforming others in terms of economic productivity and playing a stellar role in the sectors of medicine, space, information technology, education and politics, to name only a few. 

The ability to attract talent from abroad, partially reverse quality outmigration from India, and hasten the pace of skilled/unskilled labour coming into Indian cities from rural areas would require two critical areas to be attended to with urgency. To draw quality migration in, our cities must deliver a better quality of life and become highly liveable cities. This requires massive building of infrastructure—physical, social and recreational. For speedier rural-urban migration, employment opportunities in many more Indian cities have to be created by efforts at dispersed economic investment and decentralised urbanisation. India’s sluggish urban development needs to be re-invigorated and accelerated.

Ramanath Jha  is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

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Ramanath Jha

Ramanath Jha

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...

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