Moving out of poverty: is migration the remedy?

Moving out of poverty: is migration the remedy?
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First Published: Tue, Oct 27 2009. 10 37 PM IST

Updated: Tue, Oct 27 2009. 10 37 PM IST
The central theme of the recently released Human Development Report of the United Nations (UN) is migration as a way of overcoming poverty.
Such optimism about the role of migration in alleviating poverty has also been emphasized by this year’s World Development Report (WDR) of the World Bank. Both reports highlight the benefits migrants derive from agglomeration economies, better access to opportunities, skill development and, above all, a better quality of life.
By enhancing their earning capacity, migrants also benefit their place of origin by remitting money home. WDR goes to the extent of blaming recent interventions, such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in India that promises at least 100 days of employment to one member of every rural household, as impediments to migration and, therefore, to growth.
In reality, the optimism about the beneficial effects of migration appears far-fetched. Both these reports assume (a) that migration in most cases is accompanied by betterment of living standards including skills; (b) that migration in most cases is from a low economic development area to a high economic development area; and (c) that migration leads to better economic and human development outcomes to both the place of origin and the destination. It is difficult to agree with these, at least in the Indian context.
First, it is important to recognize that migration is a response to uneven economic development across regions, whether national or international. It is more an outcome of economic inequality rather than a strategy of economic development.
People do move on their own volition in search of better opportunities. But not always are such movements voluntary and they do not necessarily reflect a freedom of choice as both these reports would suggest. Leaving your own home, community, network and identity is not the best option for anyone. In most cases, it is a Hobson’s choice that one accepts for lack of opportunity and unemployment in the place of origin. Such a choice does not represent freedom but is in many cases the only option for survival.
But let’s look at the assumptions carefully. The first assumption is that most migration happens from developing or underdeveloped areas to developed areas. This is true neither in the international context nor in the Indian context.
Even though international migration accounts for just 10% of total migration, two-thirds of it is it made up of such movement is from developed countries to developed countries or developing countries to developing countries. This means that migration from developing countries to developed countries makes up only one-third of cross-border migrations.
Even in the Indian context, permanent inter-state migrants are only 4%. But the single largest contributor to internal migration is not rural to urban migration, as one would expect. In fact, at least 60% of migrants are rural to rural migrants and, within them, an overwhelming majority are intra-state and intra-district migrants moving to areas where the level of economic and human development may not vary much.
The second assumption is that migration always leads to better economic and human development. While this may be true of successful migrants with high skills, this is not always true for a large majority of migrants. Such an assumption results from a tendency to look at only successful migrants.
There are always some failed migrants, who quietly return to their original place, but will never be counted as migrants. This has to be seen in light of the fact that migration in itself is not a matter of choice for some of them. Migration involves costs such as access to networks, initial capital to survive the job search, transportation costs and so on. Very few of the poorest can afford these. The lowest migration rate is among the scheduled tribes, arguably among the poorest groups in India.
The third assumption is that migration leads to better economic development of the destination communities as well as those of the origin. This may be partly true, not necessarily because migrants always bring in better productivity and skills for economic development, but because they are the cheapest source of labour in the destination economy. Bereft of their identity and assets, they are also the most vulnerable working class. But a large inflow of migrants also results in problems of congestion and slums along with pressure on infrastructure. In most cases, it is the migrants who have the last right on public resources and infrastructure. No wonder that the rise of anti-immigration lobbies in developed countries as well as in India have gained ground.
But their struggle and survival in the destination country does bring income to their place of origin in the form of remittances for relatives left behind. But these links are less strong once the entire family moves out.
But what the strategy also fails to recognize is that such a process also leads to intensification of the regional imbalance, which was the reason for such migration. Since the benefits are always more for the destination communities, there is a constant widening of the gap between the destination community and the origin community.
Clearly, a large majority of migrants, particularly the distressed migrants, would not vote in favour of migration as the strategy for overcoming economic inequality. Such a strategy is a mere apology and a blatant but lame excuse for continuation of economic policies that foster regional inequalities.
While stories of racism, discrimination and lack of equal opportunities are certainly true of international migrants, these are also becoming important in the Indian context. Only those who failed to read the emergence of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena as a major force in Mumbai in the recent elections would vouch for migration as a strategy.
But the fact that both these reports have highlighted the role of migration in bringing better distribution of economic and human development is also an acknowledgement of the undying spirit of the migrants, who continue to seek better opportunities in a world that doesn’t always welcome the uprooted.
Himanshu is an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi. Farm Truths looks at issues in agriculture and runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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First Published: Tue, Oct 27 2009. 10 37 PM IST