Recent reports by international agencies, such as the Human Development Report of the United Nations (UN) and the World Development Report of the World Bank, have highlighted the role of migration in overcoming poverty and low human development. Essentially, benefits of migration accrue through agglomeration economies (the benefits from clustering economic activity), better access to opportunities, skill development and, above all, better quality of life for the migrants. Implicit in these are the assumptions that migration in most cases is accompanied by betterment of living standards and skills and, therefore, leads to better economic and human development outcomes for both the place of origin as well as of destination. More importantly, these assume that it is the poor who benefit more out of migration, and, therefore, it is a way of achieving upward mobility.
Unfortunately, India’s case defies some of the implicit assumptions made by these strategies as the pathways out of poverty. Testing these in the Indian case has been constrained by the lack of recent data on trends and patterns of migration. However, the National Sample Survey Organisation has now released a report of its survey on migration for July 2007 to June 2008, which allows us to look at the characteristics of migration and migrants in this decade.
First, contrary to popular perception, migration for households is still a small phenomenon in either rural or urban India. Only 1% of rural households and 3% of urban households have migrated in the last one year. Of these, almost three-fourths are intra-state and only one-fourth inter-state. But the data do confirm that at least 50% of rural migration and almost two-thirds of urban migration is for employment-related reasons. But though household migration rates are much lower compared with international standards, personal migration rates are significant, with 29% of all Indians counted as migrants. Expectedly, the urban migration rate at 35% is higher than the rural migration rate at 26%. But what does surprise is the fact that male migration rates for both rural and urban areas show a declining trend, indicating lower mobility over the years. The male migration rate in rural areas declined from at least 7% in the 1980s to less than 6% in 2007-08. In urban areas, it declined from around 27% in the 1980s to 26% by 2007-08.
Second, male migration is significantly lower than female migration. But that has very little to do with labour market characteristics and more with our marital system. A significant percentage of female migration is due to marriage (91% in rural areas and 61% in urban areas), where the women move out with their husbands. On the other hand, male migration is dominated by employment-related reasons. But because female migration is largely due to marriage, it is more stable compared with male migration where the rate of return migration or short-term migration is higher.
However, we need to ask who these migrants are and whether they have actually benefited from migration. The second question is difficult to answer from available secondary data, but a preliminary look at the characteristics of migrants suggests that it is not the poor and marginalized sections of rural society that are the most mobile. In fact, it is the other way round: The highest rate of migration is among those who are also endowed with better assets, skills and social status. The poor, the illiterate, the unskilled and the socially disadvantaged have the lowest mobility across all groups.
In both rural as well as urban areas, scheduled tribes and scheduled castes have lower migration rates compared with the general categories. By income levels, the gap is even wider. The male migration rate in rural areas for the bottom decile (the bottom 10% of the population ranked by consumption expenditure) was only 3% compared with 17% for the top decile (the richest 10%). For urban men, the migration rate for the bottom decile was 10% compared with 46% for the richest decile.
Similarly, a profile of migrants by education categories suggests that better educated men also have a higher rate of migration compared with the illiterate. Among rural men, while only 4% among the illiterate were migrants, the corresponding percentage for graduates and beyond was 14%. In the case of urban men, the migration rate for the illiterate was 17% compared with 38% for those with a graduation degree.
It is obvious, hence, that mobility is still governed by the kind of assets people own, whether it is physical or human capital, or social status. The poor not only lack these assets but that lack is also a hindrance to their mobility. For the poorest, migration involves costs such as access to networks, initial capital to survive job searches, transportation expenses, and so on. Clearly, migration is not a strategic choice that is available to them. But for the few who do make the effort of migrating in search of better opportunities, the lack of these very basic survival tools makes it all the more difficult. Therefore, it is not mobility that drives economic status, but economic and social status that drives mobility.
Himanshu is an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi.
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