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Decadal journeys: Debt and despair spur urban growth

By P. Sainath

, by InfoChange News & Features

Census 2011, which reports a higher growth of urban population than rural as millions give up farming, does not record footloose migration, which drives desperate people to search for work in multiple directions with no clear destination. This is a giant drama that we have not even begun to measure, says P Sainath.

The re-classification of villages and towns, and the changes this brings to the nation’s rural-urban profile, happens every decade. Yet only Census 2011 shows us a huge turnaround, with urban India adding more people (91 million) than rural India (90.6 million) for the first time in 90 years. Clearly, something huge has happened in the last 10 years that drives those numbers. And that is: huge, uncharted migrations of people seeking work as farming collapses. We may be looking at — and missing — this cruel drama in the countryside. A drama of millions leaving their homes in search of jobs that are not there. Of villages swiftly losing able-bodied adults, leaving behind the old, hungry and vulnerable. Of families that break up as their members head in diverse directions.

Neither the Census nor the National Sample Survey capture the fastest-growing human movement of all — footloose migration (ie, the desperate search for work that drives poorer people in multiple directions with no clear final destination). They are not geared to record short-term, step-by-step movements. For instance, many of the 2 million Oriyas outside their state in any year fall into this group. Take those from the Bolangir or Nuapada districts. 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).

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