Discussions with students on agrarian distress and migration inevitably turn into “how can we stop migration from rural to urban India”. In India, one in five rural households have an out-migrant for economic reasons. About half of these out-migrants send remittances home. In most cases, these remittances provide an essential life-line to households otherwise suffering from various forms of agrarian or broader rural distress. Despite this, the idea of wanting to stop migration has taken a firm root in our collective consciousness.
When we say that we want to stop migration, what we are really saying is that we want people to stay where they are – where they were born. And how narrowly would we define “where they were born”? Would we require they stay in their own district? Within a 100 km radius of where they were born? Within a 10 km radius?
And whose migration would we want to stop? Everybody? An IT professional? A construction worker? In my class, emphatically state that I am a migrant to Bangalore. If all migration was stopped, I wouldn’t be here teaching this class. Many students laugh. Some are silent.
The cognitive dissonance in the class is palpable. The students want to say “we meant stop migration of poor rural people not you” but they realize how elitist that sounds, so there is silence for some time while students process their own thoughts.
How can we subscribe to any argument which says that everyone should remain within 10 km of where they were born? Imagine how boring the world would be… Creating a dynamic society requires exchange of ideas, of people, of things. In “no migration” scenario, we would have a pretty boring and stagnant human society.
“We don’t want that”. Then what? You want to prevent only the rural poor from migrating but are okay with the well-off to migrate?
Some clarifications emerge: Migration for marriage is okay. Urban-to-urban migration is okay. Rural-to-rural is okay. But rural-to-urban is not.
Okay, let’s back up. Why do we want to stop migration, anyway? “Because our cities cannot support any more migrants”.
If that’s the case, instead of stopping migration, shouldn’t we improve the capability of our cities to provide for the migrants? Shouldn’t we develop/improve many more cities to absorb migrants, rather than using our inability as an excuse to stop others?
“But then, who would do farming? Who would produce our food?” Ah, so now we are saying that we want to stop migration so that we can compel others to grow our food.
But shouldn’t choice of occupation be voluntary? Just because someone’s parents are farmers, must they continue farming? Are you in the same occupation as your parents? “No”. So why demand that of farmers’ children? Shouldn’t they have a choice too?
“But then, who would do farming”? Firstly, all farmers may not leave farming. Even if they did, in principle, others who are currently in cities could move to rural areas to do farming. Why not?
“But they will not want to move to rural areas because farming doesn’t pay enough. It is risky. Also there are no good schools or hospitals so they won’t want to live in rural areas”. So, shouldn’t we provide essential services like schools and hospitals in rural areas? Shouldn’t we address systemic issues of agricultural incomes and risk mitigation, instead of forcing those who are currently dealing with the risk to continue to do so for generations to come?
So, let’s ask again: Why do people migrate, leaving aside marriage? “To find jobs. Better schools for their children. Better health care.” Why shouldn’t everyone be allowed to migrate for a better life? How can we tell them that you must stay in your own village/city regardless of how bad the situation is?
Moreover, aren’t we all descendants of the prehistoric people of Africa? Over millennia, they moved north and then east to form the hunter-gatherer peoples of ancient India. More waves of migrants came 3-4000 years ago from modern-day Iran, from eastern-central Europe followed by even more waves of people in recent history. So, aren’t we all migrants? The only difference is how many generations ago we arrived here.
[This post is an amalgamation of multiple discussions on migrations with students]