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Internal Migration in Developing Nations: Outcomes of Urbanisation

Internal Migration has often been deemed as a country’s natural path toward economic development. The Lewis Model illustrates that rural to urban migration is a natural consequence of the persisting wage-gap between urban and rural areas since urban areas yield higher economic returns and opportunities. Urbanisation, or an increasing proportion of populations living in urban areas, is a result of the rising GDPs of countries alongside a shift in their economies from agrarian to increasingly industrial. The model states that once substantial migration occurs, wages will equalise between rural and urban areas, thus mitigating the incentive to migrate. Simon Kuznets too included the inevitable phenomenon of rural-urban migration when he modelled the Kuznets Curve that essentially depicts a U-shaped relationship between inequality in a country and increasing per capita income. Hence, rural-urban migration often connotes economic gains and increases in standards of living, as has been observed empirically in some developing countries as well (Beegle, De Weerdt, Dercon 2011).

While increasing rates of internal migration is a prominent characteristic of developing countries, simultaneously expanding governmental capacities may not be. Urban areas of developing countries often lack the infrastructure capacity to handle large-scale migration. The rise of urban-poor communities has been rapid in recent years; around 36% of East/Southeast Asia’s urban population live in slum areas. These slums come with environmental and sanitary dangers of their own, along with the majority slums being non-listed and illegal. NSSO (2002) found that 49.4% of slums are non-listed in India, thus resulting in “invisible” populations- often missing from governmental records altogether.

Rapid rural-urban migration in developing countries has exerted pressure on local governments that are unable to cope with these changes. The 2013 World Population Policies report stated that 80% of governments had policies to lower rural to urban migration. This proportion is highest in low-middle income nations of Africa and Asia.Local governments often pursue anti-migration policies for political reasons such as regional conflicts and image-based development goals. This is because reducing rural-urban migration rates appears to be the solution to rising urban poverty. However, it is inefficient governance and not migration that can be held responsible for urban poverty. Tacoli et al. (2015) argue that anti-migration policies end up exacerbating the negative outcomes for migrants and the urban poor. Hence, a deeper analysis of migration and impact on migrants is required rather than efforts to reduce migration.

One of the root causes of urban deprivation, argued by Tacoli et al.(2015), is the inefficient use of land space in building housing facilities. The lack of investment in affordable/cheap housing leads to several problems for the poor, especially for new migrants. The lack of legal and adequate housing not only pushes the urban poor into environmentally hazardous locations, but also opens the residents of these ‘slums’ to tenure insecurity, inability to access credit facilities (no formal proof of residence), unstable employment, and exclusion from social security schemes. For example, India’s ration cards, which ensure access to subsidised foodstuffs and fuel, require proof of residence. It is difficult for migrants, especially the temporary ones to take advantage of such schemes as they may be registered in their home village or reside in slums, with no permanent address.

The urban poor, disproportionately consisting of migrants, also face substandard health outcomes. During the Covid-19 pandemic, they were one of the highly negatively impacted groups. For example, Mumbai’s subdivisions with higher slum populations saw much higher fatality rates than the non-slum subdivisions of the city, despite lower caseloads. The table below depicts the dark irony of the rural to urban migration phenomenon in developing countries. It is often the case that the urban poor often depict worse health outcomes than the rural populations.

Table I: Health Outcomes of Rural v/s Urban Poor Populations

% (India)



Children who did not receive full immunisation



Underweight children below the age of 3



Anaemia in women



Another frequently observed outcome of urbanisation is an increase in violence, crime, and political unrest. This is often linked with migration and presented as the ‘Urban Social Disorder’, that is, the increase in violent/non-violent demonstrations and rioting due to increased rural-urban integration. Higher ethnic integration also becomes a cause for political violence in urban areas, often resulting in extreme distaste for migrants.

When the Urban Social Disorder is investigated, it is found that absolute levels of poverty among migrants and political violence bear no significant causation. However, Østby (2016) analyses the relative measures of poverty using a ‘migrant relative deprivation’ indicator to understand the causation between political violence and migration. This indicator is a simple measure of asset scores and mean values of assets owned by rural-urban migrant and non-migrant households. The results of this yield positive and significant causation between relative deprivation and instances of violence, thus depicting a direct relationship between the two. This is in line with the hypothesis that rural-urban migration may lead to more unrest. However, it is important to acknowledge that this unrest is due to the relative deprivation faced by these migrants- or simply the prevailing levels of inequality in urban areas. This finding is also in line with Tacoli et al. 's (2015) claim that absolute poverty measures cannot express the diversity of urban deprivation and that better measures of urban poverty are required.

The first step towards addressing these poor outcomes and inequalities is the maintenance of adequate data on migrants. This can be used to gain a deeper inquiry into motivations for migration, the types of migration as well as for monitoring post-migration situations.

The NSSO, in India, publishes 'Employment and Unemployment and Migration Particulars' along with other data. When the data in the report was analysed by Sengupta (2013), it was observed that rural households whose member(s) migrate temporarily are, on average, poorer than permanent migrant households. However, rural households with larger landholdings also see higher temporary migration, mainly due to the seasonality of agriculture. This is an unexpected result since land farmers are assumed to be better off in most studies, thus indicating that agricultural households are also vulnerable and prone to inadequate income generation. Another unusual finding is that though rural households of temporary out-migrants are poorer, the situation of temporary and permanent migrants in urban areas is largely the same. This is because most of the jobs available in the urban informal sector are roughly of the same quality; low-skilled, low-paid and temporary. The analysis also shed light on poverty outcomes that were significantly worse for those tribal and scheduled caste households whose member(s) had migrated than other social groups. Out-migration aggravated poor living conditions for rural tribes and scheduled castes in the countryside.

Studies like these provide a base for the phenomenon of rural-urban migration and thus give direction to evidence-based solutions. Such inquiry is required on a more micro basis, upon which policy decisions can be made.

While this paper explores the urban incapacities that lead to poor outcomes for migrants, migration does not always imply worsened conditions or poverty. Studies have depicted increased incomes for migrants and lower rural poverty due to rural-urban migration. A study by Kundu and Sarangi (2007), using NSSO data, found that while risks of poverty are large, the deprivation faced by migrants in urban areas is lower than what they would face in medium-level or small towns. Thus, also establishing that larger urban cities depict lower rates of absolute poverty than smaller cities. It is important to reiterate here that, as depicted by this paper, the distinction between relative and absolute poverty is important when judging urban poverty.

The common recommendations and policy implications of the papers discussed include more coordinated, equal and better managed urbanisation. The stark income inequalities observed are simply a result of faulty resource distribution and flawed development goals.

Governments of developing nations need to realise that internal migration is a phenomenon they cannot control, or inhibit, hence it is a better approach to work on efficient governance. To sum up this argument- “Whereas poverty is virtually everywhere, inequality is primarily an urban phenomenon” (Hamdi, 2007)

(Written by Riya Chaturvedi and Edited by Prakhar Singhania)


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