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Migration, remote rural areas and chronic poverty in India

Working papers

Working papers

This paper explores the relationship between migration, remote rural areas (RRAs) and chronic poverty in India and is part of a series on spatial poverty traps. It argues through the analysis of three rounds (2001/02, 2003/04 and 2006/07) of qualitative and quantitative data from six villages in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh (AP) and Madhya Pradesh (MP) that migration is higher among chronically poor groups living in RRAs and that it plays an important role in managing risk and improving standards of living and household wellbeing. Although it is impossible to say that the poor have become non-poor as a result of migration, because of the difficulties of measuring poverty and multiple deprivations, the overall impact of migration in terms of being able to repay debts faster, being able to eat more regularly, being able to spend on education, health, agriculture and housing and being able to borrow large sums when needed has been positive and has raised the social and economic status of migrant households. However, these positive impacts come at a cost, because migration increases the risk of injury and exposure to disease and noxious substances, as well as the negative impacts of long separation from ones family.

Migration rates vary across caste groups and villages, with the highest incidence among chronically poor people living in remote villages. Overall mobility levels have grown: in AP the number of households with at least one person working outside the village increased from 41% in 2003/04 to 54% in 2006/07. Corresponding figures were 42% and 52% in MP. Comparing figures on circular migration, commuting and permanent migration shows that circular migration is the main form of mobility across village and castes in MP, whereas commuting has emerged as the main form of mobility in AP, with growing prosperity and small town development. Regression analysis for both states shows that belonging to a well-connected village in a prosperous region increases the likelihood of commuting and belonging to a remote village in a poor region decreases it. The probability of migrating increases with remoteness.

In remote villages, migration involved all but the poorest (disabled, old and sick) and the richest i.e. the broad category of chronically poor and some slightly better-off households, in this case the landless, marginal and small farming households belonging to the scheduled caste (SC), scheduled tribe (ST) and backward caste (BC) categories, who are mainly illiterate or have primary schooling. This broad base of migration has resulted in its benefits accruing to a large number of households, challenging the notion that migration benefits only a privileged few with the right contacts, assets and education.

Circular migration earnings account for a higher proportion of household income among the lower castes and tribes, namely the SC, BC and ST (in households with one person working outside the village). Migration is critical to managing risk and smoothing consumption for a majority of chronically poor households living in remote rural areas. The extra income from migration has allowed the family to eat regularly and better, pay for health care when needed and spend on social events. Migration has improved the creditworthiness of the families left behind in the village who can now obtain large loans easily.

However, focus group discussions (FGDs) and key informant interviews show that, for many chronically poor households, migration provides a way of ‘coping’ without graduating out of poverty altogether. Such migrants are usually in the lowest paid 3D jobs (dirty, dangerous and degrading), characterised by poor employment conditions, debt bondage and recruiting agents, limited personal freedom, restricted access to information and violation of human rights. Women and children from SC and ST households are often employed on the worst terms and are the most vulnerable to exploitation.

Others with better social networks, skills and education have done better and found more remunerative work, which has resulted in the accumulation of assets. Case histories show how migration fits into the complex strategies employed by poor households to improve their standard of living. However, the accounts given here show that it is difficult to define precisely at what level of accumulation this exit occurs because accumulation is of different kinds, ranging from not having to borrow any more, to being able to spend on marriages and health, eating better and investing in tubewells and irrigation.

Migration involves many costs and risks but this is more to do with the anti-migration policy environment rather than migration itself. Although migration is not an ideal or easy way of earning money and improving the living standard of the family, it is often the only option in places that have suffered from log jams of disadvantage such as remote rural villages in AP and MP.

Migration from RRAs needs to be recognised at the policy level as an important poverty interruptor for chronically poor people. Policy should aim to minimise the costs and risks of migration and maximise its returns. At present, migrants cannot access subsidised food through the Public Distribution System (PDS), which works on residence criteria; they cannot easily access state schools, cheap housing or government health care. There is an urgent need to reform policy in these critical areas. While investing in dryland areas should remain a priority for government, people’s own efforts to access the benefits of growth in other regions should not be discouraged.

Priya Deshingkar