Indians’ Flight From Agriculture



Is distress migration on a massive scale responsible for one of the most striking findings of Census 2011: that for the first time since 1921, urban India added more numbers to its population in a decade than rural India did?

At 833.1 million, India’s rural population today is 90.6 million higher than it was a decade ago. But the urban population is 91 million higher than it was in 2001. The Census cites three possible causes for the urban population to have risen by more than the rural: ‘migration,’ ‘natural increase’ and ‘inclusion of new areas as ‘urban.’ But all three factors applied in earlier decades too, when additions to the rural population far outstripped those to the urban. Why then is the last decade so different? While valid in themselves, these factors cannot fully explain this huge urban increase. More so in a census in which the decadal growth percentage of population records “the sharpest decline since India’s independence.”

Take the 2001 Census. It showed us that the rural population had grown by more than 113 million since 1991, the urban by over 68 million. So rural India had added 45 million people more than urban. In 2011, urban India’s increase was greater than that of rural India’s by nearly half a million, a huge change. The last time the urban increase surpassed the rural was 90 years ago, in 1921. Then, the rural total actually fell by close to three million compared to the 1911 Census.

However, the 1921 Census was unique. The 1918 influenza epidemic that killed 50-100 million people worldwide, ravaged India. Studies of the 1921 Census data say it records between 11 and 22 million deaths more than would have been normal for that decade. There was also the smaller impact of World War I in which tens of thousands of Indian soldiers died as cannon fodder for Imperial Britain in Europe and elsewhere.

If influenza left its fatal imprint on the 1921 enumeration, the story behind the numbers of the 2011 Census speaks of another tragedy: the collapse of millions of livelihoods in agriculture and its related occupations. And the ongoing, despair-driven exodus that this sparked in the countryside.

The 2011 Census captures only the tip of an iceberg in terms of rural upheaval. The last time urban India added more numbers to its population than rural India was 90 years ago and that followed giant calamities in public health and war. Yet, without such conditions, urban India added 91 million to its 2001 total, against rural India’s 90.6 million. Nor can this reversal be fully captured by the factors Census 2011 cites as driving the urban increase. Take ‘migration.’ In public debate, ‘urban’ is often equated with big metros. This conjures images of massive waves of people from villages heading straight for the big metros. And this flow, you will be assured, is falling. (Vital data on this will emerge only next year and might surprise us).

The Census data, however, do not convey the harshness and pain of the millions trapped in “footloose” migrations. That is, the desperate search for work driving poorer people in many directions without a clear final destination. Like Oriya migrants who work some weeks in Raipur. Then a couple of months at brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh. Then at construction sites in diverse towns in Maharashtra. Their hunger, and contractors, drive them to any place where there is work, however brief. There are rural migrations to both metros and non-metro urban areas. To towns and smaller cities. There are also rural to rural migrations. There are urban-urban migrations. And even, in smaller measure, urban to rural migrations.

Flight from agriculture

Neither the Census nor the National Sample Survey is geared to capture the complexity of India’s migrations. A migrant in the Census is someone counted at a place other than his or her last place of residence. This records a single move — not multiple migrations. So it sees only the tip of the mobility iceberg, missing footloose migrations altogether. What we do know from Census 2001 is of the flight from agriculture. Between 1991 and 2001, over seven million people for whom cultivation was the main livelihood, quit farming. That is a mind-boggling figure. It suggests that, on average, close to 2,000 people a day abandon farming in the country. Where do they go? Nothing in employment data suggests they get absorbed in decent work in bustling cities.

What about ‘natural increase’ (the difference between the numbers of births and deaths in a population)? That does not explain the switch around in rural-urban increases either. Indeed, the rate of natural increase has declined in both rural and urban areas. Still the urban population and towns get bigger and bigger.

As Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India Dr. C. Chandramouli puts it: “Fertility has declined across the country. There has been a fall in numbers even in the 0-6 age group, as a proportion of the total population. In fact, in absolute numbers too, this group (now 158.8 million) has declined by five million, compared to the previous Census. This would suggest migrations as a significant factor in urban growth. But what kind of migrations we can only ascertain or comment on when their patterns emerge more clearly. The Census in itself is not structured to capture short-term or footloose migrations.”

We also get an extraordinary picture when viewing what demographers call the ‘Urban-rural growth differential.’ The URGD is simply the difference between the rates at which rural and urban populations expanded in each decade. It is also a rough and ready index of the extent of rural-urban migrations. The URGD in the 2011 Census is 19.8, the highest in 30 years.

‘Natural increase’ does not then account for the growth in urban numbers. Certainly not for the 30 per cent rise in urban population in the States. Thousands of towns today have far larger populations than they used to have — but not due to natural increase. The reason is migrations on a massive scale. Rural folk still outnumber urban people by more than two to one. In the 2001 Census, rural family size (5.4) remained bigger than urban family size (5.1). Also striking, states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar show massive falls in growth rates in 2011. In the 2001 Census, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were “the two States with largest number of net migrants migrating out of the state.”

The other factor cited by the current Census for the turnaround is interesting. “Inclusion of new areas under ‘Urban’.” The number of ‘statutory towns’ has gone up by a mere 241 since 2001. Compare that with the preceding decade when they rose by 813, or more than three times that number. (A ‘Statutory town’ is an urban unit with a municipality, corporation, cantonment board or notified town area committee.)

There is, however, a boom in the number of ‘Census towns.’ In the decade 1991-2001, Census towns actually declined from 1,702 to 1,361. In the 2011 Census, they nearly tripled to 3894. That is stunning. How did this happen? And what is a ‘Census town?’ This is a village or other unit declared as a town when: its population crosses 5,000; when the number of male workers in agriculture falls to less than 25 per cent of the total; and where population density is at least 400 per square kilometer.

At the very least, this means the male workforce in agriculture has collapsed in thousands of villages, falling to less than a quarter of all workers. So the farm exodus continues. What might the 2011 data on cultivators show us when released late next year? It could show us that the numbers quitting cultivation since 2001 might equal or exceed the over seven million dropouts of the previous decade.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories From India’s Poorest Districts. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.




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