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  • Raghav Sand

Reverse Migration: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Our cities’ infrastructure has been pushed to its limit and the quality of life is deteriorating on most parameters. The cost of living has been rising constantly and its gap with the average income is widening at runaway pace. Limited opportunities in villages and backward districts forced people migrate to cities in search of livelihood. Moving away from countryside is not a voluntary choice, but it is a forced action of last resort. Population in urban centers swelled in the last two decades and a worrying trend indicates that this trend will continue for the foreseeable future. The Covid-19 pandemic should be taken as an opportunity to check the disproportionate distribution of urban and rural spread of inhabitants.

Why do People Move to a City?

The one-word answer to this question is – livelihood. Stagnation in farm income and lack of employment opportunities compel the residents from countryside to look for greener pastures in metro cities, state capitals and nearby towns. In some of the agriculture reliant states, adoption of mechanised farming has caused irreversible loss to employment opportunities in the farm sector. Education in the hinterland has improved drastically over the last three decades, but its standard is not at par with that in the cities.

Every year young men and women enrol in coaching classes for competitive exams and skill development courses. Almost all the credible institutes are located in cities, and once an individual comes to the city, they seldom return home. These individuals stay back for various reasons, among which the promise of a better life is paramount. The disappointment of not accomplishing defined objective also holds them back from returning and the grinding life seems better than the feeling of having to return empty handed.

There is no set pattern to migration and in some instances, people have to relocate as far as a couple of thousand kilometres away from their domicile. A one-way trip to home, taken at least once a year, can take up to thirty-six hours. It is not a fun activity to spend almost four days for a round trip.

The Role of Government and Private Enterprise

Central, state and local governments can at best play the role of facilitator in the reverse migration mission. Private entrepreneurship should figure out a way to make and sell the products in rural areas. Cities have a readymade ecosystem for commerce. The worker in a factory based in the city may not even have a permanent resident and is by default a consumer for numerous products and services. This same individual and his extended family can be put to work anywhere in the country and in the normal course of life, he/she will consume goods and services.

Not every work is based on technology and marketing; all of this can be undertaken anywhere through remote working and cloud operations. Manufacturing units and its ancillaries can easily be set up in non-urban locales.

The Case for Decentralization

A lot of money has been spent on infrastructure development in the last two decades in the form of roads, bridges and dedicated rail freight corridors. Governments at the central and state level may have differed on certain policy issues, but thankfully the impetus on infrastructure has been persistent. A hub and spoke approach can prove fruitful for lifting backward areas in to the main stream. It is a time-consuming endeavour, but the long-term impact on economy, nature and the promise of equitable development are worth the effort.

Availability of round the clock electricity, fast internet and a capable human resource make the case more compelling for thinking outside the urban box. Public-private partnership shall work towards building affordable health and education facilities. All these incremental changes will enhance the attractiveness of reverse migration. Depleting ground water levels and hazardous air quality are adding to the woes of urban life. Nothing has been able to reduce the appeal of city life and unless definite policy measures are put in place individual actions will feel like idealistic efforts.

Build It and They Will Come

Field of Dreams – a 1989 Hollywood film – had an underlying theme: if you build it, he will come. The lead character in the movie who builds a baseball pitch on his land is taunted for lunacy, but with the support of his wife he follows the inner voice with conviction. This concept may not be a one-stop shop, but it has been successful in greenfield project development. Take the example of beach resorts, water parks, amusement parks, airports, ports, dairy and poultry farming etc. Once upon time these projects seemed preposterous, but careful planning and diligent execution and marketing proved the detractors wrong. In a similar fashion, government should take a leap of faith and earmark places for planned development. If the idea of reverse migration becomes a reality, then the sustainability and quality of life will get a much-needed boost.

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