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Pratik Kanjilal
October 09, 2009
They say that Bihar carries India on its back. Its migrant labourers make huge contributions to the economy but when we discuss migration, we invariably think of hotshot Kannadigas in Silicon Valley, not the Bihari porters and construction workers who fuel our growth. This is one of the many misconstructions about migration thrown up by the 2009 Human Development Report, which explores this hallmark of globalisation. For instance, it finds that the volume of internal migration in China and India rivals the volume of all international flows. And it reminds us that many countries have fewer people of foreign origin today than they did during the last wave of globalisation, during the colonial era.

A purely economic analysis cannot explain migration. People also move to acquire prestige (“My son is in the US.”) or to escape traditional hierarchies like caste (“My name is Bharati. Just Bharati.”). And migrants face hostility that has no basis in economic reality: they actually contribute to the growth of host economies and do not significantly burden their social budgets. The report also dismisses the perception that migration typically proceeds from less developed to more developed economies. Migration flows within these categories are also very large, despite the huge prosperity gap between them. One hopes that this report is taken note of by First World negotiators at the World Trade Organisation, who are obsessed with enabling the movement of capital across borders while disabling the movement of labour.

The report also questions one of India’s leading myths — that of remittance-led development. In a number of underdeveloped countries, the volume of remittances is greater than that of official aid. But it might also be observed that within India, Bihar has lived on remittances far longer than Kerala. Bihar remains a basket case, while Kerala’s held up as an exemplar of development. Let’s celebrate our NRIs by all means, while remembering that remittances create wealth, but not necessarily development.

And yet, there is something missing here — a satisfactory analysis of the causes of migration. People move out of choice or compulsion, but these are only two clearly defined endpoints on a long continuum of mixed motivations. Free choice is intrinsically good and compulsion is intrinsically vile, but how does one evaluate real-world choices made in the grey area in between? Unless you’re Jean-Paul Sartre’s astral body, you probably recognise that what passes for free choice in everyday life is often conditioned by necessity.

In different degrees, the Narmada oustee, the Bihari labourer and the white-collar worker who relocates for preferment are under some compulsion to move. The idea of compulsion doesn’t sit easily in the generally happy discourse of globalisation, but we must accommodate it.

The report celebrates migration as a great liberator, with a nod to the pathbreaking Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who identifies freedom of movement as one of the capabilities which reflect the quantum of individual liberty. But in countries like India, where people routinely move out of necessity rather than choice, there are other issues too. People generally better their lot by moving, but should they be compelled to do so? Wouldn’t it be best for society at large if they could choose to stay home, and not have to carry India on their backs?

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine