One of the nicest things about living in a city is that when you leave, no one beyond your family makes a big fuss. Whether you’re a pimply youngster tired of festering in your boring town or a whiney grown-up, stuck for five years as the man in charge of wiping the boots of the man who strings someone’s shoelaces, if you choose to leave for greener pastures, no one’s going to make a sociological paper out of your move, and certainly no activist will get active about finding and trying to correct the root cause of your departure. (‘Sorry, fame and fortune and getting away from a sad social life aren’t good enough. Next please.’)
Not so if you’re a rural chap who wants to pack his knapsack and go to the big city. Or if you’re a village belle who wants to live under the bright city lights with her beau before the khap caps the both of you.
Before you check my swish bank account to see whether I’m on the rolls of some ogre-ish conglomerate intent on building an inter-galactic highway that will have to go through some poor tribal’s living room, it’s not my intention to suggest that villagers who don’t make it on TV debates should get out of their homes because they’re sitting on rich bauxite deposits that India desperately needs to ultimately pull everyone out of poverty. Not at all.
All I’m saying is, if you’re, say, a tribal who wants to move out of the horticulture business and settle down in the plains and perhaps want to pursue a career in ship-welding or set up a cellphone shop and then buy a plot near Bhubaneshwar, you should be able to do that without any guilt or qualms. Both the prime minister and the president of the ruling party reached their current positions by moving out of their respective villages. I don’t see why an ambitious tribal can’t break free from his or her herd and want to be something other than a ‘tribal’.
I know, I know. There’s a big difference being kicked out and moving out of your own choice. But coming to the real query that I’ve planted on my one-man group of ministering table: is there anything wrong with rural populations wanting — rather than being forced — to move to urban settings?
Well, for starters, it’s not that it’s not happening. Urban migration has been taking place in droves ever since villagers first heard about this place called the city where life may not be better but opportunities are. During the protests against the Tata Nano factory in Singur, I had gone to the cluster of villages some 40 minutes away from Kolkata. There I met a farming family who had refused to sell their small piece of land to the government. The mother told me that her two sons had left the village quite some time ago, adding a bit embarrassedly how one had moved to Kolkata to work on contract as a carpenter to the West Bengal government.
In his recent book, Arrival City: How the Latest Migration in History is Reshaping Our World, number-munching journalist Doug Saunders uses United Nations Population Division estimates that predict that the global ‘countryside’ population will stop growing around 2019 because of migration to cities. India’s rural population, currently at about 790 million scattered across some 550,000 villages, is slated to peak at 909 million in 2025 and shrink to 743 million 25 years later.
The Gospel of St Marx, from where I like to quote out of context more and more as I grow older, tells you the good news clearly: “The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.” Someone a little more contemporary, Hania Zlotnik, who tracks population figures for the UN, agrees. “What’s amazing to me, given all these problems of definition [of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’] is that when they do surveys of child mortality, adult mortality, education levels, fertility — the urban areas, no matter what, have much better indicators than the rural areas.” Saunders adds how urbanisation also improves conditions in rural areas too through remittances and how in rural-migrant enclaves — what he calls ‘arrival cities’ and what we call ‘B towns’ and ‘C towns’ — family sizes drop and better parameters of health and education kick in.
While we may be complaining of our cities turning into giant villages groaning under the weight of rural migrants the likes of Raj Thackeray immediately identify as ‘bhaiyyas’, my heart goes out to the village kid who’s planning to set out tomorrow morning to seek out a new life in the city that he can call his own. I’m too lazy for all this. But some of you ex-gawars should show him around town.