Literature is full of stories where the factory worker during the first flush of industrial revolution yearned for his homeland -the idyllic rural surrounding and the proximity to his social milieu. The sad end of the stories would be that he either died working and living in the ghoulish conditions of urban slums or went home a tad too late to find everything had changed for the worse.
Urbanisation in every society which is transitioning from agrarian to industrial is viewed with trepidation at best. People are loathe to change as it brings with it uncertainty. Very few are enthused by the promise it holds. This is the reason that the indentured labourers that went from India to Surinam, Guyana, Mauritius and Fiji sang songs remembering their lives back home. Anyone who can understand the language of the songs knows they are full of pathos. They articulate the deep angst of people uprooted from their homes to earn their living.
These examples are of forced migration in the 19th century but 20th century as well as the 21st has witnessed large scale intra country migrations in search of livelihood or plain survival. This has now been classified as distress migration.
Most of the urbanisation in the last one century has been a result of distress migration from rural heartland. The predictable path has been large scale movement of male population in the city followed by their families if they find a toehold. This unplanned influx leads to severely stressed urban infrastructure and gives rise to pockets of slums and sub-human conditions.
For every person who brings his family along with him to the city there are many others who are not so fortunate. They have to live alone. Loneliness and relative anonymity of the city liberates them from the tight social bindings of the rural community and helps them in earning a living which was hitherto impossible in rural areas. However, this anonymity also makes them vulnerable to unwarranted influences. Usually these youngsters become easy prey for the anti-social and criminals.
Asia and Africa in general and India in particular are witnessing a large scale population migration into cities. People are coming to urban centres as they have no choice left in their own hometowns or villages. This distress migration has given rise to many social-economic as well as health issues like creaking municipal infrastructure, housing problem, rising crime and social unrest. Cities are under tremendous stress and need billions of dollars of investment in near future to make them liveable and accommodate the rising number of residents.
However, today a small news item in the Times of India newspaper caught my attention which has the potential of reworking the urbanisation trend as well as controlling the problem of unchecked migration especially distress migration.
The story says that the gems cutting and polishing industry in Surat, Gujarat, was facing a unique problem of workers shortage. An overwhelming number of workers in these factories came from across the border from the state of Rajasthan. Three districts of Rajasthan, Jalore, Sirohi and Banswara traditionally provided workers for the gems cutting and polishing business. However, since the last two years rising cost of living in Surat forced 35000 out of a total of 125000 to return home.
Alarmed at the loss of skilled workers, the gems merchants got together and opened polishing centres in the three districts close to the villages where the workers live. This move helped in tiding over many problems. The merchants got to retain the workers they knew and trusted. The workers got their jobs back without leaving the comforts of their homes. The families had their bread winners close to them.
Apart from the immediate benefits other economic benefits include – reduced cost of running the plant in the rural areas of Rajasthan as compared to maintaining it in Surat. The workers are also ready to work at the same pay being given to them a year ago as they are saving on reduced economic stress of maintaining two establishments.
Other intangible but equally important benefits are improved social conditions in the village with most of the males in their 30s, 40s and 50s back in the social circuit. This acts as a deterrent for anti social elements. Men who have returned to their families also behave in a much more sober manner than when they are away from their known confines.
Report show that distress drinking comes down when they are with their families. Family relations improve and the general health of the family has shows a marked improvement as the male member can take the other family members like aging parents, wife or kids to the nearest health centre for check up or medical care which is impossible during his absence.
For the city of Surat too it is a good thing that the municipal corporation and the development authorities will not have to make provision for accommodating an ever increasing number of people who are ill at ease with the concept of settling down in an alien city.
This inadvertent but successful experiment can be replicated by the government in many other sectors like apparel industry where a large number of workers come from the state of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to the National Capital Region of Delhi and Jaipur in Rajasthan.
The possibility of decentralisation of manufacturing and taking it to the areas where the skilled labourers live can fundamentally alter the premise of future town planning, development and the phenomenon of migration. It can ease out the terrible mess large cities find themselves in today.
Migration for a large section of the society is an emotionally draining experience. Their natural instinct is to be close to their homes. The phenomenon is also not a welcome one for the cities as it taxes their ability to assimilate both economically and socially.
So this new development in Rajasthan presents an opportunity to reorient the age old concept of labour migrating to the manufacturing site. The time, it seems, for ‘the other way round” has come.
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