The Great Escape: How Pollution Is Pushing People Away from Cities

People in cities are showing a trend of migrating to rural areas that have a better quality of environment.

Aryan Bajpai
<div class="paragraphs"><p>People residing in the NCR region who are comparatively well-off are showing a trend of migrating to places across the country that are rural in nature and have a better quality of environment, both in terms of water and air.</p></div>

People residing in the NCR region who are comparatively well-off are showing a trend of migrating to places across the country that are rural in nature and have a better quality of environment, both in terms of water and air.

(Photo: iStock)


Migration of communities that are vulnerable to natural disasters has recently been linked to environmental degradation.

Such a movement forces the community to look for an alternative place to survive and such ‘environmental migrants’ often find themselves in large cities which hold employment opportunities, shelter and food.

A large number of cities in India, such as Hyderabad, Pune, cities in the NCR region, etc., have grown exponentially post the globalisation-era due to a large influx of migrants from the rural areas.

This ‘environmental migration’ has gathered the attention of several researchers across the country and has even been included as an essential component in the strategy to tackle climate crisis by the Government of India.

Where a certain group of the population might migrate because of a lack of choice, there are other groups who may migrate because of the availability of economic means, away from the cities. In this article, I am focusing on that latter.

Air-Pollution and Migration in India

“My grandparents moved to Goa after the Diwali of 2019. They both suffer from lung diseases and my parents thought that it would be safe for them to experience better air quality. Even we sometimes go to live with them during the winters when there is too much smog.” Anjali Bhatia, a resident of West Delhi, narrated her experiences of witnessing some family members migrate permanently due to the pollution crisis in the city.

Air pollution in India can be termed as a crisis because of its impact across generations. According to the State of Global Air 2020, India accounts for 24 percent of infant deaths due to air pollution in the world and out of the 6.5 million deaths due to PM 2.5 attributable deaths in the world, India accounts for almost a million deaths.

India has 9 out of the 10 most polluted cities in the world in terms of air pollution. All the major metropolitan cities of India fall under the category of ‘highly polluted cities’ which also lack preventive measures to reduce air pollution.

Witnessing such air pollution almost every year has led to the decision of several families to migrate temporarily to peri-urban or rural areas with some members of the family experiencing a permanent shift. People residing in the NCR region who are comparatively well-off are showing a trend of migrating to places across the country that are rural in nature and have a better quality of environment, both in terms of water and air.

According to a survey conducted by The Economic Times, around 78% of the respondents marked ‘high pollution levels’ as the main reason to move out of the metropolitan cities in India and the only factor which was preventing them to do so was the right job.

Another survey Coping with Pollution found that 40% of the 17,000 respondents would prefer to leave the NCR region and relocate elsewhere. In 2017, the Costa Rican ambassador, Mariela Cruz Alvarez, decided to move to southern India and cited the pollution crisis in New Delhi as the main reason.

International Examples of Migration Due to Air Pollution

Post-pandemic, after the availability of the choice of work-from-home, people migrating to ‘environmentally well-off places’ has become a trend.

Studies conducted in China show a similar pattern. According to research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a 10 per cent increase in air pollution is capable of reducing population, through net out-migration, by almost 2.8%.


After the pollution levels in Beijing increased, an out-migration to different Chinese counties was observed, which was primarily driven by well-educated people at the beginning of their professional careers. Similar results were noted by studies conducted across countries of eastern Europe.

Countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia witness out-migration due to air pollution in the country. Such a migration is done by the section of people who are either prone to diseases due to poor environment or have the ability to afford a cleaner environment.

India, along with its international counterparts, is experiencing the first wave of environmental migrants where people are migrating to rural areas in large numbers due to the growing population in cities and industrial areas.

The Problem

This trend of migration is a worrisome issue in two ways.

First, the pollution crisis in the cities will be detrimental to the health of the migrants who are coming from rural areas as not only will they be exposed to highly toxic levels of air but such migrants also lack the financial strength to access healthcare services.

Second, the affluential population, who are accustomed to an urban lifestyle, will live in rural areas which lack the infrastructure of managing elements such as waste, demand of electricity and water, etc.

This will lead to infrastructure development and consequently more pollution, health problems and the whole cycle will be repeated again. Cities such as Shimla and Dehradun are already experiencing problems due to tourists who come for a limited period of time.

As the stress on the cities increases due to the influx of migrants from rural areas, other natural resources will also find it difficult to keep up with the growing demand. Another such resource is water.

According to a report by World Bank titled Ebb & Flow, lack of clean drinking water will lead to a 10% increase in global migration. Several places in southern India such as Hyderabad and Chennai have already experienced people migrating to other areas due to heavy scarcity of water.

The Need of the Hour

Even though the government has recently passed the Commission for Air Quality Management in the National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Bill, 2021, and has also taken big steps towards achieving growth of renewable energy and achieving net-zero emission, it needs to think beyond reducing air pollution and must evolve the legal enforcement which currently revolves around the imposition of fines.

Innovation could lead the way to reduce air pollution by adopting techniques such as vertical forests, incentives for polluting industries, etc.

This innovation must be accompanied by equity and the focus of adaptation must be on the marginalised communities who are prone to air pollution and cannot afford the basic necessities. It must be ensured that rural places are well-equipped and prepared to match an increasing number of migrants or else such places will witness a growth spurt as observed by the metropolitan cities of India.

The government could invest its efforts in both adaptation and mitigation. It could increase the scope of the National Mission for Strategic Knowledge on Climate Change and study migration patterns due to environment-related factors and at the same time could reduce pollution in cities with a focus on rural migrants who are more vulnerable to pollution.

(This piece is written as part of the writing internship at India Migration Now. Aryan is currently a fellow in the Transforming India Initiative Fellowship provided by Access Livelihoods Consulting Group and an intern at India Migration Now. He has done his under-graduation in Social Sciences from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Tuljapur.)

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