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Unravelling India’s Changing Rural Migration Patterns Amidst Climate Change

14 of the 50 districts in India most vulnerable to climate change are located in Bihar.

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The 28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP28) in Dubai underscored the need for scaling up and strengthening adaptation and resilience activities to protect the vulnerable sections of society, such as farmers, from the adverse impacts of climate change. Escalating rural migration and diminishing local production in rural areas due to climate impacts markedly influence the Indian economy, which is essentially agrarian and predominantly rainfed. 

Mahatma Gandhi’s quote that the ‘real India lives in its villages’ still holds true for India, given that nearly 65 per cent of India’s population resides in rural areas. However, over the decades, there has been a noticeable decline in the contribution of the rural economy to the national domestic product. In the 1970s, the rural sector accounted for 84 per cent of the total workforce and generated over 62 per cent of the total net domestic product. This share decreased to 71 per cent by 2011–2012.

In recent years, although the rural sector has been supporting 65 per cent of India’s total workforce, its contribution to the national domestic product has dwindled to a mere 25 per cent.

This decline can be attributed to a substantial reduction in agricultural yield and local production of goods and services, leading to an increased dependence of the rural workforce on urban areas for livelihood improvement and revenue generation. Consequently, India is experiencing a shift in rural–urban population dynamics across the country.

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Unveiling Migration Dynamics: a Data-driven Scenario

According to our projections of net migration data, some of India’s densely populated and predominantly agrarian states have been witnessing a consistent net migration outflow of rural residents over the years. 

The heatmaps presented below reflect that in 2012, some of the major agrarian states, such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand, experienced a substantial influx of rural migrants. However, the pattern was reversed in 2019, with such states witnessing an outflow of migrants, possibly owing to a lack of job prospects and growing climate change vulnerabilities.

For example, Bihar is highly vulnerable to climate change, with its northern and southern regions frequently experiencing floods and droughts, respectively. In fact, 14 of the 50 districts in India most vulnerable to climate change are located in Bihar. Similarly, in Jharkhand, the agricultural sector might be adversely impacted owing to the drying of perennial rivers and growing forest fire incidences due to rising temperatures.

A similar phenomenon was witnessed in Uttar Pradesh, where in 2019, the government acknowledged that climate change was expected to reduce the state’s output of wheat, maize, potatoes, and milk—often regarded as the staples for rural communities. These changing patterns call for an examination of the underlying forces at play. 

14 of the 50 districts in India most vulnerable to climate change are located in Bihar.

Comparison of net rural migration estimates in 2012 and 2019.

(Photo: Authors)

Gujarat and Karnataka emerged as the focal points in this migratory ebb and flow. Owing to heavy industrial development in Gujarat and burgeoning employment opportunities in Karnataka, the states have been experiencing a consistent inflow of rural migrants. Notably, in 2019, Karnataka boasted the lowest unemployment rate compared with the national average. 

A comparison of these migration trends highlights the interplay between economic dynamics and population movements. This prompts us to reflect on the evolving nature of employment landscapes and the consequential impact on regional demographics. 

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The Push and Pull Factors

Rural-to-urban migration is not merely a demographic shift but a strategic response to multiple push and pull factors. Push factors that tend to dominate include the deepening impact of climate change and natural disasters such as drought, extreme rainfall, and heat waves; gradual degradation of natural resources; a vicious poverty loop; and growing income disparities in rural areas.

As a result, many migrants find themselves drawn to informal labour markets, hoping to secure an income foothold. 

Conversely, pull factors include the promise of lucrative income sources; superior job prospects; enhanced living standards; and access to quality healthcare, education, and skill development facilities. Improved infrastructure connectivity further attracts individuals to urban landscapes in search of better future prospects.  

Such migration patterns, coerced by these pull factors, lead to a growth in the urban population, exerting additional pressure on urban resources. Therefore, it is imperative to establish a symbiotic relationship between rural and urban areas to ensure balanced development and overall sustainability. 

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Strengthening Rural Resilience for a Sustainable Tomorrow

The recent migration patterns underscore the need for a holistic, inclusive, and comprehensive strategy to revive the rural economy. Addressing the push and pull factors contributing to rural-to-urban migration is the key to developing more resilient rural livelihoods. 

For reviving the rural economy, local production must be prioritised and innovative solutions, such as smart agriculture techniques and technology-driven resource management, should be embraced in the policymaking process. Maintaining a data repository on the incoming and outgoing destinations and occupations of migrants can also help navigate the real-time factors influencing migration decisions and guide targeted interventions.

Further, inclusive urban planning and effective mobility management policies can help mitigate the vulnerabilities linked with rural–urban migration and maximise the socio-economic potential of migrants.

The national schemes and programmes for rural development and poverty alleviation must integrate policies on migration, climate change, and agriculture to ensure their successful execution. Robust agricultural policies and disaster management strategies can help make rural communities more resilient to climate change-induced migration. 

As the impact of climate change intensifies, India might witness several twists and turns in its rural migration story in the coming years. COP28 served as a stark reminder about the disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable populations. To monitor rural-to-urban migration patterns and ensure balanced economic growth between the origin and destination locations, innovative policy initiatives aimed at regenerating the rural economy are necessary. Safeguarding India’s rural landscape calls for measures integrating economic development, climate resilience, and social equity. 

(The authors work in the area of Sustainability at the Center for Study of Science, Technology, and Policy (CSTEP), a research-based think tank.) 

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Topics:  Climate Change 

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