Who is migrating where?

Intellectuals sometimes say Western countries are hypocrites who extol free movement of goods and capital, but control free movement of people through visas. True, but our own curbs against Pakistani and Bangladeshis are no less stringent. Nor do our neighbours want migrants from India. Resistance to immigrants is near-universal.

The question remains, how many people would migrate if movement was free? One way of finding an answer is to look at migration between Indian states, which is not restricted by visas. Professors Mahendra Dev and Evenson (2003) have in a recent paper looked at such patterns.

The accompanying table lists net immigration or out-migration in the main Indian states, as enumerated in the 1999-2000 National Sample Survey.

This has many surprises. We see remarkably little movement out of the poorest states. The greatest out-migration is from Bihar, but only 3.1 per cent of the population. Almost 97 per cent of Biharis find it convenient to stay on in that slough of despond. In no other state is out-migration even 1 per cent of the population. Uttar Pradesh has out-migration of only 0.8 per cent.

A dirt-poor state like Orissa actually has net in-migration of 0.6 per cent. This is explained by the influx of Bengalis and Bangladeshis in the north and Telegu speakers in the south. Land scarcity has driven outsiders to encroach into forests, and this is one reason for net immigration into poor states like Orissa and Madhya Pradesh.

Another surprise: Assam is listed as having net out-migration of 0.5 per cent. How so, when the influx of Bengalis/Bangladeshis is a serious political issue? Obviously, the Bengali immigrants all claim to have been in Assam forever, and surveyors have faithfully recorded these lies as facts. Meanwhile, Assamese who have left the state tell the truth, and so the state is listed as having net out-migration.

West Bengal, another poor state, has 2.7 per cent immigration. This represents an inflow from even poorer Bangladesh. It would seem that Bangladeshis have less fear of expulsion from West Bengal than Assam, and so speak more honestly to surveyors.

Kerala, famous for sending its sons to the Gulf, shows net immigration of 0.6 per cent. This is mainly because the NSS data captures only migration within the country, not migration out of it. So the data leaves out the Kerala hordes in the Gulf. Nevertheless it is a surprise that fewer Keralites migrate to other states than the reverse flow. People are moving into Kerala from the poor rainfed areas of adjoining Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, both of whom report net out-migration. Trade union politics and Gulf money have raised the wages in Kerala so high that the state attracts labour from its neighbours.

The rich states of Maharashtra (4.4 pc), Punjab (2.5 pc) and Gujarat (1.9 pc) all have net immigration. The surprise is that the inflow is modest. Haryana leads the immigration table with 7.9 per cent, but this is a statistical distortion arising from the expansion of Delhi into neighbouring Haryana districts.

Mahendra Dev and Evenson find that migration does not take place from the poorest areas and poorest families. Better-off people from better-off districts are more likely to migrate, especially those with a tradition of migrating (who can tap into existing socio-ethnic networks at the other end). This is not unlike the migration pattern from Mexico to the US. The poorest people lack the information and capital to undertake migration, which is fraught with risks.

The bottom line: surprisingly few people take advantage of free movement. The biggest sufferers from western visa curbs are not India’s poor, but middle-class folk seeking green cards. Unsurprisingly, the most vocal critics of visa curbs come from this class.

One thought on “Who is migrating where?

  • 2011.Sep.23 at 13:11
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    These so called influx has increased to alarming rate and there is visible socio-ethnic and financial problems. Especially, the Telegus who came in hoards are bribing and buying large tracts of agricultural land. There is no restriction with regard to registration where as Oriyas can’t buy land in other States. This has deprived the poor farmers off their land. State Govt should ensure that those who are non Oriyas should not be able to register Agriculture Land in Orissa in their name.

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