From Bhagalpur to Boisar

November 26, 2012

(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)

What is common between the movie “Gangaajal” and the television soap opera “Afsar Bitiya“? It’s Bhagalpur.

This city in Bihar became infamous some decades ago because of what came to be known as the Bhagalpur blindings case of 1980.

However, its real star is its silk industry, best known for Bhagalpur silk or Tussar. Few know that Bhagalpur is equally famous for its mangoes.

Unfortunately, despite the burgeoning demand for silk, Bhagalpur faces the problem of heavy migration. Many want to get out of the century-old sericulture profession and move to skilled jobs in bigger cities.

Some may say migration is a sort of brain drain, but it is this very concept that another city will cherish. What Bhagalpur in Bihar discards, Boisar in Thane and Bahadurgarh in Haryana will treasure.

Why is migration important in a socio-economic context? Many studies look upon migration, not as the means to an end, but as the starting point of another journey. It helps bring in equal distribution of population, wealth, cultural diversity and religious tolerance.

Having lived in an urban scenario for a while, every migrant mimics his neighbours. He will travel the way his peers do and spend time in a similar way — be it eating icecream at New Delhi’s India Gate or weekend visits to shopping malls.

Travelling patterns also change — from travelling in regular buses to the Metro or air-conditioned buses.

Having gradually accomplished the tedious social climb and mimicking his urban counterparts, the migrant can now be effectively called an ‘Urban Aspirer’.

For many migrants, this is their first exposure to the comfort of air conditioning. The same is true of exposure to wireless networks and coffee in office-based jobs. This ‘A.C. effect’ leads such consumers to expect similar facilities at home.

The Boston Consulting Group says 19 million households (8 percent of the population) can be categorised as Urban Aspirers (with an annual household income of $7400 – $18,500). It also says 300-400 million people will migrate to cities over the next 25 years. With migration numbers nearing the half-billion figure, we need to pay attention to their characteristics — for this population will drive growth numbers.

Migration also brings certain unwanted elements, namely infrastructure woes. The bigger cities always face the heat. Brawls over water and toilet use are common; especially in habitations like the crowded chawls of Mumbai.

The solution lies in providing basic amenities and a house for these millions. Omnia Omnibus — all things to all men.

But the task is enormous — India’s 11th five-year plan sees a shortage of 26.53 million houses.

A 2010 World Bank report suggests 25 million Indian families have no homes, with high room-density figures (3.5) aggravating the problem; while roughly 52,000 slums hold 8 million urban households (14 percent of the population). The report also says for every rupee invested in housing, 0.78 rupees (if a rupee = 0.021 dollar) is added to the national GDP.

The construction sector provides direct employment to 16 percent of the Indian workforce (read, more migration). The National Housing Board says India needs $108 billion as investment for meeting its 2012 housing needs.

Around 71 percent of our population in cities lives in overcrowded dwelling units. This dark urban reality was why the concept of affordable housing came into being — constructing houses for these millions living in cramped spaces and using public toilets.

If the state and central governments, and the real estate sector with its private, public and public-private-partnership enterprises come together, then every individual, migrant or not, will have a house to call his own. All that is needed is an efficient system that equally divides the cost and the responsibility between these parties. Mission impossible? Maybe not.

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