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October 18, 2014 Rukmini S.
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New data on commuting shows how money affects where you go to work

As people get richer, they travel further for work. Photo: K. Ramesh Babu
The Hindu As people get richer, they travel further for work. Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

Armed with some new data on incomes, I went back to look at commutes in India, something I’d looked at late last year. All data here is from the 2011-12 National Sample Survey, the detailed results of which were made public recently. The data refers to the “main earner” for each family, so is overwhelmingly male.

On average, Indian commutes are not very long. Just 23 per cent of rural Indians need to travel more than 5 kilometres every day to work, and 37 per cent of urban Indians.

This is something that’s changing, slowly. Over the last decade, the proportion of rural workers who do not leave their house to work has declined very slightly, while those who travel over 5 km has crept up. One hypothesis for this could be the slow shift from purely farm-based work to a mix of farm and non-farm employment.

In urban India, the shift is similarly gradual. (That slight uptick in 2008-9 for both rural and urban India – did something change or was that an outlier year? Hard to say.)

One clear trend though is that as people get richer, they travel further for work. Here I looked at the distances travelled by the poorest 20 per cent of rural Indians, the middle 20 per cent and the richest per cent.

This trend is even starker for urban India, where nearly half of the richest segment commutes over 5 kilometres every day. Of course, this does not imply causation in either direction; the richest 20 per cent of urban Indians probably live in larger cities, too.

How does this vary by State? I looked for this at urban residents only, and at the proportion of them whose commute is more than 5 kilometres.

Longer commutes are correlated (not very strongly, but with statistical significance) with wealthier States.

As I said, neither is causation clear, nor, if there is causation, what its direction is. But there you have it – what commutes look like in India.

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