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Census findings point to decade of rural distress

P. Sainath
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For first time since 1921, India's urban population goes up by more than its rural

FOOTLOOSE NATION: Fatigued migrant workers from Tiroda in Gondia district of Maharashtra journeying on the floor of a train to Nagpur (rural) looking for work. They are out of their homes 18-20 hours a day — Photo: P. Sainath
FOOTLOOSE NATION: Fatigued migrant workers from Tiroda in Gondia district of Maharashtra journeying on the floor of a train to Nagpur (rural) looking for work. They are out of their homes 18-20 hours a day — Photo: P. Sainath

Is distress migration on a massive scale responsible for one of the most striking findings of Census 2011: that for the first time since 1921, urban India added more numbers to its population in a decade than rural India did?

At 833.1 million, India's rural population today is 90.6 million higher than it was a decade ago. But the urban population is 91 million higher than it was in 2001. The Census cites three possible causes for the urban population to have risen by more than the rural: ‘migration,' ‘natural increase' and ‘inclusion of new areas as ‘urban.' But all three factors applied in earlier decades too, when additions to the rural population far outstripped those to the urban. Why then is the last decade so different? While valid in themselves, these factors cannot fully explain this huge urban increase. More so in a census in which the decadal growth percentage of population records “the sharpest decline since India's independence.”

Take the 2001 Census. It showed us that the rural population had grown by more than 113 million since 1991. And the urban by over 68 million. So rural India had added 45 million people more than urban. In 2011, urban India's increase was greater than that of rural India's by nearly half a million, a huge change. The last time the urban increase surpassed the rural was 90 years ago, in 1921. Then, the rural total actually fell by close to three million compared to the 1911 Census.

However, the 1921 Census was unique. The 1918 Influenza epidemic that killed 50-100 million people worldwide, ravaged India. Studies of the 1921 Census data say it records between 11 and 22 million deaths more than would have been normal for that decade. There was also the smaller impact of World War I in which tens of thousands of Indian soldiers died as cannon fodder for Imperial Britain in Europe and elsewhere.

Collapse of livelihood

If Influenza left its fatal imprint on the 1921 enumeration, the story behind the numbers of the 2011 Census speaks of another tragedy: the collapse of millions of livelihoods in agriculture and its related occupations. And the ongoing, despair-driven exodus that this sparked in the countryside.

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