Urbanization and Migration in Developing Asia

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Asian developing countries are facing numerous challenges, only two of which are urbanization and migration. While urbanization is gathering momentum in developing Asian countries, it should be noted that understanding the implications of urbanization in an overall Asian context is very difficult. Even the very definition of urbanization may vary significantly from one country to another.

Regrettably, most national and international organizations, and even noted academics, have failed to appreciate these differences. For example, most Asian developing countries define urbanization by population; others use administrative declarations. Even among those who define urbanization by population, some consider an area to be urban when the population exceeds 5,000. Others define it to be when the area has more than 20,000 people. The differences and implications are huge. For example, if we use 5,000 population to be urban, India is already a heavily urbanized country!

The factors that lead to rural-urban migration are many. The motivations could be economic when rural people migrate for a better standard of living, including long-term employment and the availability of business opportunities that could improve their quality of life. It could also be an attempt to escape grinding poverty, frequent crop failures, or even famines. The causes could also be social, like a desire for better education for their children, improved health care facilities, a five-day work week in contrast to working seven days on the farms, or the availability of entertainment facilities. Often the reasons are combinations of these issues.

Cities have always been engines for economic growth. There are very strong direct and indirect interrelationships between urbanization and growth. However, these linkages are still not fully understood even today. All future population growth in Asian developing countries to 2050 will occur in urban regions, which are neither well prepared nor have the capacity to assimilate such steady flow of migrants within very limited timeframes.

For older cities in developed countries – London, Paris or New York – urbanization took place gradually over a century. They had time to adjust. In contrast, in developing Asian, intense urbanization is taking place within a few short decades. Unlike the Western cities that urbanized earlier, developing Asian cities simply do not have the administrative, management, institutional and financial capacities to manage urbanization and resulting socio-economic upheaval within such short periods.

Urban growth invariably feeds increased commercialization and industrialization. It requires continually expanding land areas. When urbanization rates are high, and countries do not have the institutional and managerial capacities or economic wherewithal to manage such rapid growths, they exert intense pressure on the types and nature of the resulting settlements. They contribute to the development of overcrowded slums and shanty towns without adequate essential services and necessary infrastructure.

Rural-urban migration also contributes to economic restructuring. This could push countries towards more free market activities, as has been observed in China, India and Vietnam. This opens new economic opportunities which people of entrepreneurial abilities can take advantage of to substantially improve their quality of life.

Rapid changes in technology, including advances in communications and better and cheaper transportation facilities have made it easier for the current generation of migrants to keep in regular touch with their original communities, certainly more than their earlier counterparts. Migrants further contribute to sharing of resources across geographical areas, most important of which has been the steady flow of remittances to their original settlements. This resource transfer has helped the original communities to develop, and has also contributed to improve the standard of living and quality of life of the people left behind.

Urbanization and migration invariably have profound impacts on social, economic, political and environmental landscapes, in positive and negative ways, both on the new areas where the migrants settle and their earlier settlements.

A common and persistent error of the development specialists has been to consider urbanization trends for the most recent two or three decades and then project them for the next four or five decades. The results have proven to be mostly wrong, yet this error persists.

Following is a good example of projecting short-term trends two or three decades into the future. In late 1970s and early 1980s, nearly all demographers projected that the rapid growth witnessed in Mexico City during the 1960s and 1970s would continue for another three decades. The perceived wisdom of that period was Mexico City would become the world’s biggest megacity by 2000, home to some 30 million people.

However, soon migration rates to Mexico City began to decline. Employment opportunities become scarce; traffic congestion, air pollution, and crime increased significantly; housing became expensive and quality of life in general deteriorated. Consequently, even now, Mexico City area does not have even half the population that was projected for 2000 in the early 1980s.

Nearly all megacities, except Dhaka, have grown at a much lower rates than projected by all the UN organizations and most academics during the 1970s and 1980s.

During the past four or five decades, the global tendency has been to focus mostly on the issues of megacities, at the expense of small and midsize urban centers of the developing world. Our research indicates that this is a serious mistake, which has overemphasized the problems of megacities and seriously underestimated the urbanization problems of smaller cities for various reasons.

All over the developing world, we are now witnessing higher urbanization rates for small and midsize cities and towns compared to megacities. While megacities are having difficulties managing their current growth rates, they are coping. This is because political and business power is invariably concentrated in megacities, which have significantly better administrative and management capacities than their smaller counterparts. Media is disproportionately present in the largest cities, which consequently receive the lion’s share of national media and political attention. The majority of the elites and powerful people live in megacities. Macroeconomic factors also favor them, such that they attract significantly more than their fair share of development funds nationally and also from global capital markets and multilateral and bilateral development agencies.

Consequently small towns and cities are finding it increasingly difficult to manage their urbanization process. Over time, these smaller urban conurbations are likely to face higher poverty levels and increasing deprivation. They are likely to experience increasingly serious problems with housing, employment generation, access to basic services like education, health, clean water, transportation, as well as many other constraints that are likely to slow rural-urban migrations rates in the coming decades.

Urbanization is a complex process with numerous uncertainties. It is difficult to predict in which ways this process will develop over the coming decades in different developing countries in Asia. However, we can say with considerable certainty that much of the current received wisdom will prove to be hopelessly wrong.

Prof. Asit K. Biswas is the Distinguished Visiting Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore. Dr. Cecilia Tortajada is the Senior Research Fellow at the same School. Both are co-founders of the Third World Centre for Water Management, Mexico. This is based on a keynote lecture given at the invitation of the Korean International Cooperation Agency at a Seminar on Urbanization and Migration in Asia, in Singapore, on September 3, 2015.

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