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Tithe Farhana

Internal Migration and Urbanization in Bangladesh

Shadat Ahmed came from Dhormopasha, Sunamgonj to Dhaka back in 2005. With a little help from his friend Suroj Ali, he found work with Snowtex Textile Mill in Mirpur. Four years later, he married his colleague Tahmina Banu who had also moved to Dhaka from Dinajpur earlier. The couple quit their jobs and Shadat now runs a grocery shop in Mirpur while his wife supports his business. They live in Kalsi, Mirpur, Dhaka with their two daughters and occasionally send money back to their families in their home villages.

Shadat Ahmed is one of the thousands of people who have migrated from rural and suburban areas to urban areas, particularly Dhaka and Chittagong, to escape poverty and find a better life. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, the migration rate has risen from 3.3% in 1991 and 4.5% in 2001 to 6.7% currently. Of course not everybody moves to the cities; some relocate to other villages, some migrate overseas. Still, reports from the World Bank indicate that annual urban population growth in Bangladesh was at 2.92% in 2012. Figures from 2007 paint a more comprehensive picture: Approximately 4.5 million people have migrated internally, of whom 75 percent have moved inside rural or urban areas. Over 480,000 people moved from rural to urban areas in that same year. Internal migration has generally been thought of as a phenomenon of urbanization, and the urbanization rate has been reported to have been 3.03% over the period from 1975 to 2009 (with a big spike upwards during the 1980s), one of the highest in the world. This is typically explained by a dramatic shift from agricultural to industrial production (the former dropped from 32% to 19% and the latter rose from 21% to 28% as a share of GDP from 1980 to 2010), and population flight from areas exposed to serious environmental challenges.

Push and pull factors

The first Bangladesh census completed in 1981 shows a low level of urbanization: Only 15% of the total population lived in cities. But the country has recently experienced a higher rate of growth in its urban population. A variety of reasons that include both economic and non-economic factors have been identified to explain internal migration in Bangladesh. It has been observed that a number of associated factors initiated the migration process. Although economic factors appear dominant, both physical and social factors also circuitously influence the migration process. Poor and middle-class people alike engage in internal migration. Employment opportunities and higher wages in urban labour markets inspire migrants to move to urban areas. The dysfunctional economic conditions in rural and small towns due to population pressure, a diminishing average of land holdings, and the drawbacks of rural agricultural development are pushing rural people towards the cities.

Living in the cities is viewed as prestigious. Marriage, pressure from relatives, and disputes with friends or family lets people leave the rural areas, as does political unrest.

It has been reported that rural areas characterised by land scarcity, imprecise distribution of land and a high proportion of agricultural labour tend to show a high rate of rural depopulation. Factors which contribute to internal migration in Bangladesh are ecological in nature, such as river erosion, and natural hazards like cyclones, droughts and floods. Yet social conventions and politics play a role too: Living in the cities is viewed as prestigious. Marriage, pressure from relatives, and disputes with friends or family lets people leave the rural areas, as does political unrest.

A paper by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Bangladesh offers a little more detail and identifies regions with multiple environmental challenges that drastically contribute to internal migration: There is the coastal zone, which is beset by cyclones, other climatic risks and slow onset challenges such as salinisation and sea water incursion. The Haor areas in the northeast is challenged by seasonal severe flooding and its general remoteness. Finally, the Monga-affected districts in the northwest face seasonal droughts in which severely curtails any agricultural activities for three to four months every year. In most cases, migrants move to improve their economic conditions. This does not seem to result in a successful story for most migrants, especially for the poor who move from rural to urban areas. Nevertheless, there are positive implications in a certain sense, especially for the female segment of the population. Regardless of their skills, the new arrivals find diversified job opportunities in the cities.

Economic transformation & industrial growth

Now, most people in rural villages are dependent upon off-firm livelihoods. In the past, most of the migrants from rural areas were young men. These days though, due to increasing demand in the ready-made garment (RMG) industries in the metropolitan cities, the number of female workers is also increasing respectively. They are contributing greatly to increasing production in the RMG industries. This has a great impact on the development of Bangladesh's economy. Rural-urban migration could also work as a positive factor to generate greater and diversified employment opportunities through multiplier effects, and can strengthen both material and human capital.

Since the textile industry took off in Bangladesh, both the status and the income of women have improved.

Though it has an agriculture-based economy, Bangladesh’s macro economy depends highly on the RMG sector, which is also a prime earner of foreign currency: The RMG sector contributes around 76 % to total export earnings. Of the estimated 4.2 million people employed in the sector, about 50 % are women from rural areas and remote villages. This has given women the chance to be financially independent and have a voice in the family because they contribute financially. By 2013, there were approximately 5,000 factories, employing about 4 million people, mostly women, as a part of Bangladesh's $ 19 billion a year export-oriented RMG industry. The article “Out of the Basket”, published in the Economist in 2012, elaborated that since the textile industry took off in Bangladesh, both the status and the income of women have improved.

Kohinur Khatun has been working at Cut & Sew garments, Dhaka since 2012 and is now earning a handsome 6,000 BDT Taka which she spends to support her family. She lives in Malibagh, close to the factory where she works for 8 hours a day. If she works extra hours, she gets extra amount along with her salary. “By working this job, I am earning a good amount which enables me to pay for family expenditures and my daughter’s education. My husband works as a shopkeeper in a grocery store. Sometimes, I send money to my parents and mother-in-law who live in Comilla, a nearby district of Dhaka”. The RMG industry in Bangladesh has been principally export-oriented since the early 1980s, though local consumer demand for RMG has been escalating fast due to employment opportunities for the urban poor in Dhaka and other adjacent industrial cities. The sectors speedily became extremely import in terms of employment rates, foreign exchange earnings and contribution to GDP.

The tragic demises of labourers due to industrial accidents and fires, labour rights violations, labour unrest, the overly profit-oriented mindset of factory owners, along with negligence regarding labour welfare paint a grim overall picture.

Although the industry has been regarded as the source of economic development, employment opportunities for poor people and industrial development of Bangladesh, the tragic demises of labourers due to industrial accidents and fires, labour rights violations, labour unrest, the overly profit-oriented mindset of factory owners, along with negligence regarding labour welfare paint a grim overall picture. Nevertheless, here too the implications are more complex: Bangladesh is one of many countries blighted by child marriage. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) predicts that by 2020 there will be 50 million wives under the age of 15 across the world. According to a study by International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), one of the most powerful tools for delaying child marriage has been increasing economic opportunities for women in Bangladesh. Despite the challenges of low wages, long working hours, poor working conditions and labour rights issues, the rise of the RMG sector and trade liberalisation have already proven helpful in delaying marriages for young women who have managed to work and save up for the higher dowry demands that come with marriages later in life. In Bangladesh, rapid growth in the literacy rate of young women in both urban and rural areas took place in the decade between 2000 and 2010 through a range of government programmes. A study on women’s participation in the workforce published in Bangladesh Development Studies in 2012 showed a strong correlation between women's higher education and empowerment, including decision-making regarding the use of contraception, child birth, and other important family matters.

Challenges for the poor urban community

The edges of the cities have become dumping grounds for the urban poor. The nature of life and labour in the peripheries clearly reveals the poverty and vulnerability so widespread here. Most of the urban poor are involved in low paid peripheral economic activities, in Dhaka just as they are in many other developing cities. They mostly work as rickshaw pullers, street vendors, construction workers, transport workers, garments workers and low-grade employees in the government and private sectors. The poor generally experience harassment at their workplace either from employers or police. Street vendors also experience police harassment and they usually need to pay bribes to run their business. On top of that, workers involved in construction and transport have been seriously affected by the recent political chaos caused by strikes. They have been unable to go to work during the strikes, which has caused huge stress in their households. Their low income level means that their expenditure level is also low and most of their earnings are spent on food. As a result, essential non-food goods related to health and education are often neglected. At the same time Bangladesh and its capital Dhaka show a continuous expansion in informal sector growth. This is taking place mostly at the level of marginal groups with such low-productive and often hazardous occupations, such as waste recycling and rickshaw driving. The most phenomenal expansion of informal sector in Dhaka has taken place in the number of rickshaws, which have expanded from 40,000 in 1978 to 200,000 in 1998 with 300,00 being the commonly cited figure now. Indeed, rickshaws and hawkers are the most common sight in Dhaka.

The poor people living in the urban peripheries are the real victims of environmental injustices.

Although many have improved their conditions in terms of income and food consumption, the poor living in the urban peripheries are marginalized in terms of housing. Material deprivation and higher levels of vulnerabily of the urban poor to unsuitable housing conditions are clearly revealed by tenure insecurity and the poor quality of housing. The poor communities have no access to urban land and most of them have been forced to settle on vacant land on the periphery of the city, where they have been relocated because of increasing demand for land and its increasing value. The poor quality of construction materials makes their houses vulnerable to the annual floods. They have limited access to urban infrastructure services despite living in the city for a long time. Whatever the reason for the appalling environmental conditions in which poor people live, sanitation is far from satisfactory, their health is endangered, and they are also obliged to devote time that could otherwise be used for productive income-generating work to obtain daily supplies of potable water or fuel. The poor people living in the urban peripheries are the real victims of environmental injustices. Infants and children are the most affected groups in the urban slums. Despite ill health and the prevalence of diseases, urban residents have limited access to the healthcare services available. All this makes evaluating the results of internal migration in Bangladesh a difficult task. There are visible benefits – for the national economy and regarding women's rights and participation – but they come at a high price. The coming years should be dedicated to catching up on welfare and labour rights, a more just distribution of the growing wealth, and the development of more stable urban communities.

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