Institute for Social and Economic Change

Migration, Informal Work and Urban Poverty:
Interdisciplinary Explorations

Seminars and Training


While for much of the latter half of the 20th century, the concern with poverty amongst development scholars and in policy circles had remained focussed on rural poverty, the last two decades has seen a new focus and interest in urban poverty.   Cities, particularly mega cities, have showcased  globalization’s spectacular  success, as spaces of great wealth generation and consumption.  At the same time, the absolute numbers of the urban poor have risen in most developing countries, and in many the rate of decline of urban poverty has been slower than that of rural poverty.  Urbanization of poverty has thus become a key term of reference in both scholarly and policy circles.

 However, the divergence of perspectives on urban poverty is fairly stark.  According to the World Bank and other international agencies, the poor are urbanizing faster than other sections, and while urbanization entails gains for the poor, the gains are not large enough for the previously poor new urban residents to escape poverty.  Thus the migration process puts a brake on the decline in urban poverty incidence, even when total poverty is falling.   In fact, for many countries, rising or stagnant urban poverty is “only the other side of the coin to what is in large part a poverty reducing process of urbanization”. On this view, then, urban poverty is rising, but as part of the story of falling overall poverty, and urbanization remains a powerful tool of poverty reduction.

Contrary to this view, others have pointed out that a large number of migrant households are not poor, as well as that the urban poor are not necessarily migrants. For example, the bottom 40% of India’s urban population account for only 29% of the total seasonal migrants.  Amitabh Kundu, widely cited in Asian migration and urban poverty studies, has pointed out that urban poverty may not be wholly or even predominantly a function of rural-urban migration.   Economic deprivation is not the most critical factor in migration.  The relatively better off/better informed among the rural population are those who are able to actually move to cities and towns.   The single most significant factor impacting on urban poverty appears, on this view, to be education, which again is related to the kind of work that one gets:  the poorest households are those employed  as casual labourers, or unemployed, and this holds across all migration categories as well as size class of urban centres.

If the role of migration in explaining urban poverty is contested, as outlined above, the structural roots of urban poverty provide even greater challenges for urban scholars.   Much of the World Bank and similar studies have gone in the direction of seeing urban poverty within the overall framework of governance, service delivery and infrastructural issues.  On the other hand, the co-relation of poverty with the structure of work, has led other scholars to the domains and dynamics of urban informality and to what extent informal work itself underpins urban poverty. 

 Informality, again, is a contested terrain.   Some scholars have seen informality  as, potentially at least, positive ( efficiency enhancing), and to the extent that it has negative consequences (insecurities and vulnerabilities), these can be addressed by some kind of regulation; Ravi Kanbur, for example, sees informality as a trap only in some sectors, and not something that cannot be addressed.  On the other hand, scholars such as Kalyan Sanyal have seen the informal sector as structured by the particular pattern of economic growth that is taking place as a result of the globalization of capital.  Barbara Harriss-White, underlining that capitalism structures poverty in the current scenario, has also drawn attention to the ways in which caste, gender and religion continue to play central roles in confining certain categories to informal work.   Yet others have drawn attention to the need for state sponsored social insurance in a context where the growth of the informal sector in a market-driven economy is pretty much inevitable. 

This conference perceived itself at the intersection of these varying perspectives on migration, urban poverty and informality.  In particular we have addressed critical issues such as:

  • the relationship of migration and urban poverty.

  • revisiting R-U migration:  causes, processes, dynamics, impact.  

  • impact of rural poverty alleviation schemes.

  • poverty amongst urban migrants.

  • the nature and dynamics of urban poverty in slums and other communities which are not migrant communities.

  • the impact of forces of globalization on urban under classes ( lower rungs of retail, transportation, security);

  • migrants, informal work and vulnerability:   construction workers ,  apparel export  workers. 

  • Uneven urban growth:  the stagnation of small cities. 

  • migration,  caste and gender .

  • social and occupational mobility amongst the urban poor.

  • state policies relating to civic amenities, social security  and employment/income generation.   

 The conference had two principal objectives; first, to facilitate dialogue across disciplines of the social sciences -- demography, economics, sociology, political science -- amongst scholars engaged in migration and poverty studies.  Secondly, to bring together migration and urban poverty scholars across the spectrum, that is, those who focus on macro, national or even cross national data, and those who are engaged in ethnographic work.  Thus a forum was created where the relative importance of local, national, global perspectives were discussed; that is, what are the questions  - both academic and policy - which can best be addressed by macro level analyses, and what issues are best addressed by studying the local. In building bridges across these different domains understanding of urban poverty in each discipline was enriched by learning from others

Dialogues were also created across the divergent perspectives outlined at the outset of this note:

  • Is urban poverty only a fall out of R-U migration, and a phase in ongoing overall poverty reduction, or are there deeper structural reasons intrinsic to the character of the urban economy that create and recreate urban poverty? 

  • Is urban poverty to be address­ed by looking at governance issues, courtesy the World Bank, or is to be looked at through the lens of employment/income issues?

  • To what extent is urban informality integrally associated with urban poverty?

The conference brought together scholars working on these issues who presented their most current research on migration and urban poverty which were spread across in seven technical sessions.  

Three Key note addresses were presented at the conference:

  • Prof. Amitabh Kundu, Jawaharlal Nehru University, addressed on “Migration Discourse and Poverty Syndrome”

  • Prof. Satish Deshpande, Delhi School of Economics, addressed on “Capitalism, Informality, Urbanisation: Kalyan Sanyal on the Politics of the Present”

  • And Prof Ravi Srivastava, CSRD, Jawaharlal Nehru University, addressed on “Migration and Social Protection”

The  Inaugural session of the conference was Chaired by Prof. K R S Murthy, Chairman, Board of Governor, ISEC.  Prof. R S Deshpande, Director, ISEC, welcomed the participants and the Chief Guest of the conference was Shri Sanjeev Kumar, Principal Secretary, Dept of Planning, GOK.

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