With economic progress Bangladesh is witnessing the most rapid rate of urbanisation in decades. Much of this transformation is the result of internal rural-urban migration. The impetus comes from people in rural areas searching for a better life in the urban centres. This trend seems unstoppable. The emerging economic and social challenges are enormous and warrant priority policy attention.
Since independence, Bangladesh has experienced remarkable momentum in urbanisation. Between 1971 and 2011, the country's urban population increased from 7.9 million to about 31.2 million, registering a growth of nearly 400 per cent, according to World Bank.
Internal migration, of course, has been the most dominant component of this rapid growth. Relocation of the rural poor, particularly to large metropolitan areas have pushed the urban-rural growth differential to a sizeable 4.5 per cent in the last 37 years.
If this continues then the proportion of urban population may even increase to almost 60 per cent of the total population by 2050 and would still be growing. This suggests that over time the natural increase of rural population will be offset by net rural-urban migration leading Bangladesh towards urbanisation at a remarkable pace.
The propensity of migration is usually influenced by a combination of push-pull factors. While the rural poor consider migration as mainly a livelihood coping strategy, a considerable number of the population move to urban centres for better education, employment and investment opportunities (Fig.1). Socio-political factors such as family dispute, marriage, political disturbances, fanaticism etc. also contribute to the internal migration process in Bangladesh.
The Urban Health Survey 2013 found that among non-slum inhabitants, more than half of all migrant women moved to urban centers for marriage or for family reasons and only 10.9 per cent did so because they were looking for work. However, work related migration has been the most common form amongst the male migrants, closely followed by service transfer.
Change in the structure of the Bangladesh economy and its export orientation has also determined much of the rural-urban migration. The shift towards more advanced manufacturing and service sector encouraged internal migration over the years. This shift was closely associated with the expansion of the non-agricultural sector which was focused primarily on the textile industry, readymade garments (RMG) in particular.
While some non-agricultural activities were located in rural areas, most of them were concentrated in the urban centres and its surroundings, inevitably acting as a major pull factor for the rural poor.
With a substantial fraction of the RMG industry being concentrated in Dhaka and Chittagong, it created a major source of employment opportunity for rural migrant women who have limited livelihood options in their vicinities, and have hitherto been largely excluded from formal work in the cities.
Along with expansion of the non-agricultural sector, natural hazards such as floods, river erosion, droughts and cyclones, have had significant impact on the magnitude of internal migration.
Disaster induced migration has become a common occurrence in Bangladesh, especially during lean months when rural poor, primarily involved in the agricultural sector, migrate to urban centres for temporary working opportunities.
Large-scale and permanent internal migration usually follows severe environmental hazards. The floods of 1998 and two consecutive cyclones - Sidr and Aila - forced displacement of more than a million people within the country. A considerable number of the displaced migrants were eventually absorbed by the urban centres.
The two largest cities, Dhaka and Chittagong, have traditionally borne the major burden of internal migration. The capital city was initially designed to accommodate one million people at best in the '60s. Now it accommodates over 18 million people with a density of 23,234 people per square kilometer, according to World Population Review.
Such rapid urban growth, mainly due to mass migration by the rural poor, largely manifests itself in the expansion of already crowded squatter settlements and slums. Today, Dhaka has the largest concentration of slums in the country, closely followed by Chittagong, Khulna, and Sylhet (Fig.2).
While relocation is primarily done for better livelihood, on arrival in urban slums, the rural poor constantly find themselves as the victims of discrimination, physical and economic insecurity and health hazards.
Not only does rural-urban migration exceed the available employment opportunities, it also concentrates impoverished people to unhealthy conditions with substandard housing facilities, limited access to services and insecure land tenure.
Predictably, many of the migrants get involved in low paid peripheral economic activities in the urban economy as they lack adequate training and education needed for jobs in the formal sectors.
Table-1 shows that at the national level the highest percentage of slum dwellers pull rickshaw/van for their main source of income (16.80 per cent), closely followed by business (15.71 per cent), garment worker (14.35 per cent), service (14.33 per cent) and construction worker (8.38 per cent).
A closer look at Chittagong and Dhaka would show that the highest percentage of slum dwellers' earnings come from garments workers which is 18.39 per cent and 18.30 per cent respectively. This is not surprising as the largest expansion of new factories and manufacturing jobs occurred in the RMG industries concentrated in urban areas thus attracting a considerable number of people every year from rural peripheries.
Notwithstanding the progress in social MDGs, there are emerging concerns regarding rural-urban migration that often get overlooked. Overcrowding the urban centers is not only creating a pool of unskilled labour but also putting immense pressure on the environment of the cities. There is no proper system of waste disposal, drainage is poor, congestion and vehicles have increased, and socio-economic status of rural migrants remains disappointing.
The major economic indicators fail to show the real effect internal migration has on the cities, its dwellers and the migrants. Dhaka is virtually boiling with urban impact and over-population.
Allowing the current rate of rural-urban migration would eventually create major challenges of building infrastructures, healthcare, water, sanitation, transport, and of course lucrative jobs to absorb the large and rapidly increasing urban population.
It thus becomes incumbent upon the government to design effective policies and approaches towards managing internal migration through a balanced distribution of the migrants and relocation of industries from the cities.
The viability of cities always depends on a strong all-round development of rural societies, let it be through education, training, infrastructure or job opportunities. It is important that investments in the non-agriculture sectors and urban centers be complemented with investment in the rural sectors and smaller cities of the country.
Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna and Sylhet cannot remain the only urban hubs. Careful planning and infrastructure development in new semi-urban areas may encourage displaced communities to settle there rather than aggravating socioeconomic and environmental pressure on existing mega cities.
If not in agriculture, the educated rural population should be presented with adequate employment opportunities in other sectors (non-farm) to discourage relocation to urban centres. This calls for a gradual de-concentration of non-agricultural activities out of urban centres.
In addition, Bangladesh must begin to invest more heavily in the protection of agriculture against natural hazards. The country is already at high risk of catastrophic environmental hazards, floods and river bank erosion. If this concern is not catered to, Bangladesh will face mounting challenge of resettling and rehabilitating the people displaced by natural hazards.
Given the specific challenges of forced migration due to climate change, it is important to have in place adequate funding arrangement, institutional capacity, and programmes to facilitate and support disaster induced people.
Finally, there is the real prospect of policy-induced impetus to rural-urban migration that could exacerbate the existing crisis. As the government of Bangladesh aspires to achieve Upper Middle Income Country (UMIC) status by FY2031, not to mention the plan to achieve an export target of USD 50 billion by 2021, an alarming number of rural migrants would be seen relocating to urban centers unless a careful and well-thought-out urbanisation policy is undertaken and implemented.
Well-devised and professionally-handled planning - urban and rural - can go a long way not only in solving the problems of internal migration, but also of poverty, growth and sustainable environment.
(Azmina Azad is a Sr Research Associate at PRI and can be reached at email@example.com)