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India's Urban Poor Are Its Unsung Heroes

India's Urban Poor Are Its Unsung Heroes

India's Urban Poor Are Its Unsung Heroes
The bustling streets of cities are more conducive to creativity than idyllic villages. (Wikimedia)

Our ethical norms are in disarray. The ambitious and industrious have always migrated to cities but many intellectuals do not find the “aggressive, acquisitive ambition” of urban Indians aesthetically pleasing. This is not new. Even before India became independent, the view that 'India's soul is in villages' was common.

But to understand what urbanisation means, we should first reduce everything to its fundamentals. This means that people who are ambitious, talented and industrious move to parts of the world to live and work with other like-minded people. This is the best way they can improve their lives -- and the lives of everyone else. They may be aggressive, ambitious and “materialistic”, but the world will not be what it is without them.

A new study of economists Jorge De la Roca (University of Southern California), Gianmarco Ottaviano (London School of Economics), and Diego Puga (Center for Monetary and Financial Studies, Madrid) argues that the ambitious are more likely to move to cities when they are young, regardless of whether they are talented or not. For India, this translates into this assumption that the young are more likely to relocate to Bengaluru, Mumbai or Delhi. The less ambitious are less likely to migrate to urban areas, even when they are equally talented and industrious. This is not surprising.

Even in the US, where more than 80 per cent of the population lives in urban areas, 40 per cent of college graduates continue to live in the same community, even at the age of 40, where they lived at the age of 14. The surprising fact is that self-confidence does not have much of an effect on whether people migrate to cities in their 30s. It is often cost-benefit calculations that guide their decision in their 30s.

The reason: Young are fiercely idealistic, even though their idealism does not have much of an affect on the world. A young woman who cares deeply about underprivileged children or stray dogs is not likely to be able to do much because she does not have the resources. But a wealthy honcho in his 50s has more means at his disposal. Curiously enough, a middle-aged honcho is likely to be less idealistic than a teenager. Why are the young so impatient?

People rely on wide networks when they are young. If you do not project the right values when you are young, it is difficult to build a wide network. Confident young men will not risk coming across as less ambitious by living in a small town. The less ambitious will not risk coming across as daring by migrating to a large city. In India, you may also lose informal insurance provided by your family and friends if you live far away, as some researchers recently pointed out. So, informal insurance matters a lot, especially to the poor, and to a large degree to the middle class. In India, conformity is subsidised by informal networks of family and friends, but daring is not. In the 20s, the decisions people take reflect the ideals they want to project. In their 30s, their decisions tend to reflect the reality. People carefully measure costs and benefits when they decide where to live in their 30s.

According to the study, people who migrated to cities in their 20s are at a great advantage. They realise early in life that wages and labour productivity are higher in cities. Others catch up to the truth by their 30s, but by then the ambitious have many years of experience behind them.

It is true that the Indian society does not subsidise daring. But then no society on the earth subsidises daring. So, why should this bother us? The Indian society places insuperable barriers before people who migrate to urban areas. To begin with, India does not have well-developed capital markets or labour markets. On top of that, housing is expensive in large Indian cities.

It is not clear how much this matters but there is some evidence that housing is the single biggest cause of inequality. This is not surprising, because one of the biggest costs associated with that of migration is the cost of housing. With the exception of rent-controlled units and slums, rents are exceptionally high in Delhi, Mumbai and other large Indian cities. Many cities like Paris and London were able to support artists, writers and thinkers in the formative years of their careers because housing was once affordable.

Indian cities are densely populated and impoverished. Building-height regulations make housing expensive everywhere in the world, but the consequences are more disastrous in Indian cities, where the urban poor are often forced to live on pavements, makeshift houses, slums or chawls. As many risk their lives to live in such conditions, it seems that India's urban poor are its unsung heroes.

Last Updated: Sat Jun 18 2016

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