Preparing for the great Indian migration

Demographic transition, inter-state movements and policy implications

By Diego Palacios, Country Representative - India and Country Director - Bhutan, United Nations Population Fund

Despite the decline in total fertility rates (TFR) across the country, twelve states continue to contribute significantly to India’s population growth. The TFR in these states is above the average of 2.1 children per woman, which is known as replacement level fertility.

However, when TFR declines, the drop does not necessarily stop at 2.1, which is a trend we have seen in states like Kerala (1.6), in Tamil Nadu (1.7) and in Karnataka (1.8). This leads to faster changes in the population structure characterized by a reduction in the proportion of young people and increase in the proportion of the elderly.

The demographic divergence

When all the states in India are clustered in terms of fertility levels, one sees a predominantly youthful north and a maturing south and west. This demographic divergence between states and regions is important from the policy perspective and forward-looking development planning.

Most of the current and future demographic potential in the country is locked in the northern states, and largely located in Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. In fact, as per population projections, these five states will account for more than 55% of population growth in India till 2030. Those who are under 15 years today will become India’s working population in the next decades, and almost every second person in this age group resides in these five states.

A large part of the young population is based in the northern states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.

Need for migration-friendly planning

At the same time, the proportion of the elderly has started increasing in the southern states, a trend that began several years ago. Now, the phenomenon has extended to the western, extreme northern and eastern states as well. In the coming decades, these states will require a young workforce to keep offices, factories and institutions functioning efficiently, and also to take care of the elderly. This need is likely to be met by the pool of people in the youthful north, who would be moving to those ageing states.

Already, this internal migration trend is clear; there are established flows of young people from states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar to other parts of the country. The divergent demographic transition in the high-TFR and low-TFR states will add further impetus to this movement in the next decades.

The socioeconomic implications of young men heading south, leaving the children and elderly behind, need to be analysed. Women will move too, but their movement will follow a different dynamic. The challenges of moving into new communities that speak different languages and have different cultures need to be understood and addressed. Along with the migrants, the rights and expectations of the locals must also be appreciated.

There is need to gain deeper understanding of migration flows, so that estimations and projections can be made in terms of changing need for housing and infrastructure, healthcare and utilities, education and skills. The states need to work together to provide portability of identity proof, savings and entitlements, as well as build support systems for families left behind, as well as for those moving together.

The nation urgently needs to take cognizance of the demographic transition and the divergent trends between states and regions. Timely and strategic action can develop human capacities to cater to future needs and build rights-based policies that work for potential migrants, as well as the locals. All adding up to optimise development, employment and collaboration across states and the country.