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Why people flee cities during crises?



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By Aashish Mishra

Kathmandu, May 2: A meeting of the Chief District Officers of Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur held on Monday afternoon decided to impose a week-long prohibitory order in Kathmandu Valley from Thursday. This decision was made public a few hours later and immediately, people started scrambling to buy bus and air tickets. By the time the Cabinet decided to extend the order to 15 days in the evening, thousands had already gathered at major bus stops like Kalanki, Gongabu and Koteshwor, eager to leave the capital before the restrictions came into force.

The numbers grew on Tuesday and were the highest on Wednesday. According to the Metropolitan Traffic Police Division, more than 200,000 people left the valley by road in the three days before the start of the prohibition. In the same period, 21,194 left Kathmandu for other districts by air, as per the data provided by the Tribhuvan International Airport.

Kumar Khanal was one of those who left. The 42-year-old automobile mechanic returned to his home in Panchawati Mai in Udaypur on Tuesday with his mother and son. “I will not be able to open my shop during the lockdown which means I will have no income. One can’t sustain in Kathmandu without money,” he clarified his decision to go home.

Similarly, student Nishi Bajracharya also went home to Tansen, Palpa on Wednesday. Bajracharya, who lived with her aunt in Lalitpur, felt that she would be safer from the coronavirus at home than in the valley. “I had to pay three times the normal price for the bus ticket but it’s okay,” she said, happy that she was at least able to find a seat.

A police officer checking the leaving vehicles in Koteshwor on Wednesday night told The Rising Nepal that such exodus was nothing new. “Every time there is a crisis, people hurry to leave Kathmandu. We saw it in the last lockdown and after the April 25 earthquake as well,” he said. “We security officers knew as soon as the prohibitory order was announced that the trend would repeat itself this time too.”

All this begs the question – why? Why do people rush out of cities in times of stress?

Livelihoods

There are a number of reasons depending on a person’s class and economic background but experts say that the main factor that drives people out of cities is livelihood.

“Crises put a stop to work; people lose their jobs, their daily income. Meanwhile, their expenditure goes up. For instance, during the current COVID-19 pandemic, people are having to spend more on health. Online classes have forced many to purchase internet connections and smartphones or laptops. This creates an unfortunate situation where more money is going out while little or none is coming in. So, people choose to leave the expensive life in cities,” explained Professor Dr. Sagar Raj Sharma, dean of Kathmandu University School of Arts and an advisor to the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility.

“People return to their native villages because they feel that they at least won’t starve there,” Sharma, who has a PhD in Development Economics from Fukuoka University, Japan and is currently engaged in research projects relating to migration and development, among others, added.

Professor Dr. Chaitanya Mishra, professor of Sociology at the Central Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Tribhuvan University, also stated the urban to rural migration was primarily driven by financial factors. “In cities, work stops but expenses don’t. People still have to pay rent, buy food, sustain life. This creates a huge financial burden on families. So, they migrate out to relieve some of it.”

Another factor pushing people out of towns is opportunities, Mishra elucidated. “People migrate from rural to urban areas for opportunities. When calamities rob towns and cities of these opportunities, people go back to villages to try and make it there. If they do, they stay; if they don’t then they will again come to the cities.”

However, not everyone partakes in this rural rush out of necessity. As Mishra highlighted, some higher up on the economic ladder choose to return to their native places for relaxation and family time. “Schools and offices are closed and people are relatively free so a few families may wish to go to villages to be with families and escape the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu, kind of like Dashain,” he said.

Psychological comfort

People seek familiarity in times of uncertainty, said psychologist Kusum Baral. “Familiar people and familiar places give comfort. People want to be where they have a network to fall back on if something happens,” she said, adding, “Being in the place of their birth, where they know the surrounding and the people reduces anxiety.”

That is why people, especially those who live away from families, leave cities when crises strike, Baral said.

Presumed safety

Binay Dewan, 40, is a grocer who lived with his wife and three daughters in Ekantakuna, Lalitpur. Because he ran a grocery shop, he was never out of customers and believes he would have had a stable income despite the restrictions. He owned the house he lived in, so did not have to worry about rent. Still, he left for his ancestral village of Bhadaure in Okhaldhunga on Monday.

“It is safer here than in Kathmandu. We have cleaner air, it is less crowded and the district doesn’t have as many active cases,” he told The Rising Nepal by phone.

However, Professor Dr. Lochana Shrestha, head of the department of community medicine at the Nepali Army Institute of Health Sciences, believes we must be cautious when considering villages safer than cities.

“Yes, villages may be safer because they are less crowded and there are more open spaces allowing for social distancing. But with the arrival of people from virus-affected areas like Kathmandu, the infection will spread there too,” Shrestha said.

A study published in the International Journal of Health Planning and Management in September last year, a news article published in The Telegraph on Monday and a BBC report from Thursday discuss how the coronavirus spread from urban centres to rural areas in India partly because of migration. Shrestha fears this might happen in Nepal too because of the crowds that left the valley for their homes right before the imposition of the latest prohibitory order.

Similarly, she also advises against seeking safety in the Terai villages that border India. “Movement across the porous border means that these villages might be more unsafe than Kathmandu,” she warned.