The trend of rural-to-urban migration has been on the increase in Nepal for quite a long time. Such a trend was strong during the Panchayat regime. With the restoration of multiparty democracy in the 1990s, the trend picked up. The migration trend got accelerated during the Maoist insurgency owing mainly to security factors and has been continuing unabated to this day. There are many factors responsible for burgeoning migration to the urban areas. Poverty, unemployment, backwardness, lack of basic services such as drinking water, sanitation, education and healthcare and the government’s apathy towards rural development are among the major factors that are driving such migration.
Other factors contributing to migration to the urban areas are natural disasters, political instability, conflict and violence. Owing to natural disasters such as earthquakes, landslides and floods, many people are displaced. Some take shelter at their relatives’ houses and others may migrate to the urban areas for shelter and support. The elderly and children are somehow living in the rural areas despite lack of amenities needed for a living. However, the youth, who are full of energy and vigour, often migrate to the urban areas or abroad in order to make their lives better. Oftentimes, people migrate to the urban areas or abroad in search of employment or better economic prospects. They are anxious to enhance their quality of life, which, they think, is not possible by doing work in the rural areas.
Urbanisation is increasing in Nepal as in other countries. This is a natural phenomenon. But what is of concern is that unplanned or haphazard urbanisation is taking place in the country. Such urbanisation is bound to invite many problems. Difficulty managing basic services such as drinking water, sanitation, education, healthcare and housing; overcrowding; traffic congestion; and the like are some of the prominent challenges brought on by such urbanisation.
As per the World Bank, the country’s urban population is projected to increase from 7.3 million in 2019 to 14.3 million by 2050. The government’s policy is to turn as many rural areas as possible into urban areas (municipalities) so that hefty municipal taxes can be levied. This is also likely to increase the urban population in the country. As per the study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), around 70 per cent of Nepalis migrate to the urban areas for employment so as to improve their economic conditions.
When people migrate to the urban areas for various reasons, not all may be well with them. They often end up being marginalised with a plethora of problems such as poor living conditions and limited access to employment, education, healthcare and other basic services. They often land in slums. In fact, slums have developed in the urban areas to house such migrants from the rural areas. Managing slums has been a problem in big cities like Kathmandu. Slums are usually overcrowded and filthy and lack basic facilities such as sanitation and other infrastructure. Slums are also prone to natural disasters, especially floods and inundation, as they are mostly situated on riverbanks.
Despite hardships in the urban areas, the rural folks are still flocking to the urban areas. It may not be surprising to note that some people are migrating to the urban areas like Kathmandu to make a living even by begging. Students from the rural areas are studying at school or college in the urban areas. Rural people are forced to visit hospitals in the urban centres for the treatment of serious diseases. Such increasing migration to the urban areas can be ascribed, among others, to the government’s indifferent attitude to rural development.
During the Panchayat regime, the back-to-the-village campaign was initiated. The campaign aimed at developing infrastructure in the rural areas so that rural people stayed back in their places, contributing to rural and hence overall national development. The campaign, however, failed miserably as the Panchayat rulers did not pay adequate heed to making the campaign successful. Imitating this campaign, the CPN-UML government also embarked upon the build-your-own-village campaign. At the time, migration to the urban areas was accelerating. The campaign had a good intention. But the government could not build necessary infrastructure and create an environment conducive to retaining people in the rural areas. As such, the campaign met the fate of the Panchayat campaign.
It is a no-brainer that migration to the urban areas has assumed formidable proportions. It seems the waves of such migration cannot be contained. Such migration has strained the existing facilities in the urban areas. Unplanned land use, shrinking open spaces, haphazard development of shanty towns, mismanagement of essential services and the like are some of the problems engendered by, inter alia, unabated migration to the urban areas. Most of the rural people migrate to Kathmandu, the capital city of the country, amid its glitter. Kathmandu has become one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in South Asia.
The government has two options to manage migration to the urban areas. One is to develop adequate infrastructure in Kathmandu and other cities and provide essential services, including housing, sanitation, education and healthcare, for the migrants. Under this option, slums can be managed so that they become habitable. Improvement on this front will enable the migrants to live a decent life. The government has also announced the development of smart cities and satellite cities around the Kathmandu Valley. But the initiative has not moved ahead.
The second option, which is more important than the first one, is the development of the rural areas themselves. People living in the rural and hilly areas are living a difficult life. There are no proper educational facilities. The status of healthcare facilities is deplorable. Besides, there are other hardships relating to drinking water and transportation. Drawing lessons from the aforesaid village-centric development campaigns going phut, the government, non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders concerned should act synergistically to formulate a strategy of rural development so that migration to the urban areas can be halted. And the rural natural resources can be utilised properly as rural development leads to overall national development.
(Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000.)