Explaining Rural Migration


Poonam Thapa

Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd. pp. 189, Price T.C. Rs. 190.00

Considering the facets of migration that are subtle and hard to measure, Sidney Goldstein (1976), a renowned migration expert, described migration as "a stepchild of demography." Not-withstanding, migration has remained a fascinating topic of research in Nepal for the last two decades. These studies are concerned, for the most part, with the large immigration into the Terai from the hills, which is the dominant stream of rural-to-rural migration in Nepal. The findings are simple: increasing population pressure and rural poverty in the hills have forced people to migrate either to the Terai or to India. Applying slightly more sophisticated statistical tools, Dr. Poonam Thapa has, in this book, also arrived at similar conclusions. She tries to explain how different economic and social conditions at the individual and household levels result in migration for some households, and not for others. She states that a better understanding of socio-economic relationships at these levels can predict hill-Terai migration processes in Nepal.

Of the book's eight chapters, the first three (61 pages) are devoted to clarifying her theoretical stance and the statistical packages used in the study. Chapter four is a historical analysis of agrarian relationships that shows the inequalities in land ownership among groups. Historically, according to Thapa, land ownership in Nepal is closely and systematically tied to the hierarchical caste framework: the higher the caste status of the family, the higher the land ownership of the family, and vice versa. This inequality of land ownership has generated migration potential within and between families, motivated Gurkha recruitment, and eventually led to land-reform programmes in Nepal. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 incorporate data gathered in the field, and an attempt to explain production processes and socio-economic change at the household level; distinguish the characteristics of movers from stayers, and the permanent, non-permanent, and potential migrants; and, finally, delineate the consequences of migration in the hills as well as in the Terai.

Thapa's sample is relatively large: 527 households (sample population — 3042) in two hill districts (Lamjung and Syangja) and 975 households (sample population = 5858) in two Terai dis-tricts (Chitwan and Nawalparasi). It is curious, however, that her Terai sample is nearly twice as large as her hill sample, even though she herself notes that the ramification of migration is more acute in the hills than in the Terai. She has lavishly used concepts such as marginalization, pauperization and proletarianization to explain migration, and "weighted least squares (WLS)" categorical models to explain her data. To her, migration is a process of household sustenance, where internal demographic features (such as family size, age structure, sex distribution, education, generational depth, etc„) and economic structures (such as land ownership, terms of tenure, debt, credit, market interaction, outside employment and other development activities) play the decisive role. In short, Thapa sets out to link migration with domestic production processes.

As a reviewer, I feel that the book is the product of a sincere effort, but one hurriedly published without properly assessing the technicality of key concepts, i.e. those used in the text to explain migration in Nepal. Though Thapa devotes so much of her time explaining how she analyzed the data, she never questions the quality and range of data she collected in the field. As noted before, migration is a complex phenomenon. It is difficult to assess why and how an individual or a family leaves his village of origin and moves elsewhere. Social and economic data collected in the field are more important to explain migration than her log-linear model.

Take her data on land ownership and the process of marginalization of the household. In Nepal, land is normally held in common by the household. However, recent (1964) legislation restricting the size of land holdings has led many families to divide formal ownership among their members even though the land is actually under an unified common control. In order to analyze the way in which the land holding of a household increases or decreases over time, one needs to take recourse to detailed land records from the Mal (Revenue) Office. Reported figures on land holdings may be far less reliable.

Likewise, let us examine her concept of pauperization, which is also a relative concept. She mentions the "old standard of living" (p. 99), but does not provide data for comparision with the new standard of living. Her tables 5.2 and 5,3 (pp. 79 – 80) do not at all show changes in socio-economic classes and forms of tenure. These tables do not explain why a landowner in 1970 became a share cropper in 1979. Furthermore, a 10-year period is quite inadequate to assess changes in peoples' socio-economic status. Nowhere is longitudinal data provided for household size, remittances, intensity of land cultivation, and changes in tenure. There is also no data on family formation and growth.

Thapa attempts to show a positive relationship between the magnitudes of agricultural wage earners and the un-employed on one hand, and the intention to migrate permanently (p. 101) on the other. But how many families in such conditions, in real life, really migrated? As Thapa herself admits, her data groups at points of origin and destination were different households (p. 47). Given this constraint, it is difficult to establish whether or not the households in the hills indicating intentions to migrate did actually migrate.

The book contains a number of hypotheses which lack the supporting data to assess them. That is, the book is full of theoretical and statistical assumptions while lacking the data that would allow us to test these same assumptions. Nevertheless, the book is quite useful, as it reviews a large body of literature available in the field. Also, Thapa puts forth many propositions that need serious consideration. Some of these propositions could provide fresh in-sights for new researchers.

Dilli R Dahal is a sociologist with the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies in Kathmandu.

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