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India on the Move: Unravelling the Black Box of Commuting

S. Chandrasekhar
October 20, 2014

In the last couple of decades, the number of two-way commuters between rural and urban areas on a daily basis has seen an explosive growth. This includes a large number of workers engaged in menial service sector jobs who do not have a fixed place of work. One could go out on a limb and claim that migration is passé and commuting is chic, but the time has come for conversations on labor mobility to move beyond one that is migration centric to one that also includes commuting.

Considering rural-urban, urban-rural commuters and those with no fixed place of work between 1993-94 and 2009-10, India has seen a nearly fourfold increase (from 6.34 million to 24.62 million) in the number of two-way commuters between rural and urban areas. These estimates are from the National Sample Survey Organization’s survey on employment and unemployment. The surprising fact is that this growth has been under the radar. These estimates do not include individuals who commute long distances within rural areas (across villages) or within an urban agglomeration (ie, across the five districts that are part of Mumbai metropolitan region), across cities (i.e., from Bardhhaman to Howrah), or across states, as is observed in the National Capital Region. To be fair, in the larger Indian urban agglomerations, the issue of commuting time and distance to place of work does feature in popular discourse, but there is hardly any data that can claim to reliably quantify this phenomenon.

For too long, Indian policy makers and city planners have obsessed about the much anticipated surge in migration. This surge did not quite happen in the inter-censal period of 2001-11. Kanhu Chandra Pradhan, a researcher at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, estimates that less than 24 percent of the urban population growth can be attributed to migration. Between 2001-11, net rural-urban migration accounted for 21 percent of the urban population growth.

If only the Census of India canvassed information on distance commuted for work, we could have contrasted the growth in migration with that of commuting. Ironically, as per the documentation available on the Census of India, in 2001, “a new question on distance travelled by a person to his/her work place and also mode of travel was canvassed for persons engaged in non-agriculture activities.” For reasons unknown, the tabulations on distance travelled were never released. Similar information appears to have been canvassed in the 2011 census.

Our back of the envelope, calculation suggests that the number of commuting workers is at least twice, if not greater than the number of short term migrants and nearly eight times the number of individuals who migrate in any one year. Given that the increase in the number of commuters is post-1990s, economic reforms probably had something to do with it.

Looking back, in the years following independence, people followed jobs. An example would be large in-migration into industrial townships like Bhilai where steel plants were built. This trend did continue into the 80s. However, since the beginning of the 90s – the era of reforms on account of relaxation of industrial location policies – there was a dispersion of fresh investments to newer districts. In the book, Made in India, Sanjoy Chakravorty and Somik Lall document the churn in the ranking of districts in terms of investment flows. For example, if Durg figured in the pre-90s ranking sweepstakes, in the era of reforms its adjoining district Raipur entered the rankings. These developments did not come as a surprise since there is one view that while import substituting industrialization policies lead to the rise of huge central metropolises, open markets could possibly discourage them. Recent evidence does document the redistribution of manufacturing from urban to rural areas. Since the 90s, while people continued to follow job creation, the need to migrate was reduced. Improvements in transport connectivity allowed people to commute for work rather than relocate or migrate, as was earlier the case. Some credit should go to the National Democratic Alliance government, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which made investing in roads a priority. A decade later, the Narendra Modi led government has promised to create jobs. Assuming that the government does deliver, a spatial mismatch is inevitable between where people live and where jobs will be created. This again brings forth the question: to migrate or to commute?

There is increasing likelihood that, given the option, individuals would prefer to commute rather than migrate. Why would commuting trump migration? The same macro factors that drive migration will drive commuting: a lack of jobs in rural India and its small towns; an increase in employment opportunities just outside city boundaries; rural-urban wage differentials; and a shift in the location of the formal (informal) manufacturing sector from urban to rural (rural to urban) areas. From the perspective of rural residents, since the benefits of rural development programs are not portable, commuting, if feasible, is more attractive than migration. Urban residents would rather commute than migrate to rural areas since urban amenities are better than rural amenities.

We need to put commuting on equal footing with migration in any conversation on worker mobility, since it is no longer a case of either/or. Researchers at the Institute of Human Development (IHD) in New Delhi found that in Chandkura (a village near Patna, the capital of the state of Bihar), commuting is important, while in another village, Mahisham (which is not near a large city), migration is observed. In Chandkura, workers are commuting up to thirty kms every day while in Mahisham, individuals commute only as far as the edge of the village. Nearly 25 percent of the male workforce in Chandkura is able to take advantage of the local urban labor markets without having to migrate.

Another interesting finding from the IHD study states that “If only income within the village (including commuting) is taken into account, the mean household income in Chandkura was 78 percent higher than in Mahisham (where migration is more important). After adding in remittances, the gap is reduced to 27 percent (these are averages for the whole village, including both migrant and non-migrant households).” That commuting makes households better off is also borne out from NSSO’s data. Households with rural-urban commuters have a higher average and median consumption expenditure than households where all workers live and work in rural areas, as well as rural households with workers having no fixed place of work.

In a survey conducted by Ajay Sharma, a researcher at Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, in some villages in West Bengal where commuting is observed, he found that, on average, individuals commuted 28 kilometers one way and incurred over Rs. 300 on transport costs. Half the individuals used one mode of transport, 15 percent used two modes, and the remaining individuals used three modes. The most common owned vehicle used by commuters is the bicycle. Workers using two modes of transport typically used railways or their own vehicle as the first mode and then boarded the bus. Respondents reporting using three different modes of transport mentioned that they used their own vehicle from residence, then the railways, and finally reached their workplace by bus, bicycle, or by walking.

The findings from Bihar and West Bengal provide support for what is often conjectured on the phenomenon of commuting. The unfortunate fact is that we still do not know much about it in great detail. In that sense, it is a black box. In order to have meaningful conversation that goes beyond the descriptive, we need rich data on the costs of commuting, its benefits, and how one can reduce commuting time so that it is not wasteful.

S. Chandrasekhar is an Associate Professor at Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai, and a CASI Fall 2014 Visiting Scholar. He can be reached at


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania and partially funded by the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI and the Khemka Foundation. IiT articles are re-published in the op-ed pages of The Hindu: Business Line. This article can be read here.

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