Changing livelihoods at India’s rural–urban transition

Publication Type:

Journal Articles


World Development, Volume 146, Issue 105617 (2021)



development, India, Labor migration, Livelihoods, Rural–urban transition, Urbanization


In India, the past couple of decades witnessed, simultaneously, a massive shift of employment out of agriculture, substantial urban growth in heretofore rural regions, and rapid increases in the rates of labor migration. But very little is known about new livelihoods being forged or the whereabouts of these livelihoods. We draw on extensive primary data collected at two sites in West Bengal and Bihar, along with a comprehensive analysis of population census and GIS data, to investigate livelihood transformations and household well-being. We observe large-scale change, exceeding common perceptions of academics and policy makers. While the shift out of agriculture is momentous, alternative local livelihoods are scarce and, more than ever, labor migration offers a way out for many households. Traditional seasonal migration has made way for more permanent forms of circular labor migration. Our comparative study shows that the timing and nature of this transformation varies to some extent across India as the decline in agricultural employment occurred at different times. We also observe significantly different impacts of domestic versus international labor migration. There is a pressing need for pro-active government policies that stimulate local economic restructuring and livelihood opportunities and, as long as these local economies are insufficiently developed, that facilitate circular labor migration.