Study tours help sustainable development professionals experience globally relevant challenges and innovations. In India, teachable moments abound, as was the case recently when I led a group of graduate students from Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS). India’s development trajectory will likely be the most significant in human history and thus the most consequential for global sustainability challenges.

Rapid urbanization  India is set to be the fastest urbanizing country in history. Every year, new urban area the size of New York City or larger is built to accommodate the rural-to-urban migration. The strain on urban infrastructure is intense: construction is continuous and haphazard; building codes are left unenforced in the interest of increasing speed and volume; congestion and pollution are crippling health and productivity; informal settlements where new migrants are forced to live often lack water, sanitation, and transportation to jobs; and strong-arm tactics by unscrupulous developers and “water mafia” intimidate the weak and vulnerable. Still, people continue to migrate from rural to urban areas. Why?

Historically, urban areas have provided better access to spouses, education, healthcare, human rights, and higher-paying jobs. Rural areas tend to be remote, conservative, and underserviced by hospitals and schools. They also tend to require working in agriculture, which often means long hours of manual labor for subsistence or poverty wages.

Livelihood development in rural areas  In one trip, my students and I typically visit several livelihood-development NGOs that work with rural people. The leaders and professionals of these organizations never fail to impress me and my students with their leadership chops, deep expertise, compassion, and their ability to straddle traditional and modern cultures. The learning opportunities for students are profound, and local professionals are generous with their time.

But herein lies my dilemma: the livelihood development projects we study markedly improve quality of life in rural people, and that’s clearly a good thing… but do they also just delay eventual urban migration, and prolong patriarchal oppression and manual labor of disempowered people—especially women? By modestly improving their education and healthcare, by increasing access to fresh water, and by helping them market farm goods and traditional crafts, are the countless rural livelihood development efforts around the world unwisely enticing people to linger in rural villages? Should we instead be investing in improving urban migration and urban conditions?

Empowering women entrepreneurs in rural Sundarbuns  Here is a fascinating example of the dilemma. The Sundarbuns is a heavily populated, biologically rich, World Heritage mangrove wetland located in eastern India near Kolkata.  Farms produce rice, vegetables, shrimp, crab, and fish. Most of the farmers live in poverty; while they live above the horrible 2-dollar-a-day abject poverty, many still have mud floors and lack key indicators of having entered the global middle class (e.g., washing machines, or motorized transport such as a motorcycle).

Amar Khamar is one of many impressive organizations working in the Sundarbuns to improve rural livability. They have developed a software platform that allows farmers—mostly women—to sell directly to urban foodies. The result empowers women to bypass middleman who previously could scam and set the prices because they had the advantage of better transportation and information. Now, the women know the market price of rice and can work through Amar Khamar to sell directly to wealthy urban Indians who care about where their rice comes from and are willing to pay a price differential for distinctive heritage rice flavors and organic production.

My students interviewed several of the women farmers. The extra income they earn through Amar Khamar changes family dynamics, and empowers women to help their families save for children’s education and other middle-class purchases.  Because the rice is certified organic, the women report health benefits from not having to employ pesticides in the crops near where they work and live. They also report stable rice yields and lower cost of inputs (chemicals and fertilizer), making family finances more resilient to rice price fluctuations and crop failures.

Unfortunately, the income bump—while significant for those living near the poverty line—is marginal by middle-class standards: several hundred dollars a year. Moreover, the Sundarbans could be underwater in 100 years due to climate change and sea level rise. Farmers already see rising water, more flooding, rapid depletion of aquifers from which their fresh water is pumped, and saltwater intrusion into those aquifers.

Should society encourage innovative and noble efforts, such as Amar Khamar’s, that help people stay in place and measurably improve their lives? Or, should we instead focus our innovative and talented people and organizations on hastening and improving urban migration and city retreat from rising sea levels? Sustainability professionals must navigate these difficult dilemmas.


Bruce Hull

Dr. Hull is a Senior Fellow at Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability in Arlington and a professor at VT’s College of Natural Resources and Environment in Blacksburg.  He writes and teaches about leadership for sustainable development and how to have influence in the cross-sector space where government, business, and civil society intersect. He advises organizations, communities, and professionals responding to the Anthropocene. He has authored and edited numerous publications, including two books, Infinite Nature and Restoring Nature. Currently, he serves as president of the Board of Directors of Climate Solutions University and on the advisory council for Virginia Tech’s Global Change Center.