The beautifully vibrant city of Yangon is the epitome of urban living in Myanmar. The country’s commercial capital, Yangon is home to over 5 million people, forming a big chunk of Myanmar’s population. The city juxtaposed against vast expanses of arable land and dry areas, with shanties and hutments in hamlets in the country side, brings out the stark contrast in life and living in Myanmar.
Like many other countries, a prominent rural-urban divide is visible in Myanmar. Inequalities are evident in all developing economies with higher dependence on agrarian activities, and till this dependence on agriculture reduces with alternative sources of employment coming up, the pace of development remains slow and the division between the haves and the have-nots unlikely to reduce. The gap between rural and urban development can be partly attributed to an urban bias and governmental policies which focus more on developing cities and urban areas. This is true of other countries like India, and neighboring Thailand which has seen urbanization centered around the Bangkok Metropolitan Region.
Myanmar today, is a country on the threshold of rapid development. According to the Asian Development Bank, the country’s GDP growth reached 7.5% in the fiscal year 2013-14. With foreign investment pouring in, and favorable government regulations, growth rates are expected to be even higher in the current fiscal year. The outside world is upbeat about the developmental prospects of Myanmar with its rich reserves of natural resources, an untapped market for consumer goods, and a strategic location.
But the ground reality reveals a country struggling with poverty with approximately twenty-three percent of its population living below the poverty line, overdependence on agriculture for subsistence and small-scale farmers forming the economy’s backbone, not to mention the acute dearth of skilled labor.
The Rural Scenario
According to World Bank estimates based on UN World Urbanization Prospects, in 2012, Myanmar’s rural population forms 67% of the total population of 57 million that resides in its 40,000 odd villages. Regional disparities are clearly evident and poverty in rural areas is a big concern. According to a UNDP report, rural poor account for 84% of the total poor population. Rural poverty is the result of a series of factors like small or no farms, poor output which is sold at low prices, limited availability of non agrarian jobs, and lack of credit facilities. Majority of the farmers own less than ten acres of land and this fragmentation of holdings prevents higher yields at lower costs. 37% of the villagers do not own any land or livestock, and live and work in quite the same way as their forefathers did. The use of bullock carts for plowing fields, bamboo houses without access to electricity, safe drinking water and sanitation facilities, are some of the features of rural life that need to be urgently addressed.
Life in the rural areas of Myanmar today is medieval and slow-paced. The people lead simple lives, with no mechanization, their homes spartan and basic. Even electricity and water sources at home are available to a very select few. Communication, infrastructural facilities and healthcare all need to be improved and enhanced to extend their reach to remote and border areas of the country.
There has been an exodus of young men and women from villages to neighboring Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia for more lucrative work prospects. Their remittances have served as a boon and savior to families back home. Typically, the development process sees such migration to cities and towns nearby, but since industrialization and work opportunities have been limited within the country, the demand for semi-skilled and domestic labor has lured them beyond Myanmar borders. A larger number of women have joined the work force in neighboring Asian countries. It is only recently that rural women have begun migrating to garment factories coming up in and around Yangon.
The Urban Scene
At present, Myanmar’s urban population is roughly 30% of the total, with only 13% living in big cities. According to the McKinsey report on Myanmar, this percentage could increase sharply to 25% by the year 2030, with around ten million people migrating to large cities. Urban activity in Myanmar is concentrated primarily in Yangon and Mandalay.
Urbanization is the first step towards industrialization of an economy as the labor looks for work beyond farms in factories and companies. It offers employment opportunities almost absent in villages, a better standard of life and access to basic amenities like better housing, education and health care. Cities have better roads and transport facilities, besides higher availability of goods and services, despite being more densely populated. This makes life in cities more appealing and attractive. The attire and food habits of city folk are similar to their rural counterparts, but the urban poor are worse off in some ways, since they do not have access to agricultural produce that the rural poor can consume even as they cope with a higher cost of living.
The Rural-Urban Divide
Myanmar’s rural urban divide is conspicuous in every aspect of the common man’s life, be it access to education and healthcare, infrastructure, power, communication, or even general living standards. Since occupational fields in rural and urban domains are so diverse, there is a distinct contrast in earning capacities. It inevitably translates into economic inequality, lop-sided development and a widening gap between the rich and the poor.
- The power gap- The electrification ratio in Myanmar is much lower than that of its neighboring Asian countries in both rural and urban areas. Per capita electricity consumption is about one-twentieth of Thailand. Only 60% of the total power supply is reliable. The use of renewable energy sources like hydropower for approximately 70% of the total supply, makes it vulnerable to the vagaries of nature, and a dry spell leads to major shortages. Rural access to power is more disturbing with over 72% villages still un-electrified, according to the MOEP report on rural electrification in Myanmar. Villages see only a small number of households connected with a tangle of wires to electricity poles. With only 16-18% of the rural people having access to power, the setting sun plunges the countryside into blackness. In sharp contrast, 89% of the urban population has access to electricity, which facilitates industrial production as well. With foreign investment being allowed, the power situation is expected to improve in the next 3-5 years.
- Water and sanitation- Access to safe drinking water in rural Myanmar was 65% in 2010 compared to 81% in urban areas. Not that there is any dearth of water resources in the country. Myanmar has abundance of water with potential annual volume of surface water being 1082 cubic km besides 495 cubic km of ground water. Unfortunately, only 5 % of the potential water supply is used and access of safe drinking water or its use for sanitation is at disturbingly low levels. Villages get most of their water from springs, open wells and rivers, with dwindling supply during the dry season, which forces people to consume even contaminated water. Urban areas have water sources in most homes, but national figures reveal that only 10.5 % of the poor have a water source in their homes. Sanitation facilities are available to 77% of the rural residents and 84% of the urban population. International organizations like UNICEF, Red Cross, Asian Development Bank and countries like Japan are assisting the country in improving water and sanitation works.
- Education – The rural urban difference is evident even more in the field of education though the country has a literacy rate of 89.7%. While every village does have at least one school, in remote and border areas, the number reduces to one school for five villages. The presence of monastic schools helps bridge the gap. Enrolment into primary schools is high, with 85% of children of primary school age attending school in urban areas, compared to 76% in rural areas. However, all the enrolled children do not complete primary school education. The dropout rate is higher in rural areas due to problems of transportation and access to schools, among other reasons. Attendance in secondary schools is lower with 69% of secondary school age children attending school in urban areas, compared to only 34% in rural areas. The 156 institutes of higher education are all in cities. Training facilities for teachers and availability of school supplies in rural schools are much lesser than their urban counterparts.
- Healthcare- Myanmar’s healthcare services leave a lot to be desired, even though the government is refurbishing the system of providing basic medical facilities, with increased government spending of 3.9% of the annual budget in 2013, up from 1.9% in 2012. Rural areas have health centers, and the Township Health System introduced in 1964, continues. Both traditional herbal medicine and modern medicine practices are followed here, and preference for the former is evident. The rural areas have limited access to healthcare since very basic health problems can be resolved in their villages, and have to rush to neighboring cities for specialist treatment at Station Hospitals or Township Hospitals with 25-50 beds depending on the population of the township. Villages have primary health care centers, which have midwives and health assistants. All these come under the Township Health Department that is responsible for providing primary and secondary healthcare. Serious illnesses and deteriorating conditions push people towards specialist hospitals in Yangon and Mandalay, after traditional herbal medicines have also been tried and failed. The rural poor often seek treatment from untrained health workers since doctors are not easily available. Insufficient salaries, lack of learning opportunities and difficult conditions are some of the deterrents that discourage doctors from serving in rural areas. A few international NGOs provide free medical aid in rural areas. Hospitals are found in cities with specialist, children and women’s hospitals established only in Yangon and Mandalay. Of late, private medical institutes including polyclinics have mushroomed in Yangon. The facilities, equipment and supplies, are not still state-of-the-art even in these private startups. Foreign hospitals especially those from neighboring Thailand and Singapore have also set up representative offices with the aim of promoting medical tourism in their country. The contrast is striking.
- Telecommunications- Telecommunication is the key to growth and development of economies. The telecommunication network in Myanmar is being built with participation of foreign companies like Qatar based Ooredoo, and Norway’s Telenor. At present telecommunication services are poor compared to other countries, and have been monopolized by MPT, the state owned enterprise. As of now, there is a single telephone for 169 people, and a SIM card for mobile phones costs between USD100-200. Oredoo has released its first lot of SIM cards costing only 1500 kyats. However, service issues, poor connectivity and other teething problems need to be addressed before it can be a threat to the reigning MPT.
Till these companies start full scale operations, less than 10% of the population has access to mobile phones, and the internet penetration is less than 1% of the total population, and this too is confined to big cities like Yangon, Mandalay, Nay Pyi Taw and Bagan. Only around 10,000 users exist beyond Yangon and Mandalay. Internet cafes are common, but again only in cities. The situation in rural Myanmar can only be imagined, with villagers and farmers having little or no access to telephones, leave alone internet. Till end 2012, most villages were without fixed line telephone services. In the last one year, with SIM card prices falling, the number of subscribers has increased, but connectivity remains poor due to lack of supporting infrastructure to cater to a larger clientele. People in rural areas who can afford handsets costing between $45-350, have started buying mobile phones, but service remains poor and it is not always possible to stay connected.
The rural urban divide is not going unnoticed and the government is keen to address this issue and efforts are on, to bridge the gap so as to improve economic efficiency. President U Thein Sein addressed the National Workshop on Rural Development Strategic Framework in November last year, and elaborated on making rural development a key focus area with emphasis on providing food security, poverty reduction and sustainable economic development.
The rural urban divide can be a potential cause of social and economic instability, since inequalities provide for an unhealthy climate for growth. With new laws being formulated, and regulations being put in place, the process of change, improvement and development is irreversible. The only way seems upwards and with it will come, rural development, which will improve the quality of life and work of the rural folk, bringing them closer to at least urban, if not, international living standards.