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The internal dimensions of the changing urban system

Although international factors have played an important part in the recent economic boom, which has affected the existing urban system, internal or domestic factors also cause changes in the urban system. The most important internal dimensions of the changing urban system are probably seen in the effect of economic growth and development on rural as well as urban income alike, the change in rural and urban poverty and income distribution, the policy response in regional development, and the migration patterns of the rural population.

Household income, poverty, and income distribution

There are at least two ways in which the income of the population can be measured to reflect the traditional level of economic well-being. One way is to look at the GNP per capita for the whole economy or the gross provincial product (GPP) per capita for any province, and the other way is to look at household or personal income, which consists mainly of cash income and income-in-kind. Although GNP or GPP per capita gives a good summary indicator of overall economic growth and achievement, it may not be a good indicator of the economic well-being of a household or an individual because the national income data give only the productive value-added of all the sectors and not the command over resources of the people. Therefore, household or personal income from income surveys provides a more appropriate indicator.

That being the case, table 9.9, which shows average household income per capita by region in 1968/69, 1975/76, 1981, 1986, and 1988 from several socio-economic surveys conducted by the National Statistical Office (NSO), can be used to trace changes in the economic conditions of households through time. For instance, it can be seen that the average household (current) income in the BMR increased from 3,993 baht in 1968/69 to 28,098 baht in 1988, representing an increase of over 6 times the original income in 20 years, or an annual rate of growth of about 10.2 per cent, whereas for the whole kingdom the income increase was from 2,490 baht in 1968/69 to 12,766 in 1988, an increase of about 4.1 times, or an annual rate of growth of 8.5 per cent. Households in the BMR were obviously better off than those in the rest of the country. For example, for households in the Northeast, the poorest region of the country, the income increase was from 1,580 baht to 7,804 baht during the same period, which was an increase of only 3.9 times the original level, or a rate of growth of 8.3 per cent. The difference in income growth between Bangkok and the rest of the country is very obvious.

Table 9.9 Household income per capita per year by region, 1968/69-1988








Whole kingdom

Household income per capita (baht/year)
1968/69 3,993 2,790 1,580 1,830 2,056 2,490
1975/76 7,246 5,195 3,030 3,686 4,048 4,206
1981 17,063 10,228 5,910 8,447 8,880 9,008
1986 21,944 11,445 6,257 9,557 10,448 10,133
1988 28,098 12,739 7,804 11,158 11,228 12,766
Average household income per capita by area (baht/year)
Municipal area 8,284 8,299 6,671 8,672 7,610 7,735
Sanitary district 7,238 5,948 4,847 4,494 4,726 5,102
Village 5,354 4,610 2,606 3,101 3,398 3,233
Municipal area 20,060 15,758 15,923 19,086 18,307 17,415
Sanitary district 17,160 10,771 8,334 9,528 10,077 9,449
Village 11,441 9,519 5,368 7,345 7,421 6,991
Municipal area 24,327 20,369 20,385 22,594 22,070 21,013
Sanitary district 21,015 13,983 10,384 10,520 12,657 11,762
Village 17,172 9,837 5,196 8,363 8,4()3 7,144
Municipal area 29,880 20,430 17,602 25,742 22,538 26,791
Sanitary district 21,938 14,974 12,856 11,601 14,4()7 14,252
Village 19,684 11,192 6,868 9,522 9,040 8,916

Source: Derived from Household Socio-economic Survey reports, National Statistical Office.

Now consider the extreme cases of the income of a municipal household in Bangkok and that in a North-east village. In 1988 the difference in average per capita household income between these two cases was about 3.4 times (29,880 baht compared with 6,868 baht). In 1975/76, this income difference was only about 2.2 times. This is a simple way of measuring the growing income disparity between urban Bangkok and the rural North-east. Partly because of this disparity, the Gini coefficient for the whole country worsened from 0.426 in 1975/76 to 0.479 in 1988 (Medhi et al., 1991a: table 2-10). In short, the urban growth of Bangkok has brought about greater income inequality in the country.

On a more global basis, the increasing exposure of the Thai economy to international economic forces as mentioned in the last section also created an unequal distribution of income. With the Thai government's generally non-interventionist policy towards business activities and generally ineffective fiscal redistributive policy, the benefits accruing to the foreign-related economic sectors were not fully shared by the population at large, and the trickling down of those benefits was quite slow. The result was that large urban centres like Bangkok enjoyed all the fruits of the increasing internationalization of the Thai economy, leaving other areas, particularly rural areas, far behind.5

However, although the relative income positions of households has become more unequal as time passes, the absolute income positions of households across all regions have improved as a result of the general increase in household income alluded to earlier. Assuming that there exists a minimum income below which a household could be judged poor, this poverty line could be used to measure the success or failure of economic development in the country. This picture of poverty incidence or the proportion of households in each particular area or location living in poverty is presented in table 9.10.

First, it should be explained that the poverty incidence series 1988(1) is compatible with the series 1981(1) calculated by Suganya and Somchai (1988) for two reasons. One, the poverty lines were adjusted from the same consumption basket in 1975/76, and only the adjustment for price increases was made. Two, the rural poverty line was applied to the sanitary districts, which tended to understate rural poverty because the rural poverty line is lower than the urban poverty line. From this table, therefore, it may be seen that there was a small reduction in the incidence of poverty from 23.04 per cent in 1981 to 21.18 per cent in 1988. Applying these percentages to the population in both years, it was found that the estimated number of people living in poverty increased from 10.94 million in 1981 to 11.68 million in 1988.

Table 9.10 Poverty lines and the incidence of poverty in Thailand, 1975-1988

Region and area 1975/76(1)a 1981(1)a 1988(1)a 1988(2)b
North 33.20 21.50 19.95 22.26


17.84 8.03 10.53 10.53

Sanitary district

19.23 16.16 15.14 36.38


36.37 23.32 21.61 21.61
North-east 44.92 35.93 34.56 36.31


20.90 17.99 18.62 18.62

Sanitary district

24.66 20.81 18.60 41.84


48.54 37.93 36.77 36.77
Centre 12.99 13.55 12.91 14.79


11.45 11.74 7.73 7.73

Sanitary district

7.99 11.62 5.90 18.67


14.26 14.16 15.04 15.04
South 30.71 20.37 19.43 20.51


21.69 15.20 10.81 10.81

Sanitary district

18.14 6.75 10.20 25.69


33.84 22.16 21.72 21.72
Bangkok 7.75 3.89 3.48 4.10

City core

6.90 3.70 2.66 2.66

Surrounding provinces

- - 6.58 9.56
Whole kingdom 30.02 23.04 21.18 22.82


12.53 7.51 6.11 6.11

Sanitary district

14.76 13.47 12.17 29.64


36.16 27.34 26.30 26.30
Poverty lines (baht/year/person)        


1,981 3,454 4,076 4,076


2,916 5,151 6,203 6,203

Sources: National Statistical Office, 1988 Socio-economic Survey; and Suganya and Somchai (1988) for 1981 and 1975/76 data.

a. (1): Applying rural poverty line to sanitary districts.
b. (2): Applying urban poverty line to sanitary districts.

The rate of poverty incidence varies among regions and community type. The North-east has the highest poverty incidence (34.56 per cent), while Bangkok and the surrounding provinces have the lowest (3.48 per cent). In all regions, the incidence of poverty is very high in the villages. At the country level, the rate of poverty incidence of people living in villages is 26.3 per cent, representing about 10.42 million. The estimated number of people living in poverty in municipal and sanitary districts is about 1.26 million. This confirms the general belief that severe poverty in Thailand is a rural phenomenon. Bangkok of course has the lowest proportion of its population living in poverty. Although there were reputed to be more than 1,000 slum areas in Bangkok in the late 1980s, not all of the people who lived in them were poor according to the agreed poverty line. In fact, it was estimated that, in general, no more than one in four who lived in Bangkok slums could be classified as poor (Medhi et al., 1987). However, when sanitary districts were treated as urban areas and the urban poverty line applied, the incidence of poverty understandably increased. The overall increase was from 21.18 per cent to 22.82 per cent, implying that 12.58 million of Thailand's population still lived in poverty in 1988.

From the above discussion, it might be concluded that the incidence of poverty in Thailand in 1988 had reduced, but not significantly, from the 1981 level. However, if we consider a longer-run perspective such as the late 1960s and 1970s, we can see that the estimated poverty incidence of 46.75 per cent in 1968/69 had reduced quite significantly to 21.18 per cent in 1988. It is the marginal decrease that has slowed down, which might imply that we are approaching a "hard core" poverty group. However, the above poverty analysis used a poverty line that was estimated from the early 1970s' population structure, nutritional requirements, food and non-food consumption patterns, and prices. The situation in 1988 was certainly different from that in the early 1970s, and a new poverty line should be computed and used. This was done by Medhi et al. (1991a), and the new poverty line based on the new population structure, nutritional requirements, household consumption patterns, and prices was about 68 per cent higher than the old poverty line (in constant prices). The result of the application of the new poverty line was obvious: the incidence of poverty in Thailand remained very high. For the whole kingdom, 48.79 per cent of the total population were estimated to live below this new poverty line. Of course, this new poverty line will be subjected to various criticisms and comments about its concept and estimation techniques, but at least it has drawn attention to the fact that poverty problems in Thailand are as serious as ever despite the apparent economic success measured in terms of per capita GNP and the growth rate of GDP.

Regional development, rural industrialization, and internal migration

The fact, and concern, that Bangkok dominates the rest of the country has been known to the Thai authorities for a long time. As early as 1960, even before the first National Economic Development Plan was launched, the government had plans to establish cities in other regions outside of Bangkok as centres for regional economic growth, to spread growth away from Bangkok. Chiang Mai in the North and Khon Kaen in the North-east were selected as the first two such centres, but the plans did not go much beyond the setting up of a national university in each city. The regional development policy proper did not take shape until the Third Plan in 1971. As Yongyuth (1990) has pointed out, beginning with this Plan, five provincial cities outside Bangkok were explicitly identified by the government as regional growth centres, namely, Nonthaburi, Samut Prakan, Pathum Thani, Samut Sakhon, and Nakhon Pathom. Seven more "first-generation" urban centres plus five Bangkok vicinities were added to the list in the Fourth Plan. During the Fifth Plan, city names were not specifically mentioned, but the so-called growth pole approach to regional development was explicitly adopted, which aimed at promoting infrastructure-led development of selected areas outside Bangkok as alternatives to migration to Bangkok. Five specific areas were mentioned: the eastern seaboard, the Western region, the Lower Northeast region, the Upper Northern region, and the southern border provinces. As it turned out, only the eastern seaboard has shown some signs of being successful.

In the Sixth Plan, however, the concept of regional city centres was re-emphasized. Six more "second-generation" urban centres were added to the original list of five provincial centres to form the present "core" city or urban centres, and 13 additional cities were identified as "third-generation" urban growth centres. This was a period when a great deal of effort, especially under the coordination of the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), was put into achieving the goals of regional development policy set out in the Plan, which were mainly to strengthen the industrial bases of these centres; to develop important infrastructure, public utilities, and other social services; and to improve local public finance and administration.6

The outcome of this regional development policy during the Sixth Plan was only partially successful. Although there were some improvements in the provision of public utilities in many of these core cities, many other regional development objectives were not met. Take rural industrialization policy, for example. These core cities could provide industrial bases for the regions, creating industrial production and employment, and reducing or preventing forced or unwanted migration into Bangkok, but ironically this component of what could be described as a critical regional development policy was virtually absent from the Sixth Plan, at least in the part that referred to the role of the small and medium-scale industries that mostly characterize rural industries. The interest in small-scale and rural industries became overshadowed by the promise of large-scale investment projects such as those contained in the Eastern Seaboard Project. The success of exports in the first few years of this Plan, as mentioned earlier in the previous section, has apparently reoriented the government towards large-scale, capital-intensive industrialization techniques. For the time being, rural industrialization has lost its effective public sponsor.

That leaves rural workers who wish to find jobs in the non-agricultural sector to look for them either permanently or temporarily in Bangkok and its vicinity or elsewhere, not in the region. Although internal migration is often perceived as an economical way for an individual or household to seek to increase income, to escape poverty, or to improve their livelihood, it should not be the only option that rural workers can choose to supplement their income. The recent economic boom has heightened the process of migration from rural areas mainly into Bangkok and its vicinity, which has contributed to the greater growth of Bangkok and, with it, ensuing urban problems.

Some analyses of the effect of migration on the existing urban system might be of interest here. Recently the NSO conducted a study of the employment and unemployment of migrants to Bangkok Metropolis (Area A), its vicinities (Area B), and five other regional growth centres (Area C) using data for 1986 from the 1988 Labour Force Survey. Table 9.11 reports the approximate number of migrants into the above three areas, and shows that, in February 1986, Area A had the highest number of in-migrants who were in the labour force (about 336,400 persons). Comparing the corresponding figure in August 1986, the labour force of migrants to Area A increased slightly (to about 348,600 persons) but more than doubled to Area B and substantially decreased to Area C.

Table 9.11 Migration into the labour force in Bangkok and other urban areas, 1986 ('000)

  Bangkok Metropolis Vicinity of Bangkok Metropolis Regional urban growth centre Total of the three areas
Total Male Female Total Male Female Total Male Female
Round 1 (February)
Current labour force 336.4 164.6 171.8 143.0 80.1 63.0 120.6 83.2 37.4 600.0
  (56.1) (27.4) (28.6) (23.8) (13.4) (10.5) (20.1) (13.9) (6.2) (100.0)
Employed 311.7 155.5 156.2 134.5 75.8 58.7 102.0 74.4 27.7 548.2
  (56.9) (28.4) (28.5) (24.5) (13.8) (10.7) (18.6) (13.6) (5.1) (100.0)
Unemployed 24.8 9.1 15.7 8.6 4.3 4.3 18.5 8.8 9.7 51.8
  (47.9) (17.6) (30.3) (16.6) (8.3) (8.3) (35.7) (17.0) (18.7) (100.0)
Round 2 (August)
Current labour force 348.6 161.5 187.1 309.7 160.5 149.2 75.4 40.6 34.7 733.7
  (47.5) (22.0) (25.5) (42.2) (21.9) (20.3) (10.3) (5.5) (4.7) (100.0)
Employed 329.5 154.5 175.0 273.2 130.7 142.5 71.4 37.6 33.8 674.1
  (48.9) (22.9) (26.0) (40.5) (19.4) (21.1) (10.6) (5.6) (5 0) (100.0)
Unemployed 19.1 7.0 12.1 36.6 29.9 6.7 3.9 3.0 0.9 59.6
  (32.0) (11.7) (20.3) (61.4) (50.2) (11.2) (6.5) (5.0) (1.5) (100.0)

Source: National Statistical Office, 1988 Labour Force Survey.
Note: Figures in parentheses are percentages.

Table 9.12 Origins of migration into Bangkok Metropolis and other urban areas, 1986

From\To Bangkok Metropolis Vicinity of Bangkok Metropolis Regional urban growth centre
Round 1 (February)
North 14.6 11.8 21.4
North-east 36.8 19.5 15.2
Centre 34.9 22.5 23.7
South 11.3 8.3 18.4
Bangkok - 36.3 12.0
Foreign countries 1.9 1.4 8.7
Unknown 0.5 0.3 0.6
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0
Round 2 (August)
North 19.8 8.3 5.5
North-east 38.3 15.6 33.1
Centre 31.1 26.6 24.0
South 8.4 1.5 10.3
Bangkok - 47.9 19.9
Foreign countries 2.0 - 7.2
Unknown 0.4 0.1 -
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0

Source: Adapted from National Statistical Office, 1988 Labour Force Survey, Table D, p. 51.

Table 9.11 also shows that for the most part Bangkok Metropolis was the favoured destination of most rural-urban migration. For example, in February 1986, 56.1 per cent of the sampled migrants had gone to Bangkok Metropolis. Together with the vicinity of Bangkok Metropolis (the BMR), this integrated area accounted for almost 80 per cent of in-migrants from the survey. During the cropping season, the percentage of in-migrants coming to this area may decline somewhat, but the importance of the BMR as a favourite migration destination is beyond any doubt.

Table 9.12 further shows the origin of migration. The findings presented in this table show that the majority of in-migrants into Area A came from the North-east (36.8 per cent in February), followed by the Centre, North, and South, respectively. In August, the order was the same. Migratory activities in and around the Central Region might appear to be more frequent than from the North-east but there is no denying that, in general, migration from the North-east to Bangkok Metropolis was the most outstanding migration of all.

Finally, the reader is referred back to table 9.4, which shows projected net gains of population into the East and BMR through in-migration. These in-migrants will number about 116,000 people in the Eastern region, and 316,900 people in the BMR. Again, this is further confirmation of the enhanced urban hierarchy of Bangkok and its vicinity and the Central region in the future.

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