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Guest Editorial: Inland labour migration in India: Patterns of the phenomenon and critical possibilities

By Soma Chatterjee

The (then) middle class Indian Bengali milieu I grew up in, migration was not a familiar concept. In our neighbourhood, there were families hailing from, mostly, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, working in the neighbouring steel plant; women from Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh would exchange saris for steel utensils; I was taught by Hindi and Punjabi speaking teachers in my school; every now and then, we would speak in Hindi with some rickshawwallahs; winter would bring shawl-wallahs from the Kashmir valley; and Bhutias would set up makeshift stalls with colourful woollen garments. And, yet, migration for livelihood did not enter my imagination. Growing up with stories of partition of India, and the subsequent mass displacement of people, meant that migration was looked upon as catastrophic; something accidental, not systemic. Further, the celebratory narrative about Non-resident Indians (NRIs) in America (understood as the United States of America) and in countries of Western Europe created a romance for mobility, understood as anything but migration for livelihood. What I now understand as a very complex phenomenon involving competing narratives of power and privilege, vulnerability and exploitation, and domestic and international border politics, was, therefore, diluted.

Then I set foot, ‘landed’, in Toronto on a balmy September afternoon. In the following years, as I made sense of daily living, education, and employment in a city known for its friendliness towards immigrants, I became, however, increasingly aware of the category ‘immigrant’, even relatively privileged ones like myself, as a figure hanging onto the fringes of host societies, constantly negotiating and contesting multiple, cross-cutting, and contradictory borders. Throughout the western world, I realized, the word ‘immigrant’ is frequently associated with social problems or anomy; functioning, as French philosopher Etienne Balibar tellingly put it, “as a substitute for the notion of race and a solvent for class consciousness” (1991: 21).

How is it that the act of crossing borders makes people marginal and vulnerable – socially, politically and economically – and yet, it is those borders that some of us regularly cross in search of ‘better lives’? How is it that the metropolitan core – both in its global and local avatars – continues to represent ‘openness’, that Berger and Mohr in their 1975 classic A Seventh Man defined as an “opportunity to earn a living, to have enough money to act” (23), and the rural and the semi-rural stand for stasis? How is it that the nation-states rely on immigrant workers for financial prosperity and yet, render them un-belonging, when it comes to substantive political membership? Finally, how is this contradiction systemic (as opposed to being random) in our world and what are the consequences for people who cross borders in search of livelihood and the states whose borders they cross? These are questions driving my current doctoral research, which I am conceptualizing in the context of high skilled international labour migration in Canada. They also make me reflect on the lack of vocabulary on migration and migrant figures I grew up around; a silence that is troubling since India’s development through all those years was reliant on systemic displacement and rendering choiceless a vast numbers of rural and semi-urban populace, making migration their only avenue for survival.

The number of internal migrants moving from one state to another in India is currently 42 million (The Hindu, Oct 27, 2009) [See Sharma & Khandelwal, this issue, for detailed statistics from National Sample Survey Organization and other sources]. People move looking for sustainable livelihood, to escape grinding poverty enforced by relentless economic liberalization and attendant structural adjustment programs, famine and drought, and other forms of systemic, and therefore, normalized violence. What makes inland migration in India a particularly pressing topic at this point is what noted rural and agrarian reporter Palagummi Sainath identifies as a ‘deepening agrarian crisis’ that, since late 1990s, has unfolded in rural and semi-rural India: “[o]ne that has also seen over 240,000 farmers commit suicide between 1995 and 2009, most of them mired in debt” (The Hindu, December 27, 2010). More recently, Sainath stated:

The re-classification of villages and towns, and the changes this brings to the nation’s rural-urban profile, happens every decade. Yet only Census 2011 shows us a huge turnaround, with urban India adding more people (91 million) than rural India (90.6 million) for the first time in 90 years. Clearly, something huge has happened in the last 10 years that drives those numbers. And that is: huge, uncharted migrations of people seeking work as farming collapses…” (The Hindu, 7 July, 2013).

Kariya Ahirwar, a Dalit farmer from Majhora, Bakswaha block of Bundelkhand summed up the phenomenon of ‘distress migration’:

Sabke upar karzaa hai (Everybody is in debt)…I borrowed Rs. 50,000 at an annual interest of 60 per cent for this wasted crop. The only way I can repay it is from the rabi gram if I am lucky or by leaving the village for work” (The Hindu, 5 Sept, 2009).

Indeed, as this special issue is on its way to be published, migrant workers from Iraq are being escorted back to India. One of them, Laxman, shares that “the thought of going back home and facing debtors is daunting”. He urges the Indian government to make ways for them to “slowly repay [their] loan…Otherwise all of us in the family have to reach out for pesticide” (NDTV, 6 July, 2014). This is happening alongside, as many of the articles in this special issue refer to, an exponential growth of the middle and upper middle class with unprecedented purchasing power. Learning about this phenomenon in which debt and dispossession are accompanied by unbridled accumulation and consumption is a matter of urgency not necessarily restricted to the domain of the academic or the sociologist.

This special issue of Cafe Dissensus includes eleven articles, one video documentary, one book review, and four blog posts (with accompanying photos) that throw light on inland labour migration in India from quite a wide variety of angles. Sharma and Khandelwal’s article provides a snapshot of migratory trends in India, an economic and geo-political affair that, in following the logic of capital, defies simple humane logic. Starting with the cruel fate of 61 construction workers who died working on a high rise building in Chennai and who were unprotected by any labour standards to ensure their viability as workers, they explicitly link the increasing mobility of labour with labour’s vulnerability, and by extension, throw a more informed light on the discourse of ‘India Shining’.

Next, there is a series of contributions that give faces to the countless workers toiling to secure India’s place in the current global hierarchy of nation states, who are systemically denied basic rights to a dignified life, and yet, who are actively engaged in carving out such a life for themselves. Mosarrap H. Khan’s review of Aman Shetty’s A Free Man: A true story of life and death in Delhi offers a view of Ashraf’s life and the near impossibility of meaningful engagement between the labouring class and the bourgeoisie. Prerit Rana’s article on Manoj, a migrant tea-stall owner in Gurgaon, besides humanizing this mobile multitude, also alerts us to the differential treatment accorded to migrants based on internal status hierarchies, and their ability to navigate the ‘maximum city space’ and its legal institutions. Finally, there are four blog posts giving us further glimpses of migrant lives; from daily harassment by the police (Prerit Rana), to concerns about dying paperless and issues of proper burial (Amrita Sharma), negotiating rights to work in a hostile city (Amrita Sharma), and the innovative usage of mobile phone technology for access to work, family and kinship networks, and easing the activities of daily living (Rahul Jain and Amrita Sharma).

Following this, there are four articles alerting us to the systemic neglect migrant workers and their families are subjected to. Katie Meave Murphy writes about Noida and the anomaly of 400,000 families living below and around its highrises, whose children do not have access to education. She shares her internship experience with Mobile Creches, an organization dedicated to the education of children of migrant construction workers. Maria Rosaria Centrone writes about children of construction workers at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus and the voluntary efforts of Unnoticed to provide schooling, extracurricular activities, and health assessments. If the city of Noida and JNU represent India’s corporate capitalist and critical socialist acumen respectively, both also sit on very sites of misery and marginalization they claim to eradicate and critique. Sushmita and Vijay Ravikumar’s documentary is a testament to the administrative apathy towards Adivasi migrant workers in Thane district of Maharashtra where despite years of back-breaking work at brick kilns, sand-dredging, and construction, elderly Adivasi workers are denied even the meagre pension they are entitled to. Sharma et al.’s article on the political inclusion of migrant workers discusses the challenges of voting while on the move, and, therefore, the challenges of being heard on issues of critical importance. Bridging the contradictory demands of mobility to secure livelihood with the stability required for meaningful electoral participation seems impossible in the current electoral system in India, rendering a growing number of voters voiceless.

Next, there is a set of three articles, all looking at the figure of the migrant in Indian cinema. Amrit Gangar and Suvadip Sinha’s articles on Do Bigha Zamin, and Disha, Gaman and Peepli [Live] respectively are complementary as they trace the theme of migrant labour in Indian cinema, and place such migration on a lengthy trajectory of years immediately following independence, through the 1970s surge of urban migration, and continuing to the latest stage of economic liberalization. While Gangar disrupts the narrative of rural utopia, Sinha contemplates on the ‘migrant cinema’ as an ethical medium. Anupama Mohan juxtaposes the character of Munna in Dhobi Ghat with that of Jamal Malik of Slumdog Millionaire; the former offering a complex picture of a migrant straddling the domains of ethics and morality in an amoral city space, while the latter represents a stock rags to riches story that forecloses any such critical possibilities.

Meenakshi Thapan, Nidhita Sreekumar, and Anshu Singh’s article on migrant women of Jamia Nagar stands out in its focus on larger social contexts of migration for Muslim women and their subsequent feelings of empowerment. While not necessarily for labour and employability, such migration allows the study participants to live a life of dignity and enhanced choice, including choices around work and education. Finally, Prerit Rana’s second article on Bengali migrant workers in Chakkarpur, Gurgaon, is the only one in this special issue to explicitly highlight the cultural negotiations involved in the act of migration for livelihood.

Collectively, the contributions point towards a few broad themes. Indian cities, magnets for migrant workers, are, at the same time, apathetic, if not hostile towards them. Migrant workers are shorn of basic rights to education and health, only to increase their exploitability. It seems that it is their bottomless marginality that fuels India’s growth story. Further, it seems lack of recognition at both source and destination is an issue for migrant workers. While they are much wanted for the economies of the host states, the same states police their participation as illegal while their home states may marginalize them as absentee electorate (See Sharma & Khandelwal; Sharma et al.; Prerit Rana’s blog on Gaurav, the tea seller). Migrants, however, are not necessarily inert and immobile objects. As shown in many of the contributions, migration is an act of refusal to accept life’s vagaries with resignation. It involves imagination to break free of poverty and deprivation, and the courage to cross borders in pursuit of that imagination. However, the very act of migration does not necessarily solve the problem of poverty and dispossession. Instead, “[t]he cycle of exploitation that starts with debt at the village level, continues at the bus stand, where high fares are collected, and culminates in desperate living conditions and poor wages in Delhi” (The Hindu, Sept 5, 2009). One article states the contradiction:

They build resplendent city economies but fail to get a share of the riches; much worse, many struggle for a dignified human existence – for shelter, subsidized food, healthcare and education – in the same cities they build. Unfortunately, their voices never make it to the mainstream. What we instead experience is a discourse dominated by the concerns of the urban majority, crying foul over burgeoning city populations, slumming of cities and over-burdened city resources (Sharma & Khandelwal, this issue; See also Murphy & Rosaria-Centrone, this issue).

In my research on international labour migration in North America I find the same theme; even in the context of so called professional labour. Migrant labour, in all forms, is wanted, but migrants themselves are not necessarily welcome (Zolberg, 1972) or, as Anthropologist Ghassan Hage (2000) put it in the Australian context, they are “best wanted as unwanted”.

 There are many limitations in this issue. Female migrant workers, larger in numbers, earning less, and worried about the safety of their children who they often carry to the work sites, needed to be discussed. 20 million domestic workers (only referred to in Prerit Rana’s article and by Sharma and Khandelwal) are also missing from this collection. Student migration, inherently linked to employability, and indeed having a pattern similar to that of labour migration, and child migration, an issue flagged by Sharma and Khandelwal, are left out as well. It is also important to deliberate on collective actions led by migrant workers and their allies.

Even with these critical limitations, this issue offers interesting perspectives on the complexities of migrants’ lives in contemporary India. I hope, on behalf of Café Dissensus, that it remains an ongoing project to keep dialoguing this, more so, in the context of the paradigmatic shift Indian democracy has recently undergone, and as it takes relentless steps towards globalization of its market and flexibilization of labour.

On a more personal front as well, there are reasons to be responsible and responsive. As I was working on this special issue, Pragyaparomita, daughter of immigrant parents, decided to enter this world. As it goes online, she has started taking faltering but diligent steps, claiming every bit of our home as her own. Every day, she makes me take more and more interest in the country I live in and work, and the one I left behind. Indeed, migration for livelihood is an issue she is growing up with. It is to her bravado strides that I dedicate this small enterprise.

Photo-credit: Here

Guest Editor: 

Soma Chatterjee is working towards her PhD in Adult Education and Commmunity Development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, the University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada. She also teaches as a part-time instructor in the school of community services at Toronto’s Ryerson University. Her doctoral project looks at race and class dynamics in the formation of the ‘national’ and the ‘outsider’ in Canada, and by extension, in western nation-states. Being a diasporic Indian national, Soma inhabits an in-between world. Initiatives like Cafe Dissensus helps her stay grounded as she negotiates her multiple worlds.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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