Eric Marcarelli

Software Developer, Writer, Painter

Circular Migration as a Means of Challenging Social Hierarchies in India

August 08, 2010 by in Culture, Writing

Circular migration refers to the practice of temporarily traveling some distance in order to work. The distance and duration of the stay vary from a nearby town, traveled in a single day, to months or years spent in a remote location. The number of migrants in India has been estimated between 12 and 30 million, and the figure is believed to be rising (Bird N.pag.). While many migrants are forced into their situation by economic necessarily, this paper will focus on a different type of migrant. To these people, circular migration may not necessarily provide economic improvement, but it presents an opportunity to escape the confines of traditional social and economic relationships that dominate their lives. The essay will also examine problems associated with migration that must be balanced against its potential rewards.

The work of Vinay Gidwani and K. Sivaramakrishnan, presented in two articles, provides the most in depth discussion of the cultural motivations of migration and has been the greatest influence on this paper. Similar relationships were briefly described in Ben Rogaly et al.’s piece, although that work is mostly on the tangential subject of migrants’ ethnic self-identification. The problems and policy issues associated with migration are well treated by the works of Kate Bird, Priya Deshingkar, and Daniel Start and have been supplemented by a contemporary news article.

In the article “Seasonal Migration for Livelihoods in India: Coping, Accumulation and Exclusion” Gidwani focuses on “tribals and dalits,” two of the lowest rungs in India’s caste system (Gidwani[2] 191). Gidwani theorizes that “cyclical migration may occur because it can allow agents to loosen—and occasionally repudiate—institutionalized forms of authority and control that are exercised through the rural labor process” (Gidwani[2] 193). In other words, it offers these low-caste groups the opportunity to resist the system that places them at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The economic situation of migrants is not necessarily any better than that which they leave behind, and many suffer through “arduous working conditions in their new employment, [and] even earn lower real wages and temporarily suffer diminished food security” (Gidwani[2] 194). Yet it is appealing because it “allows them to undercut the undesired roles thrust upon them by history” (Gidwani[2] 194). As additional support for this hypothesis, Bird also cites leaving “oppressive patron-client relationships or avoid[ing] caste-based (or other) discrimination” as among the chief motivators for migrants (Bird N.pag.).

One of the groups Gidwani studied was the Koli of central Gujarat. Many of the Kolis have opted to do “daily migratory work at a local light-bulb factory” rather than the agricultural work they have done for generations (Gidwani[2] 194). The factory pays Rs. 40 per day for the average worker, which is diminished by transportation costs that the migrants must provide for themselves (Gidwani[2] 194). In contrast, agricultural wages vary between Rs. 20-30 depending on the season, and workers additionally receive “nonpecuniary benefits” that include “the rights to collect fodder and fuel for household use from the farmer’s field, to glean leftover grains after harvest,” and access to various types of loans from the employer (Gidwani[2] 194). Gidwani argues that when all of these factors are taken together, work in the factory and agricultural work are “roughly equal,” and the desire for work in the factory could not be explained simply through economics (Gidwani[2] 194).

The Kolis believe that the dominant caste in the area, the Patel, dispossessed them of their land through “usurious lending practices and subterfuge,” and Gidwani notes that “[m]any speak about the stigma of working as laborers for Patels, given that their forefathers … were substantial landowners” (Gidwani[2] 194). Although work in the factory is economically equivalent to work on the farms, it offers an escape from Patel employers. In addition to avoiding the Patel employers, Kolis regard work in the factory as a more “prestigious” job than farming (Gidwani[2] 195).

The second group Gidwani investigated was the Lodha of West Bengal. The Lodhas are a landless tribal group that has traditionally been dominated by “landed, higher-caste Mahato farmers” (Gidwani[2] 195). The Mahatos regard the Lodhas as inferiors characterized by “ignorance and sloth” (Gidwani[2] 195). This power imbalance has forced Lodha workers to do jobs they considered “humiliating” in order to survive, but they “try to avoid working in agriculture for the Mahatos whenever possible” (Gidwani[2] 194). Gidwani argues that this is the reason that Lodhas tend to prefer manual labor in bazaars, “despite the physical hardship and instability in employment associated with coolie labor” (Gidwani[2] 196). Another way out of their relationship with the Mahatos in recent years has been work as forest laborers for Forest Department nurseries (Gidwani[2] 196). Even if these jobs do not significantly change the economic situation of the Lodhas, the opportunities for alternative labor provided by migration allow the Lodhas to break free from their dependence on the Mahatos and the lower social status that relationship entails.

Gidwani also examined the Vankars, a Dalit group in Gujarat. The Vankars have traditionally been employed as weavers for Patels and Rajputs (Gidwani[2] 196). Gidwani notes that, in the past, part of their value to the higher caste employers was that Vankars “‘knew their place’ in society” and were considered “docile” (Gidwani[2] 196). In interviews with twenty Vankar families, Gidwani discovered that, though older Vankars were still deferential toward upper-caste groups, “younger generation Vankars openly defy the prevalent caste hierarchy” through their dress, attitude, emphasis on education (Gidwani[2] 196-197). Half of the families Gidwani interviewed had members that were employed in migratory situations, and Gidwani argues that “migration has clearly transformed the political consciousness of young Vankars” (Gidwani[2] 197). As with the Kolis and Lodhas, migration has allowed Vankars to separate their economic subsistence from the dominating relationship of an upper-caste group.

Rogaly documents a similar case among the Bauris of West Bengal, which are described as the “lowest of these low-caste groups” (Rogaly 305). Rogaly argues that the Bauris’ migrant status has allowed them to develop “their own notions of social rank” (Rogaly 305). He goes on to point out that migration “has enabled them to redefine relationships with their erstwhile bosses,” and has led to “the adoption of a less deferential behaviour.” (Rogaly 305). The socially higher group, of course, despises the shift, and one Bauri is quoted as saying “they do not like to see what we have two dishes to accompany our rice” (Rogaly 305). Like Gidwani, Rogaly argues that migration presents marginal groups with the opportunity to offer a “challenge to structures of dominance” that previously defined their economic and social existence (Rogaly 305).
The resistance to these changes is emphasized in Gidwani’s examination of the Harijans of Gujarat. Unlike with the previous groups, the higher castes have largely been able to resist the challenges Harijans have been making to their economic and social situation. This group has traditionally worked as farm servants for upper-caste Brahmins and Patels (Gidwani[2] 198). The younger Harijans resent the “element of unfreedom” that the long-term service contracts represented, and fewer upper-caste farmers have been able to hire them as permanent servants (Gidwani[2] 198). Cultivators have attempted various strategies to counteract the Harijans’ movement away from dependence. For example, a Patel at the head of the village council has blocked Harijan attempts to acquire their own land (Gidwani[2] 198). Gidwani believes that the upper-caste groups fear allowing the Dalits to become landed because it might allow them to “accumulate savings to realize their aspirations for nonfarm work,” the means by which the other low status groups have been able to remove themselves from oppressive economic relationships (Gidwani[2] 198).

Gidwani and Sivaramakrishnan present another example in their other article, “Circular migration and rural cosmopolitanism in India.” They examine a Dalit population in Tamil Nadu, and note that “severe proscriptions have been imposed on their dress by the upper castes” (Gidwani[1] 357). Here Dalits have been “prohibited from carrying an umbrella, wearing a shirt, wearing shoes, or sunglasses” (Gidwani[1] 357). In an interview with a high-caste landowner, Gidwani discovered that agricultural labor had become scarce because “younger Dalits in the village, who constitute the bulk of the rural workforce, now prefer to work in construction and urban industries in Hosur, Tiruppur and other similar industrial centres in south India” (Gidwani[1] 357). In contrast to the restricted dress of the past, the landowner complained to Gidwani that now “[t]hey parade around in jeans and costly sports shoes” (Gidwani[1] 357). The independence that migratory work has given the Dalits in this region provides them the opportunity to begin challenging the social order.

Thus far the examples have dealt with groups, but a similar theme also runs through individual lives. In the “Rural Cosmopolitanism” article Gidwani writes of a couple whose love affair brought on the “censure” of their families (Gidwani[1] 346). Unfortunately Gidwani does not detail the particular reasons, but one might reasonably assume they were somehow related to the transgression of traditional societal norms. Even if they were not, the point will stand well enough. In the past the couple’s relationship may have ended there, or they might have stayed together in marginal circumstances. But because the couple was able to migrate and return two years later “with enough saved to buy a small plot of land,” they were married and received the “blessings of their families” (Gidwani[1] 347). The power of economic alternatives provided by migration allowed them to forge their own path regardless of the will of their families.

Despite the potential benefits, serious problems and dangers exist in Indian circular migration. In “Seasonal Migration: How Rural is rural?” Deshingkar describes this work as “underpaid, dangerous and insecure” (Deshingkar[2] N.pag.). Migrant workers are often forced to live in “unsanitary conditions and rarely qualify for pro-poor schemes that are reserved for those legally resident in urban areas” (Deshingkar[2] N.pag.). He also notes that “employers routinely disregard laws designed to protect their rights and needs” (Deshingkar[2] N.pag.). Rogaly describes several of the dangers that rural migrants face, which include traveling on “dangerously overcrowded buses” and living in “employer’s cowsheds, other mud-built outbuildings, or makeshift straw shelters” (Rogaly 288). Bird sums up the plight of migrants by declaring that they are “generally discriminated against, sometimes exploited, are generally paid less than non-migrant workers and conditions of work are poor” (Bird N.pag.). For migrant workers who must bring their children with them, education also becomes a problem. In his “Seasonal Migration for Livelihoods in India: Coping, Accumulation and Exclusion” article, Deshingkar notes that “children are not admitted by schools in the destination,” which leaves those children out of school for potentially long stretches of time (Deshingkar[2] 24).

Deshingkar also describes a tragic case of migration in the “Livelihoods” article. The son and his wife from a landless Pradhan household in the Mandla district migrated with their children to Bhopal in search of wage work. After encountering rough living conditions they spent their entire savings of Rs. 200 on a train ticket to Gurjarat where they found employment in a sugar mill (Deshingkar[2] 18). Deskingkar writes that “[a]fter one month’s hard work in a sugar mill there the manager refused to pay them their wage” (Deshingkar[2] 18). Not having any money left, they returned to their home village and “had to beg for food on the three day journey back” (Deshingkar[2] 18). This is only family’s experience, but it clearly illustrates that, for all its benefits, migration does not work out for everyone.

For urban migrants there are other problems as well, which Dan Arnoldy discusses in an article entitled “India’s migrant workers face hostility in Mumbai.” Arnoldy describes the plight of Rakeshkumar Das, a migrant taxi driver who sleeps in his taxi because he cannot afford the high rents in Mumbai (Arnoldy 1). Das is in danger of losing his job if a new measure to restrict cabby licenses to “those who speak a local language” goes into effect (Arnoldy 1). Arnoldy argues that Das’s status is akin to being considered an “illegal immigrant in his own country,” and he notes that anti-migrant sentiments have sparked violence in the past (Arnoldy 1). Proponents of the legislation claim that Mumbai’s infrastructure cannot handle the influx of migrants, and believe that, rather than accommodating the migrants, “India should be creating ‘Mumbais’ in other parts of the country” (Arnoldy 2).

The prevalence of circular migration, along with the host of problems associated with it, pose important policy questions for governments and other organizations in India. Bird notes that, despites the large number of people involved, “migration-related issues rarely get onto local, state or national policy agendas” (Bird N.pag). Deshingkar indicates that “[p]olicy-makers have tended to perceive migration largely as a problem” (Deshingkar[2] 1). While the cases previously examined illustrate the empowering nature of migration for many people, Deshingkar observes that officials still tend to see migrants as “powerless, impoverished and emaciated person[s] who [are] trapped in poverty” (Deshingkar[2] 3). This skewed view has contributed to the ineffective response, which according to Bird has consisted of attempts to increase the very rural employment migrants are seeking to liberate themselves from, and laws that place restrictions on migrants and serve to make their lives more difficult (Bird N.pag.). Bird goes on to suggest new policies that will help ensure that migrants have access to “essential services” and discourage discrimination and exploitation (Bird N.pag.).

In recent decades circular migration has become prevalent throughout India. For some people the practice presents an opportunity to escape the confines of traditional social and economic relationships that dominate their lives. Whereas in the past individuals may have been forced by economic necessity to accept these relationships, the expansion of the area of work available to low-caste groups has opened access to alternatives and the prospect of new kinds of independence. While migration is beneficial for many, there are also problems associated with it, ranging from poor living conditions to less stable incomes. Balancing the risks with the benefits, millions have opted to shape their lives around circular migration.

Works Cited

Arnoldy, Ben. “India’s migrant workers face hostility in Mumbai.” The Christian Science Monitor. April 9 2010. .

Bird, Kate and Priya Deshingkar. “Circular Migration in India.” Overseas Development Institute, 2009, No page numbers. .

Deshingkar[1], Priya. “Seasonal Migration: How rural is rural?” Overseas Development Institute, 2005, No page numbers. .

Deshingkar[2], Priya and Daniel Start. “Seasonal Migration for Livelihoods in India: Coping, Accumulation and Exclusion.” Overseas Development Institute, 2003, pp. 1-31. .

Gidwani[1], Vinay and K. Sivaramakrishnan. “Circular migration and rural cosmopolitanism in India.” Contributions to Indian Sociology, 37, 2003, pp. 339-367.

Gidwani[2], Vinay and K. Sivaramakrishnan. “Circular Migration and the Spaces of Cultural Assertion.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 93, 2003, pp. 186-213.

Rogaly, Ben et al. “Seasonal migration, employer-worker interactions, and shifting ethnic identities in contemporary West Bengal.” Contributions to Indian Sociology, 37, 2003, pp. 281-310.

About the Author:

Leave a Comment!

You must be logged in to post a comment.