Arun Kumar studied in a small government school in his village, Sikraha Panday, off the Basti-Faizabad highway in Uttar Pradesh. But he realised, as he grew older, that if he wanted money, he had to leave.
Kumar first went to Ludhiana in 2007, and worked in Sukhdeo Dhaba as a South Indian ‘ustad’. But the salary was low. Some people from his village worked in a footwear factory in Delhi and called him. He took the train, and began with Rs 7,000 a month.
Kumar worked 12-hour shifts, and his salary increased to Rs 10,000. When the factory shifted to Kundli in Haryana, he moved with them. He now spends half his salary on rent and ration.
Every Sunday, he treats himself to chicken and half a bottle of whiskey.
Across India, migrants from Uttar Pradesh form a major share of the working force. Many of them come from rural UP, and when they return, they go back not only with more money in their pockets, but a different worldview. The issue of migrants from UP is a contested political issue in Mumbai.
UP interestingly accounts for among the highest rates of inter-state, but also intra-state migration. And here, women outrank the men — for after marriage, they move to a different village.
Kumar’s story is striking, for he is Dalit. In the 2017 state elections, this constituency of migrant workers who return home to vote will be a key force.
The push factor
Kumar’s family has 12 members, and collectively owns a couple of bighas of land. “Agriculture just cannot sustain everyone. And there are no factories which can absorb us. So where will I go?”
He pauses and answers: “Wherever money calls me.”
Basti is the average UP district in terms of development indicators. Over 70% of the rural population earns less than Rs 5,000 a month, and only 8% or so have fixed salaried jobs; 43% are engaged in agriculture, and another 45% are manual casual labourers.
Anil Singh, the block development officer of Vikram Jot, where Sikraha Panday is located, is candid. “Poverty is high. There is lack of housing. Some villages are inaccessible. Ten villages are flood-prone. Education is low.” Sikaraha Panday is submerged when the Sarju river overflows.
While waiting for the state to deliver, citizens have increasingly decided that a more effective way to transform livelihoods and increase incomes is through personal mobility.
Two worlds, seamlessly connected.
Migration belies the false divide that is often constructed between an India living in the cities, in its own prosperous cocoon, and a Bharat, living in the interiors, more deprived. The two, as Kumar’s own life shows, are connected. “If Bihar and UP leave your cities, they will become empty,” he says, laughing.
With greater infrastructure, the connectivity is smooth and with the mobile phone, the communication is seamless. Kumar says he spend Rs 200 a week recharging his mobile phone. Doing what? He replies sheepishly: “Talking to my wife, listening to songs, watching movies.”
Migration has a more indirect impact. Kumar says no one cares about his caste. “I cooked in a Punjab Dhaba, people ate, and no one cared. But here in the village, everyone is concerned about caste even if untouchability has changed.”
Kumar points to two young men who passed by on their motorcycles. “They are Brahmins here, but in Punjab, they are hotel waiters. That is their only identity.”
But while migration may have resulted in wider exposure, this has not really altered political preferences.
Kumar said he would always vote for the BSP, irrespective of whether they win or lose. “Behenji (Mayawati) should come back as CM. There is a system under her. SP promotes lawlessness.”
His friend, Satish Yadav, whose father works in Mumbai, is below the voting age, but was quick to rebut Kumar. “I think SP will win. Akhilesh Yadav is good.”
Despite their different political preferences, it is their collective aspiration that binds friends like Kumar and Yadav together. Both are eyeing the elections for a better life.