Terms of Trade | The economics and politics of migration in India
The news about an attack on Bihari workers in Tamil Nadu wasn’t true. But it raises interesting questions about the push-and-pull factors behind migration, the differential impact on politics of different kinds of migration, and the often invisible but effective democratic consciousness of migrants
The news about violence against Bihari migrant workers in Tamil Nadu created quite a political storm initially, but it turned out to be fake.
The news cycle around this event then turned to Tamil Nadu and Bihar police booking people who allegedly spread these rumours and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Tamil Nadu facing some sort of a crisis. However, this episode does offer a good opportunity to look at the economics and politics of migration in India.
While the bulk of intra-country migration in India involves blue-collared workers, and this is the main area of concern for this week’s column, one should not lose sight of the fact that post-reform India has seen a significant amount of white-collared migration as well. The most visible example of the latter is the proliferation of suburban townships along with the growth of IT-based industries in cities such as Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Delhi-NCR (Gurugram and Noida).
To be sure, India did see white-collared migration into big cities even before the IT revolution. While the national capital attracted people from across the country such as central government employees, Mumbai, the commercial capital of the country, attracted both salaried and business-oriented richer migrants from many other states such as Gujarat and even southern India from a much earlier period. It is not just a coincidence that Mumbai emerged as the most cosmopolitan city in terms of linguistic diversity, as was shown by an HT analysis of census data by Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa.
Differential migration, differential politics
When richer migrants take financial control of a city, politics takes a very different route compared to how the migration of poor workers changes it.
The most prominent example of a nativist backlash against such domination is the growth of the Shiv Sena, which, under its founder Bal Thackeray, started its politics by consolidating the Marathi-speaking population in (what was then) Bombay against the growing financial clout and white-collar employment share of non-Marathi speaking people.
The Sena enjoyed strong political tailwinds from its tactics of protecting the interests of Marathi workers and went on to become the strongest political force in the city. For those who are interested, sociologist Dipankar Gupta’s Nativism in a Metropolis: The Shiv Sena in Bombay offers an excellent account of the Sena’s political rise. Among other things, Gupta’s book also tells us that Sena’s political rise was as much militant nativism as it was attacking the left-controlled trade unions at the behest of capitalists (including non-Marathi ones) which were replaced by grass root branches or shakhas of the Sena.
To be sure, the nativist strategy of the Shiv Sena ran aground much before the party ran into a crisis, which has now culminated in a split with Thackeray’s son having been left with the minority faction after his refusal to play junior partner to the BJP in the state. While part of this crisis is on a cultural front — Niranjan Rajadhyaksha had discussed some of these in a Mint article written after the death of Bal Thackeray — an equally important, if not bigger, reason is economic, namely, migrant blue-collared workers from poorer states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar offering their labour at a much cheaper rate than Marathi workers.
A lot of low-income service sector jobs in Mumbai, especially in the gig economy, are now with migrant workers for the simple reason that they are willing to accept much worse working and living conditions which Marathi-speaking workers will not. While the latent discontent against the lowering of wages and crowding out of local labour by poor migrant workers manifests itself in occasional episodes of violence against the latter and makes big headlines, the more fundamental political economy question of what drives such migration is often ignored in the popular discourse.
The drivers of blue-collared migration
The migration of poor workers, even of the indentured variety, is very old in India and has inspired rich literature, both in fiction as well as academic research. The supply of such labour is self-explanatory. Workers only leave their homes for work if they cannot find work which is remunerative enough.
The source of demand for such work is slightly more interesting. It is useful to begin this discussion with research which looks at labour migration in Tiruppur, one of the most important industrial belts in Tamil Nadu. A 2014 paper by Muniandi Jegadeesan and Koichi Fujita looked at migrant workers from both Tamil Nadu and north Indian states in Tiruppur, one of India’s biggest textile hubs to understand the dynamics of the labour market.
The entry of north Indian migrants into this textile hub was triggered by a historical accident of sorts. It involved a confluence of shortage of Tamil labour due to reverse migration on account of a good agricultural season at a time of large demand for the textile industry in Tiruppur. This was accompanied by the arrival of north Indian labour to work on central government road construction projects which had been awarded to companies from outside Tamil Nadu in 2004-05.
“After the road construction was completed, however, the labourers did not return home. Rather, they looked for other jobs and finally found jobs in Tiruppur, because industrialists in Tiruppur were considering how to overcome the aforementioned mounting problem. They tried to solve the problem by introducing cheap labour from north India, and their needs happened to coincide with the interest of north Indian labourers looking for jobs at that time. Subsequently, many north Indian migrants started to flow into Tiruppur, based on information from their friends and relatives. In fact, a large-scale migration from north India started around 2008-09, and it has been estimated that there were approximately 100,000 north Indian labourers in Tiruppur in recent years”, the paper says.
The north-Indian workers agreed to work on fixed monthly wages (lower than the rate for Tamil workers); they had very low attrition rates; and they had a smaller problem of alcohol consumption-induced absenteeism, the paper writes, while adding that they made ends meet and even saved some money by cutting back on their spending which entailed compromising on the quality of food. There is good reason to believe that stories of almost all long-distance blue-collared migration in India have their roots in similar historical processes.
The paradox of the city
Lest one gets the idea that migrant workers are doomed to face only exploitation in cities, it is important to remember that almost all of them (except a minority who are victims of trafficking) migrate out of their own accord. What motivates such migration?
The economics of it is straightforward. Not only should wages be higher than the native place of the worker, but they should also rise in proportion to (what is a very truncated) cost of living. “Give me ₹4,000 per month in Gwalior, ₹6,000 in Gurgaon, ₹9,000 in Delhi, and ₹18,000 in Mumbai; my bags are packed and tell me where you want me to go”, Manish Sabharwal who runs Teamlease Services wrote in an opinion piece published in HT in 2018.
However, it will be a mistake to believe that only pull factors (of a higher wage) drive long-distance blue-collared migration in India. Often migration is also an escape from extra economic exploitation and claustrophobia in the worker’s native place.
In the paper referred to above, Jegadeesan and Fujita list caste violence in Tamil Nadu as a major reason for the migration of migrant workers from Tamil Nadu’s villages to Tiruppur.
A 2016 paper published by Amrita Dutta in the Economic and Political Weekly buttresses this line of argument. The paper, based on fieldwork in Bihar, argues that the availability of work outside the village has allowed socially weaker groups to escape exploitation at the hands of upper-caste villagers who were economically far more powerful when the only work in the village was on their farms.
In fact, migration could feel empowering even when there is no exploitation involved. In her excellent book In the Shadows of the State: Indigenous Politics, Environmentalism, and Insurgency in Jharkhand, anthropologist Alpa Shah describes such migration (of tribal workers from Jharkhand into brick kilns in West Bengal) with a lot of (counterintuitive) clarity.
“Whereas Jharkhandi activists are able to talk about migration to the (brick) kilns in terms of a human-rights discourse—as a movement to be stopped on the ground that it furthers adivasi exploitation—the migration enables many migrants to reject the Jharkhandi tribal elites’ notions of an authentic, morally pure adivasi citizen of the state. Ironically, the spaces of freedom provided by the brick kilns may serve to maintain older notions of the self. Thus, rather than being a phenomenon dictated by mere economic necessity, migration to the brick kilns may also be seen as part of a distinctive Tapu politics of challenging the purifying discourse of the adivasi state”, Shah writes.
If Shah’s academic language is too dense to understand, recall the freedom from persecution offered by migration to the young couple who escapes to the city after an inter-caste marriage invites a violent backlash in the critically acclaimed Marathi film Sairat.
To be sure, migration is often a harbinger of economic rewards by allowing people to pursue occupations which social stigma would not allow them to pursue in their native places. In their book, How Lives Change: Palanpur, India, and Development Economics, Himanshu and his co-authors give a fascinating example of how upper caste villagers from Palanpur village in Uttar Pradesh were willing to do manual work with lower caste workers outside their village but not inside it.
The political impact of migration
As someone who came to Delhi from Bihar more than two decades ago, it is difficult not to begin this section on a personal note. When this author came to Delhi as a young student, the term Bihari was often used in a pejorative sense outside the sanitised spaces of university and college campuses because an overwhelming number of Bihari migrants were extremely poor and engaged in low-paying jobs.
Today, no party can hope to form a government in the city-state without the support of the Poorvanchali (read Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh) voter. Political parties now compete with each other to attract this section of voters by trying to appropriate their religious festivals. A lot of Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and even Members of Parliament (MPs) in Delhi today are of Poorvanchali origin.
Will things reach such a pass in Mumbai, Tamil Nadu or Kerala as migration of workers from north and east India continues? Even if it does, such a situation is a long time away. When it does happen, the cultural clash will be bigger than what it was in a Hindi-speaking Delhi.
Electoral politics aside, how does blue-collared migration affect the broader political economy? A natural question to ask is whether migrant workers make common cause with their local peers or even migrant workers from other states.
In his 1996 cult classic work on labour migration in India, Footloose Labour: Working in India’s Informal Economy, Jan Bramen was sceptical about such a possibility.
“Early discussions of informal sector workers living in urban slums implied that, once roused to political consciousness, these people would foment radical movements and eventually join hands with the rural poor in a frontal attack on the established social order. I have found no evidence to back up such a scenario. The closed-shop character of most sources of employment in the segments of the rural and urban economy which were the focus of my research prevents proletarian consciousness from being transformed into class solidarity and its manifestation in class struggle”, Bramen writes.
Two-and-a-half decades after this was written, there is little evidence to suggest that migrant workers have developed a militant class consciousness. The biggest proof of this was seen during the lockdown in 2020 when hundreds of thousands of migrant workers accepted the trauma inflicted on them without much of a political protest.
Does this mean migrant workers are completely apolitical? It will be wrong to jump to such a conclusion. The political activism, or lack of it, of migrant workers, who often reside in urban slum clusters, might be directed towards very different areas than a class conflict in the classical sense of the term, which in any case is becoming a rare commodity in India.
The question of democratic consciousness
The scholarship on these questions, and this includes the larger problem of understanding the political economy of informal sector workers, is far from settled in India.
It is useful to end this column by quoting from a welcome addition to the existing wisdom on this issue. In their recently published book, Migrants and Machine Politics: How India's Urban Poor Seek Representation and Responsiveness, political scientists Adam Michael Auerbach and Tariq Thachil look at political processes in India’s urban slums. “For the slum residents at the heart of our book, acts of contentious politics are central to their efforts to advance their material conditions. These activities range from small acts of group claim-making that assert demands for public services, to slum-wide protests involving hundreds, sometimes thousands, of residents” Auerbach and Thachil write.
While the initial enquiry into the fake news of attacks on Bihari workers in Tamil Nadu suggests that the first rumours started from the ranks of Bihari workers in Tamil Nadu, it will be wrong to use this example to paint all migrant workers as either troublemakers or gullible beings who fell for such fake news and started running back to their home state in panic.
Auerbach and Thachil’s research suggests that slum residents are among the most invested and active practitioners of day-to-day democracy in India. “Slum residents actively shape the structures that govern them. What is even more remarkable is that they do so through processes that reflect democratic deliberation and a willingness to work across ascriptive divisions that too often result in sectarian strife. Those with the least means routinely demonstrate—from small acts of claim-making to larger, more boisterous acts of protest—the power of ordinary citizens in defending, deepening, and demanding democracy”, they write.
Every Friday, HT’s data and political economy editor, Roshan Kishore, combines his commitment to data and passion for qualitative analysis in a column for HT Premium, Terms of Trade. With a focus on one big number and one big issue, he will go behind the headlines to ask a question and address political economy issues and social puzzles facing contemporary India.
The views expressed are personal