“Who leaves home if there is a choice?”: Understanding migration decisions


Nirala’s great grandfather travelled from Jharkhand to a tea plantation in Dooars (plains in the foothills of Northern Himalayan, in West Bengal), where Nirala lives till today. Her granddaughter Madeeha has recently joined work as a domestic help in Gurgaon (in the state of Haryana). Labour migration is never a simple binary between choice and force, Supurna Banerjee explores through two such migration narratives. 

Why do people migrate? What causes them to leave the comfort of the familiar to venture out to the unknown? While migration due to political or other forms of violence needs to be categorised as forced migration, there is considerable debate about classifying economic migration.  Labour migration studies has traditionally differentiated between forced migration where the migrant is pushed out by forces of circumstances and migration for mobility where migration takes place through pursuit of better prospects. The stories of migration are, however, hardly ever so straightforward.  The story of Nirala and her family illustrates how migration narratives are often more complex and multi-layered.

Nirala lives in a tea plantation in Dooars. She is eighty five. Nirala had worked in the plantations all through her life and it is now her children who work there. While Nirala is frail she retains a sharp mind and a memory which though faded through the ravages of time still can recall some interesting stories.

These plantations have been made by our forefathers. When I was a little girl, my grandfather used to tell me stories about how they were brought here. He was just a young boy then.  He would talk about his village in Jharkhand. He also talked about their journey to the plantations. It was arduous, he would say. The company’s sardars (which probably meant the recruiters) were mean people. They used to hit them and coax them to continue moving. The roads were very tough. They had to travel through the jungle… My grandfather’s grandfather had many children so he could not properly feed all of them. They were very poor.  Therefore my grandfather’s father decided to come with the sardars. He wanted to try a new way of life. The sardars promised a new life in Bengal where they will be given homes and food…  But the journey was not easy. There was no food, the water was also scarce. Many people fell ill on the way. My grandfather’s mother also fell sick, so sick that she never fully recovered. The children also found it difficult. My grandfather was the eldest son and he told me how his siblings will cry. His youngest sister used to cry and beg their father to turn back to go back to the village. ‘We thought nothing could be worse than this—not even hunger and poverty’. But their father promised them that at the other end of the journey lay a new life—they will work, earn, be given houses and warm rice.

Nirala’s vivid account of the journey that her ancestors took through the jungles to reach the plantations all on the promise of a chance of a new life opens up this contradiction between what constitutes a journey of hope and what can be termed a forced migration. There has been much work (Dasgupta, 1992[i]) which talks about how the tribal communities in Central India formed a pool of impoverished and unemployed, from which the planters could draw their supply of cheap labour. The tribal society here was in turmoil with growing hinduization, expropriation of tribal lands by the dikus or moneylenders, increased impoverishment and drought which threatened them with imminent destruction (Bhowmik, 1981)[ii]. The harsh realities of the people here were used to their advantage by the planters. The recruiters paid off their debts to the money-lenders, in effect binding them in a debt-trap[iii]. In a way therefore, these landless impoverished families were forced to leave and undertake such hazardous journey to their new place of work. But as this account shows, there was also hope. Without romanticizing the harshness of their circumstances, people like Nirala’s great-grandfather probably did hope that the migration to Bengal will improve their conditions. For people caught between a rock and a hard place, the ideas of choice do not always operate unproblematically. Choice within precarity can hardly be classified as choice but to deny them the hope, the vision with which they embarked on this journey for the unfamiliar will be to deny them agency.

The account now leaps forward many decades to illustrate the persistence of this uneasy tension between forced and voluntary migration. As is well documented, the tea plantations were set up in Dooars in West Bengal (along with Terai, Darjeeling) by the labour of these workers. Settled in the plantation for generations the tea plantation workers became one of the stable workforces. The transfer of jobs were hereditary and therefore families continue to live, grow and die for generations in the plantations. Most of them lost contact with their native villages in Jharkhand. The plantations became their society, family and home. The Plantation Labour Act (1951) vested the workers with many rights in terms of quarters, rations etc. The workers used to get wages, had quarters but there seemed to be a persistence of poverty. This semblance of stability, however, was rudely shaken in the first decade of the twentieth century with the outbreak of the crisis[iv] in the tea plantations. The closure of the plantations for long ten years, intermittent reopening followed by closure again, brought to fore the question of survival of the workers, a question they did not face so severely in the past few decades. There was a spate of migration—this time from the plantations to cities like Delhi, Mumbai and places in Kerala. The wages in the city even for casual labour was much higher than the paltry wages of the plantations (though there was no other non-wage benefit and security of retirement benefit). A lot of the younger people ventured out for these jobs in order to earn more money to afford a better life. While the context was different, parallels between the two migrations need to be understood in terms of the questions that they possess. Nirala’s grand-daughter Madeeha, who had worked as a temporary worker in the plantation now works as a domestic worker in Gurgaon. Her story, once again shows us, that perceptions on migration are often complex and contradictory.

Initially I was reluctant to go. We have never even gone very far from this place. But what can you do?  We waited when the garden closed down. But you can survive two-three months without wages, how can you survive for six months?..Nirudidi’s daughter was in Delhi so a few of decided to go there…It has been nearly two years now. I am glad that I decided to move here. The pay is good and I can send money home…I saw cinema for the first time. Once the family also took me to eat in a ‘hotel’.

While Madeeha expresses her awe of the big city and the chances of mobility it offers she always talks about coming back to the plantations when it reopens.

Everything said and done, it’s not apna (your own). The plantations are our home, it is where we belong, where we come from. You can understand the difference in the taste of water even. Who leaves home if there is a choice?

The longing for home and the attractions of the big city are not two parallel realities in Madeeha’s life. Rather they share an uneasy coexistence.Her ancestor had undertaken an arduous journey from a home which no longer offered any security in search of hope of a new life. Madeeha still longed for her home. Her migration to a new city held possibilities of a new future of which she was aware. But for both of them the home-leaving was because there was no choice which could enable them to remain.

Narratives of decisions and perspectives of economic migration cannot be categorised into neat binaries of force and choice. Rather every story is a combination of both, though of course not in equal degrees and the narrative of agency of the migrant.

[i]Dasgupta, R. (1992). Economy, Society and Politics in Bengal: Jalpaiguri 1869-1947. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

[ii]Bhowmik, S.K. (1981). Class Formation in the Plantation System. Kolkata: People’s Publishing House.

[iii]Ibid, n3

[iv]Raman, R. (2010). Global Capital and Peripheral Labour: The History and Political Economy of Plantation Workers in India. London: Routledge.

(Cover Image- Tea garden workers: representative photo, AFP)

Supurna Banerjee works at the Insitutte of Development Studies, Kolkata. She has recently published the monograph Activism and Agency in India. She can be reached at banerjee.supurna@gmail.com



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