Double Whammy: Impact of Seasonal Migration from Tribal Villages in Gujarat, India

Phenomenon of Human Migration

Migration has been one of the major livelihood strategies even after the Homo sapiens started settling down for agriculture and livestock-rearing.  Migration in the current era may be caused by “pull” as well as by “push” factors. Although pull factors have been an important aspect of industrialization, the industrialization has also given rise to social, economic and environmental phenomena that push a section of the population out of their traditional habitation at various locations. Thus push migration to a large extent represents the helplessness of migrant households in managing their livelihoods in the face of changes in their larger social, economic and environmental space at their native habitation. Push migration may be seasonal or long-term depending upon the kind of work the migrants engage in, and the needs and family circumstances of the migrants.

Tribal Migration Within Gujarat

A large number of tribal people located in the villages in eastern part of Gujarat migrate to urban centres such as Surat, Vadodara and Bharuch to work as construction labourers or as casual labourers in various factories. Some of them also migrate to Kathiyawad region to work as agricultural labourers. Kathiyawad is a semi-arid zone in the western part of Gujarat, experiencing a boom in agriculture due to increased availability of water and abundance of land owned by a small section of population. In most tribal villages, there are very few households that can sustain themselves while remaining in their villages. Migration is seasonal and the migrant villagers return to work in their own fields at the time of sowing and harvesting. They also come back to celebrate their main festivals, Holi and Diwali.

Most villagers start migrating at the age of 15-16 years. When they get married, their wives also accompany them until such times when they have children. After childbirth some of them remain in the villages to look after the children, but a majority of them keeps migrating along with the children. Some unmarried young women also migrate to work along with their extended family members.

Migrants face tremendous hardships at their destinations. They do not have proper accommodation, sanitation or drinking water facilities. They are vulnerable to all sorts of abuse and exploitation. In cases where the children also accompany the parents, they cannot attend schools and thus remain caught in vicious cycle of poverty and migration.

The villagers do not want to migrate, but do so due to the push factors such as lack of livelihood opportunities in their villages. In the informal discussions at the migrant-originating villages, all the villagers, without any exception, portrayed migration as a necessary evil in their present situation. They admitted that they would not migrate if they can meet their basic necessities in their village itself.

On the other hand, people representing the interests of the industrialists and landowners, employing them on their migration, consider the phenomenon of migration very important for the development of Gujarat. In an informal interview, a senior level government official working in the area, and responsible for the development programmes of the local people, suggested that no development programmes should be undertaken in the area as they are likely to reduce the impact of the factors pushing the people to migrate from their villages. This in his view would be detrimental to the economic growth of “his” state.

Push Factors Responsible for Seasonal Migration of Tribal People within Gujarat

Tribal villages in Gujarat were almost egalitarian at the time of Indian Independence but witnessed stratification due to government irrigation schemes and other agricultural interventions. Such interventions favoured households traditionally occupying lowlands who became relatively richer. The relatively richer sections in all such villages then monopolized political power in the villages on introduction of Panachayati Raj system. Due to their political and economic power they were also able to access disproportionately large share of government welfare schemes. This phenomenon keeps on widening the gap between relatively rich and the poor in the villages. The poor when they are unable to fend for themselves in the villages start to look for opportunities outside and migrate out. However due to several cultural and traditional issues, and also lack of more durable livelihood opportunities they are forced to keep coming back to their villages and migrate only seasonally. This however further deprives them from taking advantage of developmental efforts taking place in their villages.

As nobody in the area is happy to migrate, the people who are relatively better off do not engage in seasonal migration. The people who migrate are the ones who cannot meet their most basic expenditures while staying on in the villages. Emergence of labour migration in the region owes its origin in assetlessness of the households, distressed living conditions, indebtedness and inability to meet necessary expenditures on health and lifestyle events such as marriages, childbirth and funerals, and ‘chandlo’[i]. Unequal wealth and income distribution, scanty resource flow to rural areas for employment generation and agricultural development further compound the situation. Other manifested reasons for seasonal migration include rapid growth of population, increased pressure and over crowdedness in agriculture, dispossession of the lands, indiscriminate deforestation, and decline in cottage industries and handicrafts.

Consequences of Migration: The Double Whammy 

a. At Macro Level

The process of agricultural development is selective in terms of area as well as in terms of people. To start with, only some areas develop agriculturally, as only some areas have favourable economic as well as non-economic conditions. In these selected areas also, only selected groups of people derive maximum benefits from the process of development. Migration of labour, which is initially caused by this situation, also helps this selected process of development. Firstly, they migrate to developed areas and contribute to the further development of these areas and secondly, by entering into the labour market with different terms and conditions, they get lower wages, which adversely affects the position of local labour. The consequence of such migration is that it does not help the process of development of backward areas. On the contrary, it creates serious problems in the area of origin and in the area of destination.

Another consequence of the labour migration may be understood in terms of social response to such migration. Local labourers feel threatened by the influx of the migrant labourers and this creates tension between the two. On the other hand, local employers who advocate ethnocentricities for establishing and strengthening their enterprises prefer migrant labourers as they prove to be cheaper than the local labourers. Thus the upper class prefers the “sons of soil” theory for themselves but not for labourers, which further complicates the social response to the migrant labourers.

It is generally assumed that migration brings chances for upward mobility but the reality on ground does not support this assumption in most cases and particularly in case of seasonal migration. Most of the seasonal migrant labourers happen to be either small or marginal farmers in their native villages. On advent of the market economy, such farmers are normally unable to take advantage of free market forces and are forced to migrate to urban areas for their survival. They start as seasonal migrants and finally settle in cities as slum-dwellers. They gradually cease to be peasants in the old system and become wage labourers in the new economic system. Thus, landowners in the old economic system become wage labourers in the new system of production. Migration might be bringing prosperity for a few ‘adventurous’ entrepreneurs, but it brings misery for labour.

b. At Micro Level

Majority of migrant labourers are illiterate or semi-literate and thus are exploited due to their ignorance. They also lack any kind of organisation and are unable to protect themselves from being exploited either by their employers or by the contractors hiring them. They are thus normally faced with situations of lower wages than the market rates, non-payment of timely wages or sometimes non-payment of wages at all. There is no provision of housing and they are forced to stay in the most unhygienic conditions without any facility for sanitation. Such lack of most basic amenities causes extreme inconvenience to the women migrants and makes them vulnerable for various diseases. Children accompanying their parents are unable to continue their studies and thus such seasonal migration keeps perpetuating the poverty among its adherents. Even when they stay in the villages they are unable to continue their studies due to the lack of parental supervision who remain out of their villages for a major part of the year.

It has been observed that the migrant workers are not able to participate and thus take advantage of the most of the anti-poverty programmes. They cannot participate in the asset-based programmes in the areas of the origin, because: (a) they have a poor risk bearing capacity to take up self-employment work, and they find wage employment outside more attractive than self-employment at home; and (b) the programmes are not easily available to them.

Migrant workers cannot take self-employment under such programmes in the areas of destination also as they do not belong to the place and therefore cannot be identified as poor under developmental programmes in those areas. In short, anti-poverty programmes are so planned and implemented that they are not able to involve migrant labourers in a significant way. Thus migrant workers have poor chances of bettering their lot through these programmes.

Seasonal migrants are also unable to take advantage of public distribution system especially when they migrate with their entire families, as there is no provision of issuing ration cards to them at their destinations.

Thus, the seasonal migrants are caught in a vicious circle where they lose out on whatever opportunities are being evolved due to social protection and other programmes launched by the state for betterment of their lives, while at the same time working on below-market wages and unacceptable levels of facilities.

They are further unable to take investment advantage of whatever savings they could accumulate while on migration due to lack of financial services in their villages. They are in any case unable to take advantage of availability of financial services at their migration destination as not only those financial institutions are not inclusive but also because they are not trusted by the migrants with their hard-earned money.

Moreover, migrant villagers do not consider it safe to keep the saved money with themselves, as they live at their worksites only. They keep it with their employers. While coming back to their villages they leave the money, surplus of their needs, with their employers. This mechanism makes them vulnerable to the risk of losing their money. Being illiterate, they can be easily manipulated while rendering the accounts for their money, especially when the larger amounts are accumulated than they are used to. Moreover, their families are also deprived of their savings at the time of their untimely deaths as nobody, other than them, knows the exact amount being kept with such people. Many instances were reported when people felt that they had not got back the entire amount either belonging to them or to their deceased relatives.

They do not want to open a bank account at their work place as they do not know the people there. They cannot trust even the banks as they do not know what is happening on the paper due to their illiteracy.

Additionally, lack of suitable remittance services forces them to travel back to their villages for delivering money to the remaining family members in the villages. They also occasionally entrust their friends or relatives travelling back to their villages with such remittances. Such arrangements for remittance prove to be very costly for them not only in terms of travelling costs but also in terms of loss of wages during the periods of absence. They are also not comfortable in using the post-office money-order service, as they are hesitant to approach the post-offices at their migration destinations. They are also unable to trust the people and the paperwork at an unknown place due to their inability to comprehend the contents of such papers.

Migrants are generally excluded from the Self Help Group (SHG) mechanisms, as they are not available in the villages at the time of formation of the SHGs and regular monthly meetings. Thus, again, they are deprived of an extremely important local institution being built with the support of public money.

Most importantly, the tribal migrants also face severe cultural shocks as they are forced to work in non-tribal areas where they face racist discrimination of the worst kind. Migrants are unable to celebrate any of the lifestyle events or festivities for which they need to come back to their villages. Thus migration is not only detrimental to their physical well-being it also severely limits their cultural and emotional well-being.

[i] Chandlo is monetary contribution that relatives and other community members make towards the expenditure a household is incurring on a funeral, marriage, or other social occasions. Chandlo seems to be the community’s response to a deficient financial-especially savings and credit-infrastructure, based on trust and mutual dependence. It harnesses the social capital of the localised tribal community to facilitate all its members to adequately celebrate social occasions.


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