India’s emerging ‘rurbans’: aspirational yet precarious

Research led by Dr Indrajit Roy has explored the lives of internal migrants in India, shedding light on their motives for migrating as well as examining their social and political rights as they circulate between different locations across the country.

The study offers practical solutions to an important policy dilemma that faces one of the world’s fastest growing economies where urbanisation has, nonetheless, remained stunted.

A team led by Dr Roy carried out ethnographic research with selected families in a single village in the State of Bihar, whose 100 million people contribute a significant part of India’s labour migrants. Two researchers circulated with migrant labourers as they moved between different localities for work, while one focussed on family members who remained in the village.

Researchers also implemented two surveys gathering primary data from multiple source and destination locations, covering 10,000 households, supplemented by community-level group discussions in almost 20 locations.

The findings depart from traditional structuralist and culturalist explanations of labour mobility, which emphasise either the salience of economic ‘pull’ and ‘push’ factors or highlight the importance of shared norms and values that supposedly motivate people to migrate.

Instead, the research situates migration from Bihar in the context of political change witnessed in the State during the 1990s, which shook up a calcified social structure and incubated ideas of social justice, spurring people’s aspirations for ‘dignified’ lives. It finds that migration is important for rural Biharis because it offers them the chance to move beyond the occupations and relationships that in their home villages are determined by caste. These mobilities enable people in Bihar and beyond to straddle rural and urban worlds, thereby contributing to an emerging ‘rural cosmopolitanism’.

However, at the same time, the study also highlights the vulnerability and marginalisation of migrant workers. Social and political rights in India are not portable: the country’s elaborate social protection regime hinges on the provision of entitlements to sedentary populations and excludes mobile people. Likewise, voting rights in the country remain tied to people’s villages of origin, effectively disenfranchising labourers who are not always able to be present in their villages during elections. Such a sedentary conception of social and political citizenship effectively restricts the population’s mobility. Coupled with the precariousness of informal employment in which labour migrants find themselves, the research points to the ‘immobile foundations of labour mobility’ in India.

Such restrictions not only limit the potential of India’s economic growth but also stunt urbanisation. Roy’s research reminds us of the precarious lives that India’s aspiring ‘rurbans’ continue to lead.

The research is contributing to ongoing advocacy in civil society and government aimed at making social and political rights in India portable. With funding from the Economic and Social Research Council Impact Accelerator Account (ESRC IAA), the project supported Ajeevika, an advocacy NGO, to convene policy round tables to explore the portability of social and political rights in collaboration with the Government of Kerala State, an increasingly favoured destination for a number of migrant workers from northern India.

Dr Roy has been invited to contribute to the annual India Exclusion Report, which documents the experiences of vulnerable and marginalised people and suggests policy solutions for the problems they face. He was also interviewed by Hindustan Times for his comments on recent policy pronouncements around social provisioning for inter-State migrants in India.

Dr Roy was awarded an ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellowship to conduct the research.

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Ankur Jayaswal/Lives on the Move