Labour Migration on The Rise in India

Meet Susheela, Rukmini, Sarla, and Ganga. They are friends, they share a common past and perhaps even their future is going to be alike. These women from the OBC (Other Backward Classes) community, are domestic workers in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Five years ago, none of them had ever thought that there would come a time when they’d have no option but to leave their native villages and small farms in neighbouring Chhattisgarh to build a new life in the city.

Migration from the predominantly tribal, insurgency-hit state in eastern India is not a new phenomenon. In the book, ‘In Search of Livelihood: Labour Migration from Chhattisgarh’, published by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar National Institute of Social Sciences, authors Y.G. Joshi and D.K. Verma have noted that, “Seasonal labour out-migration is today a regional characteristic of the area, involving nearly a million population which, barring few southern states, moves nearly to all parts of the country. The labour migration from this area… is a part of household survival strategy of the marginal farmers and land-less workers who are unable to find work locally… Nevertheless migrating out for work has become an essential component of household economy for a large section of the poor population…”

Susheela’s household could well be one of the marginalised ones that Joshi and Verma have written about. It was a failed harvest that brought her to Lucknow, over 700 kilometres from her home in Bilaspur, nearly a decade ago. She says, “I came with my husband’s parents, to work as a labourer on a flyover. Due to a bad crop there was a huge loan to be repaid. Around three dozen families from my village got work on that flyover.”

Later, while Susheela’s father-in-law went back to tend to their small farm, she and her mother-in-law Rajbala stayed on to find work either as construction workers or domestic workers, simply because “there was no way our small field in Bilaspur could feed a large family of 13.” Susheela may have started off as a seasonal migrant but her move became a permanent one.

Statistics of the UP Labour Department reveal that there are around 22,000 migrant domestic workers from other states in Lucknow alone and, of these, around 3,000 are from Chhattisgarh. They come in search of better prospects but the transition is hard on them – physically and emotionally. Says Susheela, “I had to leave my one-year-old daughter in Bilaspur in the care of my father-in-law and husband, who is a mason. Every day, I wanted to go back to her, but my mother-in-law told me that we needed to earn so that we could pay off the debt.”

Saving money in a big city, however, is easier said than done. Susheela’s friend from Bilaspur, Rukmini, 25, who is also working in Lucknow as a maid, says, “Initially, the biggest problem we all faced was of language. The Hindi dialect spoken in Lucknow is different from that of our native place and it took a long time getting used to it. This is especially true when we go into homes to work.” Negotiating unfamiliar city routes, living in one-room tenements in squalid slums and surviving on subsistence wages, arbitrarily fixed, are just some of the other problems.

What kept Susheela going were the biannual visits back home. “We used to save money and then, twice a year, went back to hand it over to my father-in-law. While returning, we brought back foodgrain so that we didn’t have to buy it from the shop,” she recalls.

In this way, it took Susheela and Rajbala eight years to repay the loan and then acquire an additional small piece of land in Bilaspur. Says Rajbala, 65, “My husband thought that buying a little more land would help us settle back home. But it never happened. Lucknow is our home now.”

For the last 10 years life has been fairly constant for Susheela. Two years ago, her husband and daughters – she has three now – joined her in her Patel Nagar home in Lucknow. Her only connect with Bilaspur is the annual visit to her ‘sasural’ (marital home) to collect her share of the produce from the small farm there.

Life in the city has worn her out. The 35-year-old dusky woman, wakes up every morning, hurriedly completes a few household chores and is out for work by 7.30 am. As a domestic worker she toils in a dozen households in the Indira Nagar and Nishatganj localities before heading back home in the evening. Her monthly earnings? Anywhere between Rs 8,000 and Rs 10,000. But it’s not enough to survive, considering how expensive everything is – her daily commute generally involves a bus and rickshaw ride.

It is well established that domestic workers are among the most exploited and under-represented members of the workforce in India. Although there is the Domestic Workers (Registration, Social Security and Welfare) Bill 2008, which seeks to regulate and improve their conditions of work, it has remained at the drafting stage. Implementing even minimal protections has been difficult given that the work is conducted in the private space of the home and that there is a singular lack of will on the part of the upper and middle classes, as well as governments, to address the specific concerns of this section of society.

It may be a hard daily grind for Susheela, but she insists that she is a happier woman today. She is just grateful that she has some money every month and is oblivious to the fact that she is being exploited. For her, it’s important that her family is with her – her sister-in-law and elder brother-in-law with his wife also stay with them.

The steady move out of the village has also impacted Sarla – her entire family has come over, bag and baggage. Sarla found it difficult at first to make an entry into the labour market because of her nine-month-old daughter, but now she has found work cleaning homes and washing dishes. Her husband and brother-in-law work as bricklayers for housing projects in the city.

While Susheela and Sarla have their families by their side, Rukmini is still waiting for her 11-year-old daughter and husband to join her. In the last 10 years or so, Rukmini has not been able to save enough to support the entire family in the city. While her elder daughter lives in Bilaspur, the two younger daughters, aged nine and four, are with her. “They are too small so I have them here with me,” she explains. Would she like to go back to Bilaspur? “What will I do there?” she shoots back. She now plans to call her eldest daughter over and teach her domestic work. Her husband can then follow.

Interestingly, Susheela’s and Rukmini’s ‘prosperity’ has encouraged many of their friends and neighbours to migrate too. In fact, Sarla and Ganga were once Susheela’s neighbours. Says Sarla, “It helped to have people from the village here. It assisted us in coping with the initial difficulties we faced.”

Here are courageous women who took the plunge into the unfamiliar and survived. They all believe that leaving the village behind has proved to be a boon – it has brought them independence and regular income which “ensures food on our plates,” as one woman put it. But what about their living conditions? The education of their children, especially their daughters? The unrelenting pace of work – because if they do not work, they do not eat?

These are questions that remain unanswered.

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