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  • Rishav Chatterjee

Caste and Migration in India

International Migration

Migration is a paradigm that can be both beneficial and detrimental in various spheres of influence. In the Indian context, since the 1960s, various individuals have gained a lot of economic and social power as a result of migrating away from India.

However, this trend caused India, a freshly emerging postcolonial country, to suffer a huge loss of human capital when it was most needed, while the global west usurped the technical and scientific knowledge of Indian immigrants and utilized them for their skilled labor.

Migratory patterns out of third world countries are extremely complicated processes - the outcomes of which are largely decided by class hierarchies and socioeconomic inequalities. When analyzing the Indian Brain Drain, it is integral to ponder which Indian citizens were actually able to afford to leave the country and what their caste and social origins were. An investigation into these social identities reveals that the socioeconomic and cultural capital these individuals had acquired over generations afforded them the ability to migrate out of India, a privilege that could never be awarded to individuals belonging to a lower caste.

H. Arokkiaraj’s academic work “International Migration and Caste Dynamics: Three Villages in Tamil Nadu,” published in the Economic and Political Weekly, draws attention to these issues and how the ramifications of caste hierarchies play out in international migration. Arokkiaraj explicates how individuals belonging to a certain caste background benefit tremendously from international migration by gaining access to better jobs, higher pay, and profitable remittances as a result of that privilege. The upper castes usually migrate to improve their lifestyles and incomes whilst people having a Dalit - also known as untouchables, who belong to the lowest caste stratum - identity migrate solely for survival purposes.

In Arokkiaraj’s study of three villages and three caste groups: Kallar, the dominant landowning caste, Moopanars, the caste that works as agricultural laborers in the lands owned by the Kallar, and Paraiyars, the caste barred from agricultural labor who later took up manual scavenging. Arokkiaraj concluded that people belonging to Kallar could easily afford the cost of migration through their personal savings, whereas people belonging to the Moopanars and Paraiyar castes had to borrow capital from various sources. The privileged castes could also send back better remittances to their households in comparison to the marginalized castes: interviews with the wives of Moopanar and Paraiayar male caste members reveal that the money they received barely allowed them to functionally run their households, consequently forcing them to take up other sources of employment.

Such unequal situations exist because of a caste based social order which allows individuals placed in a higher caste to have the inter-generational wealth to migrate to overseas countries. In addition to this, the upper castes further enhance the economic conditions of their families by sending back higher remittances: phenomenons that continuously concentrate and accumulate capital within the highest caste levels.

Domestic Migration

One of the pertinent ways of countering the infamous Brain Drain in India is for the government to promote circular or in-migration. The theory of circular migration holds that governments should frivolously strive to promote inter-migration between various states within India to counter the larger outward migration pattern. In this way, both the state of origin as well as the state of migration gain economically. However, even through circular migration policies, caste dynamics have been grossly ignored, and individuals from disadvantaged castes continue to face social segregation, labor market discrimination, and other barriers to accessing the most basic services in all sectors of India. Such crippling conditions forced 93 million Indians with a lower caste identity to migrate to other states in 2011.

Exclusionary governmental policies push migrants from all sections of society to the fringes of urban spaces, where they are denied the basic amenities of life. The effect of this is infinitely greater on SCs (Scheduled Castes) and STs (Scheduled Tribes). The Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) are officially designated groups of people and among the most disadvantaged socio-economic groups in India. When these migrants shift away from the state of their origins, they can no longer access the benefits of state-specific aid. Thus, they are bereft from reaping the benefits of positive discrimination policies for people belonging to SC and ST communities in state government jobs and state-run educational institutions. Thus, their caste identity becomes a floating identity when they cross over state boundaries.

Caste also impacts the very decision to migrate and the benefits that can be accrued from that migration. For example, the source of employment for generations of Dalits, Vanjaris, and Muslim migrants was sugarcane cutting, but dominant castes such as Marathas only got into this field in times of shock or economic distress. “Dominant Caste” in this context refers to a state-specific, single caste that chooses to homogenize all the resources of that state. Thus, the accumulation of wealth is also determined by caste networks.

Just like in the cases of international migration, in the domestic context, people from the general category and OBC (Other Backward Caste) background find it much easier to migrate and bear the costs of migration. The marginalized castes barely gain anything apart from survival in their migration, a fact which is proven by data from poorer, lower caste areas such as Ludhiana, Ujjain, Mathura, and Jaipur.

Even in the job market, the ramifications of caste are very apparent, as historically oppressed communities are the most disadvantaged in the labor market. Studies found that SCs and STs occupy the lowest end of the labor market working as helpers, masons and manual labor whilst migrants from general and OBC categories occupied more skilled employment opportunities with better salaries. Higher caste migrants have better qualifications for urban centers as they are historically privileged in terms of receiving education.

Intersections between Caste and Gender

Women belonging to SC and ST communities usually migrate from one rural area to another due to marital reasons or loss of ownership of forest resources. On the other end of the spectrum, almost 66% of upper caste female migrant workers are employed in white-collar services. In opposition to this, women belonging to tribal or aboriginal adivasi backgrounds take up jobs in the construction sector as brick makers or are employed as paid domestic helpers and seasonal agricultural laborers. The study also concluded that women from lower castes migrate for short to medium length terms whilst women from upper castes migrate for longer and usually permanent durations, in accordance with their more stable job opportunities.

Equality Movements can minimize the impact of caste in Migration

It is very evident that government policies do nothing but expedite the process of caste discrimination in migration. In 2019, the government released the Draft Emigration Bill which aims at promoting and protecting the welfare of emigrants. However, this bill was extremely monolithic and ambiguous in its approach and never took the social realities migrants face into account, especially when they are made to feel unwelcome in their new destinations. The bill further does not protect the rights of the migrants and thus leaves them susceptible for all sorts of discrimination.

Positively, nongovernmental movements such as the Ravidassia movement in Punjab massively benefit disadvantaged communities and aid them in gaining access to education, hospitals, and safe spaces, and maximize the benefits lower caste migrants can reap from immigration to other Indian states. These movements enunciate the need to assert individual caste identities through songs, literature, and poetry.

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