Geeta is a 48-year-old woman working as a gardener on a daily wage of ₹250 at a private university campus, closer to Sonipat in Haryana. Every morning, around 7:30 am, she walks down from village Atali to visit her workplace, the university campus, and stays till 5:30-6 pm. In a long walk to the campus, she is accompanied by a group of another 85-90 women – mostly from the neighbouring villages.
Most women, like Geeta, are married and involved in extensive household work before coming down to the campus (early in the morning), and after work.
On inquiring Geeta more on how and why she moved to Village Atali, she – like many others shares her story of migration after marriage from a small village near Unnao in Uttar Pradesh. For her, the reason to come down to Atali had less to do with her own agency or choice to become a gardener, but was part of an involuntary requirement to be with her husband and in-laws. Over time, to manage household expense needs, she started work as a gardener in a school first and then at the university campus.
At the same time, others with Geeta, cite lack of decent employment opportunities with poor conditions of livelihoods as key reasons for leaving their native villages to come thus far.
32-year-old Kamala, a friend of Geeta, mentions how as a young girl, she was tired of beavering for hours on small farms in rural Bihar where she worked with her family as a marginal farmer earning little money. With improving transportation connectivity and a chance to be mobile with women from her village, she sought an opportunity to migrate with her family to Haryana. She now earns a monthly income of around ₹7500.
From interactions with most women gardeners, it turns out that more than 80% qualify themselves as migrants from other villages and towns, with about 55% of them citing marriage as the reason, while the rest 45% say they did so for better pay and opportunities.
In the election season, when all political parties are trying to influence average rural and urban voters, it’s critical to acknowledge that most discussions around the current (and future) state of social policy in India, in terms of affordable access to decent jobs, healthcare, housing, education, need to be seen in context of the increased scale of inter-state and inter-regional migration. The issue, otherwise, gets very little discursive attention (beyond academic eco-chambers).
The case of Geeta and Kamala (along with other women) are representative of the strong narrative of migration that is now redefining India’s social, political and economic landscape, especially in urban and semi-urban spaces. At the same time, the personalised idea and notion of what is perceived as home for some (including Geeta and Kamala) remains deeply under contention, including those who are used to migrating as landless farmers to one area – as street vendors to some city – or as gardeners to another area (to mention a few).
Two years ago, I was a part of a study on the governing dynamics of unorganised employment in markets (via interviews of street vendors) across cities of Delhi and Kolkata, and we made a similar observation on the importance of studying migratory patterns of street-vendors. The study called them “floating entrepreneurs”, who often come to a given city with a product to sell over a period (in weekly/local markets) and return back to their home, once the stock is sold.
From what one can see now, the (perceived) quest for seeking upward social and economic mobility in presence of improved connectivity (rail and roadways) are subsequently resulting in waves of internal women migration across India. Recent works by Indian economists on internal migration also show how social transgressions are found to be either the cause or consequence of internal women-migration in India, with most women (after migration) finding it difficult to return to their native village homes.
Further research studying the nature of internal female migration wave patterns, require a closer scrutiny of four key areas, in explaining why women like Geeta, Kamala migrate to other regions, either adapting or shaping to new preferences over time.
The first area warrants an in-depth understanding of the conjoined relationship between marriage and economic mobility – seen as interrelated factors driving women migration in and across states (similar to Geeta and Kamala’s case). The second area involves a need to understand how structurally embedded regions of cultural patriarchy affect women immobility and how patriarchal household expectations around domestic work (in addition to paid work) exploit women – even once they migrate from their native village homes. This was observed in almost all responses of women gardeners on campus-spending an average of 6 hours of domestic work in addition to 11 hours of paid work per day-gardening.
The third and fourth areas – of more scholarly concern, revolve around “circularity” of internal women migrants i.e. between spaces of residence-workplace-home, and the development of informal women networks, formed to help and cooperate with each other in each of these spaces.
Geeta and Kamala –like many other women gardeners work together on campus and circularly help each other on a daily basis with both, domestic (cooking, washing clothes) and paid work (gardening). Formation of micro-informal women networks (or collective efforts) help women migrants – despite being in deeply patriarchal set-ups – to cooperate and continue adding economic value as per the expectations of seeking higher economic mobility (that made them to migrate in the first place). One needs to study these informal networks more closely.
With increased feminisation and expansion of workforce, in both domestic and outside (paid) work, there is a critical need to see the subject of internal migration as a policy matter (and line of scholarship), especially in context of linking it with other debates/issues around social policy where women are migrating to work within deeply patriarchal systems. Further, understanding migration in all its various forms (inter-state, intra-state, overseas, inter-regional) is vital to knowing the deeply fragmented extent of our social, economic and political landscape both now and in years to come.
Names are changed to maintain respondents’ anonymity.
Views are personal.
The author is associate professor and director, Centre for New Economics Studies at O.P. Jindal Global University.