Caste hierarchies and migration patterns
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How economic wealth and ownership of assets via caste networks influence international migration

April 05, 2022 10:30 am | Updated 07:49 pm IST

 Low and poor socio-economic factors kept migrants belonging to MBC and SC communities in conditions of economic disadvantage and social vulnerability.

Low and poor socio-economic factors kept migrants belonging to MBC and SC communities in conditions of economic disadvantage and social vulnerability. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Arokkiaraj, H, ‘International Migration and Caste Dynamics: Three villages in Tamil Nadu’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 57, Issue No. 9, February 26, 2022

Among the many studies on migration and its socio-economic effects, H. Arokkiaraj’s article ‘International Migration and Caste Dynamics: Three villages in Tamil Nadu’, draws attention to the inter-connections that exist between caste and international migration. It denotes how caste hierarchies and privileges enable certain castes to access better jobs, higher pays and profitable remittances through channels of international migration. In this process, other castes are excluded from garnering better opportunities. Even though migration is undertaken to improve one’s living standards, Arokkiaraj mentions how caste identities of migrants can influence migration patterns and the benefits attained. Unlike the upper castes, who migrate voluntarily for professional reasons seeking enhanced incomes and better lifestyles, Arokkiaraj observes how for lower castes and Dalits, their dismal socio-economic conditions compel them to migrate for survival purposes. From field findings based on methods of mixed sampling and semi-structured interviews (132 samples) conducted in three village panchayats — Thamarakki South, Sakkanthi, and Kottakudi Keelpathi in Sivagangai district in Tamil Nadu — this paper examines the role of caste in international migration and the differential socio-economic impact of migration on caste groups.

The paper takes into consideration three social groups who belong to the above mentioned villages – the Kallars who are the Backward Castes (BC) and the dominant landowning caste, the Moopanars who belong to the category of Most Backward Castes (MBC) and work as agricultural labourers in the lands owned by the Kallars and the Paraiyars who are registered among the Scheduled Castes (SC), barred from working in the farms of the Kallars, and are engaged in manual scavenging. This paper delves into how migration affects the wives of the migrants (the left behind wives) and describes the experiences and consequences of migration on different caste groups through insights gathered from the wives of the migrants from these villages.

Social capital, caste and migration

The field data on the relationship between caste and international migration provides information on how migrants from the BC and MBC communities were well equipped in terms of their ability to afford more money to meet their costs of migration. When compared to the MBCs and SCs, migrants belonging to the BC community were able to manage their migration expenses through their personal savings, whereas migrants from MBC and SC communities had to borrow money from friends, relatives or moneylenders to meet their migration costs. BC migrants were also better placed in sending higher remittances back home. In the information gathered through interviews of left-behind wives belonging to the Moopanar community, it was found that the remittances of their migrant husbands were not enough to meet their household requirements. They had to share the responsibility of meeting the financial expenses by working on the agricultural lands of the BC (Kallar) community.

The narratives of women from the Moopanar community also explains the relative economic affluence of the BCs (Kallars), as Kallars possess agricultural lands, livestock and higher remittances. The Moopanars and the Paraiyars in comparison are economically disadvantaged as both the husband and wife have to work hard and engage in economic activities to attain socio-economic status equal to that of the Kallars. On the contrary, owing to their higher economic capabilities, women belonging to the Kallar community do not need to engage in economic activities and are able to run their households with the remittances received. For women belonging to MBC and SC communities, migrant remittances alone do not guarantee economic affluence. The financial benefits of remittances are marginal or meagre to them, whereas field data suggest that the BC community was able to benefit from/achieve economic solvency through migrant remittances.

Narratives from left-behind wives belonging to MBC and SC communities also indicate how caste functions as a decisive factor in the pre-migration process and the post-migration effects. Their stories show how BC migrants through their high caste status, community connections and financial resources, were able to get better job offers. After gaining direct employment with high salaries overseas, they further enhance their socio-economic well-being. Such narratives show how caste-determined migration acts to the detriment of migrants belonging to the MBC and SC communities, resulting in discriminatory outcomes for them.

Among the left-behind wives of the three caste groups, BC women made better educational progress and higher ownership of livestock than MBC and SC women. While the left-behind wives of the BC community were homemakers, women of MBC and SC communities had to engage in agricultural labour, MGNREGA works and other caste-based occupations to make their ends meet. In terms of income earnings and less financial burdens, left behind wives of the BC community fared far better than those belonging to the MBC and SC communities.

Differential access and outcomes

This paper brings to notice the occupational shifts in the three caste groups caused by international migration. BC migrants who were agricultural landholders worked in the sectors of construction and labour overseas and the MBC and SC migrants who were earlier engaged in caste-based occupations in the village were able to shift to other job sectors and improve their economic positions through overseas migration. Although international migration enabled those from the lower castes and the Dalit community to move to non-caste job sectors, their economic activities in their resident villages were still governed by caste. While the men from MBC and SC communities shifted to non-caste job sectors via overseas migration, women from these communities continue to work in caste-based occupations to support the financial needs of their families. International migration proved more advantageous to the men and women of the BC community, with the existent socio-economic privileges adding to their advancements, whereas the same did not bring about any substantial change in the lives of the migrant families belonging to the MBC and SC communities. This makes clear how in international migration, caste-based socio-economic privileges facilitated the access and advancement of one community (BC Kallars) while simultaneously prejudicing the economic prospects of the migrants of the MBC and SC communities. Such a disadvantaged outcome requires more academic attention and analysis.

Dhivya Sivaramane is pursuing doctoral research in Political Science at University of Delhi

THE GIST
This paper outlines how caste identities of migrants can influence migration patterns and the benefits attained through migration.
Through narratives from the wives of the migrants who have been left behind, the paper shows how the relative economic affluence of backward castes in comparison to groups from Most Backward Castes and Scheduled Castes made the process of migration easier and also helped them gain jobs with better pay and benefits.
Overseas migration helped those engaged in caste-based occupations in their villages to shift to other job sectors and improve their economic positions. However, most of them are able to make ends meet only because women from these communities continue to work in caste-based occupations to support the financial needs of their families.

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