Journeying to live

On a bus to Bankura to understand the Chhotanagpur labourer.

Each year hundreds of thousands of workers journey to the fields of central southern West Bengal to transplant and harvest rice. Some come from the Chhotanagpur plateau to the west, others from Santal Parganas to the northwest and still others from the northeast and the southwest. Migration east (pube jawa) for rice work from the Chhotanagpur plateau is not new. Even before the canals were constructed in the alluvial plains of Bengal's Barddhaman district in the 1960s, workers from Chhotanagpur were involved in West Bengal's rice cultivation. Indeed, they claim to have been central to the canal construction as well. What has changed is that there are more roads and more buses and a larger number of days' work available.

Anecdotes suggest that as recently the 1950s, it would have been common to walk to the area of intensive rice cultivation. At that time, men travelled alone or in small groups and did not wait to be solicited by employers. Payment was commonly in kind – migration meant survival and there was little to save. With the coming of a second rice crop in alluvial West Bengal from the 1970s, the number of days of available employment doubled. This crop became much more widespread in the 1980s as farmers invested in shallow tube wells and the agrarian conflicts of the previous two decades appeared to have been put behind them. West Bengal's Communist Party of India (Marxist) government has been able to take credit for this capitalist revolution in agriculture, which continued well into the 1990s. It was not the second crop alone which increased the demand for labour, but also the more intensive cultivation of monsoonal rice with new 'high yielding' varieties of seeds and the now almost universal use of chemical fertiliser. Only, since the late 1990s the prosperity of rice cultivation in Barddhaman has come under threat because of a decline in prices associated with newly liberalised rice imports.

While these changes have been going on at the destination of the Chhotanagpur migrant labourer, Chhotanagpur has lacked comparative agricultural growth, further hindered by intermittent drought. When we were in the area to make the journey with the employment seekers of a village in eastern Puruliya district one cold November morning in 1999, the drought was in its third year – agricultural activities in this part of Chhotanagpur had had to be drastically curtailed and more people were seeking work, some of them now for different reasons. In more prosperous periods, landed people – albeit cultivators of very small plots of land – would migrate to bring in additional lumps of money for small investments, perhaps towards the cost of a marriage ceremony, or the purchase of a goat. Now the money was needed, as it always had been for the poorest landless people, in order to make ends meet across the year.

The journeys, though over relatively short distances, were often experienced as long and dangerous while the distance away from the familiarity of home was perceived as great. In most other migration streams, journeys were made on a combination of bus and train or by truck, and from certain areas and social groups men alone made the journey with women and children staying behind at home. In this stream, the journey was made at a stretch by bus. In the bus, women and children would be crammed inside with men on the roof.

One popular destination in West Bengal for the Chhotanagpur migrants was Bankura bus stand, the location of an important regional labour market. The workers on the journey that we were with them were anxious about leaving people and property behind, as much as they were fearful about their own safety away from home. There was no sense of excitement at the prospect of earning the additional money.

Pube jawa
At the bus stop on the morning of the journey, the moon still visible, our migrating companions gradually trickled in in small groups, unconcerned about the time; the bus owner knew they were leaving today and would wait till the last of us was in. In a quarter of an hour, the group expanded to fourteen people, including two women and a small child wide-eyed in anticipation, in addition to an equal number of large plastic woven sacks containing bedding and cooking utensils. The women sat apart watching silently, while the men stood talking amongst themselves. Despite the cold, the men wore a standard attire of knee-length lungis, their shoulders wrapped in small blankets. All but two were bare-foot. One of theirs mother had come to see them off with her granddaughter. "Chaillam go kaki, chhilapula gharduar tar jimma" – We are going auntie, she was told, the children and houses are now in your care. A woman who worked at the local hospital stopped by. "Chhelepule ele diendibe, osudh pattar ja darkar" – If the children come to you, give them medicine and whatever else they need, she was requested.

The bus arrived on time at six. Only the women and the group leader, Jaladhar Kaibarta sat inside, Jaladhar directly behind 'Mutton', the driver. The bus owner was anticipating a crowd of passengers to Bankura, and migrating groups would not board the bus if the women had to sit on top. Thus, despite the ample room inside, all the men climbed directly onto the roof with the luggage. "Kulir sijan bothe bitichilla gula seat libekei" – this is the season for labour, joked one non-migrating passenger, women, of course, will take all the seats. This fell on unamused ears. One female labourer replied, "etadin pube jaichhi, kunodin seat pelinain, darhain jaoa" – I have been going east for so many years, but never have I got a seat, she retorted. We, however, regardless of sex, were forcibly taken by Mutton and given front seats and a clear view of the chaos of rural roads hurtling towards us. A request to sit on top with the men was greeted with a look of utter disbelief and considered strictly out of the question; far too dangerous for 'guests'. (While we treated his concern humorously, we later learnt that on the return journey two men were struck by low hanging trees and killed instantly; nor was it considered an uncommon occurrence].

We sat next to a young woman who was wearing two blouses in an attempt to insulate herself from the cold. She was travelling with a group of labourers to Asansole for agricultural work, prearranged by an employer for whom they had worked many times before. After a few stops along the Puruliya-Manbazar road, three other migrating women whom she had planned to meet on the way joined her. They were accompanied by four children and two fierce fighting cockerels. One of these, a Mike Tyson of birds with a particularly vicious streak screamed and flapped its resentment at being held in such confined conditions. The women (two of whom were sitting on the floor) talked busily amongst themselves whilst the children either slept in their laps, or gazed at the strange faces in a state of heightened bewilderment.

After half an hour and several short stops wherever railway tracks met the metalled road, the bus seemed filled to capacity. Women, children, and a handful of non-migrating men stood packing every available space, and frustrations began to be voiced. "Samachhena tobu jaoa chai. Kachekache dhhuk" – There is no space inside, complained one, but even then they have to take more. Make some space, move over. Their chatter could barely be heard above the incessant blast of the bus's horn, which tore its way through herds of unimpressed cattle and piles of drying grain as we raced eastward along the empty early morning road towards a rising sun.

Neither Mutton nor the ticket inspector could say how many passengers there were since fares would only be collected at the end of the journey (unlike the usual pay-on-entry practiced outside the migrating season). But, the ticket inspector estimated some 190 passengers, of which 170 were migrating labourers. He explained that normally he would take 150 passengers, and 50 on the return journey. These however would alight at various points along the way, so the bus would never grow so crowded as it was this morning: all these passengers were heading for Bankura. He predicted this exodus would continue for another three or four days, between seven to eight days in total. Mutton complained this was creating a shortage of agricultural labour in his own locality that cultivators had not had to face before, and the harvest would suffer because of it.

At half past seven, we reached the important town of Manbazar, the bus stand of which, we had been told, was the location for a smaller seasonal agricultural labour market. We expected another large crowd of labourers to climb on. However, before we could reach the bus stop, a large festive arch of bamboo and paper spanning the road blocked our way. The number of men on top of the bus was such that it was unable to pass underneath. We thus made a detour and bypassed the bus stand altogether. Neither Mutton nor the ticket inspector, usually so keen to pack the bus beyond all physical limits, seemed particularly concerned by this. As we left Manbazar we passed two other buses, top-heavy with labourers spilling over their sides. In the shadow, our bus looked similarly crowded. For all the women standing inside, an at least equal number of male counterparts was perched precariously above. How must the 150 people travelling each morning at other times of the year travel now?

From the driver's cabin only a wall of faces was visible; the tired sitting, others sitting on the seated, and a packed majority standing, wedging each other into a state of immobility. Tyson, being passed from one stranger to another was now thrust directly opposite us. His thick viscous beak screamed dangerously close while its holder gently pulled its tail feathers in an attempt to pacify the disturbed bird. By eight, the sun had risen higher, adding shimmer to the mucus haze of Mutton's sneezes. The air grew uncomfortably hot and thick. Fatigue subdued the early excitement and both the seated and the standing fell into a silent slumber. A smartly dressed commuter looked at the others pushing against her with uncomfortable disdain, and drew her sari over her mouth. When a seat next to us became free, she criticised one of the migrating women for taking it: "You were sitting on the floor, but I can't. Why don't you leave me that seat?" Her request was not granted.

Groups of both commuters and migrant labourers were now mostly being denied entry, although the latter seemed to be given priority. The bus was now so crowded that the ticket inspector would not allow larger groups in. One group of 15 men and women, with an equal number of children and infants were refused. There was no settlement or road in sight, they had clearly walked a long way already, and the next bus would not come until the next morning. "Moire jabe bachha, jaisna barancha, ami boile dichhi" – the kids will die, the passengers joked to them, it is better you don't get on, I'm telling you! The group however was unimpressed: "Raat dutarle boisen acchi, ainya gari pabo thore" – We have been waiting since two last night. There is little chance of getting another bus [today]. They watched anxiously as Mutton pulled away without them. Shortly after, we reached the small town of Pirachelli on the Puruliya-Bankura border. Some labourers ran up excitedly, eager to get a place, whilst others sat with their sacks, content to watch the bus pass them by. In contrast to the plastic sacks of blankets, lanterns and aluminium pots, a small group of Bhumij [why is this relevant?] held only small carrier bags.

Our journey into Bankura continued for the next two hours. Labourers continued to climb on in small groups. The bus had seemed filled beyond capacity only half an hour after the initial departure, but space was found for more. It soon became impossible to close the doors as people spilled out. The women sitting silently on the floor now looked ill and unhappy from travel. They had been unable to sleep the night before, anxious about the morning's journey and the possibility of missing the bus. A young migrating child sitting opposite us repeatedly slid off her young mother's lap onto the floor, while the latter, tired and irritated would tug her up by the hair. The well-dressed woman laughed dryly, "Bankura [bus stand] is still far from here. We shall all die before that!"

Fortunately, there were no such casualties, and at 10.20, the bus pulled to a final halt some 10 minutes away from the bus stand. Mutton explained that it would be impossible to collect the fares if they stopped at the stand itself, so they preferred to do so somewhere quiet where passengers would not be able to slip away undetected. For the next half-hour luggage was unloaded and groups collected themselves together. Even Tyson seemed dazed and harmless. One of the labourers riding on top complained of the cold, cramped conditions; "With one man sitting on one leg, and one man on the other, I haven't been able to move my legs at all!" The women and children sat in small groups whilst their men (through the group leaders) negotiated bus fares with the bus owner and ticket inspector. Our group finally paid Rs 22 per head, instead of the normal Rs 25. Later, once all the fares had been collected, we were told that based on ticket numbers, some 300 adults had made the journey. Now that everyone had descended it was evident that the number of children was also significant. We counted at least 50.

One by one, the migrant groups retrieved their baggage, lifted the young under their arms and made their way single file towards the bus stand, and the next, for many, unknown part of their seasonal journey. The empty bus pulled away with a few commuters to make ready for the return journey.

Identity and the desh
Seasonal migration necessarily involves more journeys than the more commonly studied longer-term migration. Thus, it is the journeys, and labour market places (such as the Bankura bus stop), which, as pointed out by sociologist R Jenkins, become the sites that shape the migrant workers' identity through the interrelated processes of self-identification and categorisation of and by others. The self-identification by migrants, employers, transport workers and others, such as small shopkeepers, whose businesses are built on the expenditure of migrants' remittances during the return journey, shifts across space. During the outward journey, increasingly as it progresses, identification with the particular caste or social rank in the village of origin diminishes, and there is a greater sense of being part of broader groups and of being connected to a bigger home country or desh – in this case the eastern part of Puruliya district in the Chhotanagpur plateau.

A comparison of such processes across studied streams reveals that seasonal workers are both attracted to and repelled by the relatively wealthy destination area. There is a tendency for interactions on journeys and at the workplace to strengthen affinities with home areas. These are also used instrumentally to avoid humiliation in labour market negotiations and even to frighten employers through making reference to being a people of wild, jangli, places such as Chhotanagpur. In addition to the displacement across social and physical space, the regular journeys to the rice plains of Barddhaman are themselves an integral component of what it means to be a seasonal migrant labourer in West Bengal.

It is important to analyse the interaction between the migrants, their employers and local workers on the one hand and economic and social structures in which they are embedded on the other. Similar structuration approaches have been used in other migration studies, but these do not usually focus on seasonal migration. It is also interesting to analyse the extent to which seasonal migrant workers have been able to use new earnings and consumption possibilities to challenge the material and symbolic dominance of employers in their home villages.

Because of the predominance of static village-based studies, there has not been a study that compares the causes and consequences of this seasonal migration for workers in the different streams and their employers. There had been no estimates published of the scale of the migrant workforce involved. Yet West Bengal's recent agricultural successes appear to have depended on these workers.

~ Ben Rogaly and Daniel Coppard spent two years (1999-2000) examining the issues raised in the article. They are at the University of East Anglia, Norwich.

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