Contrary to popular belief, migrant populations neither wholly retain nor completely discard their village-based ethnic ties
In the evening, the four-way crossing outside the Sikandarpur Metro station seems like any other in the National Capital Region (NCR). Cars honk, vendors sell their wares, and a Metro train hums on overhead tracks that bisect the intersection. But between 7 and 11am, the crossing is transformed. Hundreds of men, and a handful of women, crowd on to the pavement, jostling for space. They have travelled great distances, mostly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but also from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and West Bengal. For a few hours every morning, this crossing functions as one of the NCR’s largest informal labour markets or chowks. Migrants assemble in the hope of finding temporary employment, primarily at construction sites that dot India’s expanding urban landscape.
Most of these migrants have not permanently relocated their families to the city. Instead, they circulate between village and city several times a year. Such circular migrants are an important population in India, with estimates suggesting they number between 60 million and 90 million. However, surveying of these populations has been hampered by their high mobility, the informal nature of their urban worksites and residences, and their lack of official city-based IDs. Absent systematic information, our portrayals of these communities remain premised on stereotypes or anecdotes, and broadly fall into two camps. Most often, migrant communities are assumed to replicate village society in the city, and stay tightly wedded to their caste communities. Alternatively, they are described somewhat romantically as breaking with caste and adopting class-based identities and attitudes practically upon arrival.
Will caste or class prove more important within poor migrant communities in India? To address this question, I conducted extensive fieldwork at labour chowks across Delhi-NCR and Lucknow. I then fielded a large survey of 3,018 migrants, sampled from 58 chowks across both cities. The survey revealed striking insights about these populations, including that the close correspondence of caste and class in village life is broken within them.
Instead, my sample showed them to be ethnically heterogeneous yet economically homogeneous. On the one hand, 27% were from Scheduled Castes, 44% from the Other Backward Classes, 18% from the upper castes, and 12% were Muslims. On the other hand, the average income of these social groups was practically identical—75% earned less than $2 per day. Also, 77% had no secondary education, and 74% had no household electric connection in their home villages. Such homogeneity sharply contrasts with survey data from the rural regions from which respondents came, in which the economic well-being of these same groups varied sharply.
Given the unique nature of their urban communities, circular migrants frequently engage with equally poor migrants of different caste backgrounds. My survey sought to understand whether class or ethnicity (caste or region) proved more important in such interactions across four key arenas of migrant life in the city.
First, I examined whether ethnic divisions exacerbated competitive animosities at work. At labour chowks, competition manifested in the practice of wage-cutting, when one migrant undercut another to gain employment from prospective employers. Did migrants feel more negatively towards wage-cutters who come from a different ethnic group?
Second, I examined if ethnic differences impeded willingness to share rented rooms with another migrant. Contrary to popular opinion, most respondents did not have prearranged roommates from their home villages. Instead they found roommates at the chowk itself.
Third, I examined if migrants were less willing to support informal “market leaders" of their chowk who were from dissimilar ethnic backgrounds.
Finally, I examined how much caste and region mattered in shaping migrant preferences for political candidates running in destination city elections, and in their rural regions of origin.
These attitudes were tested by an experiment in which migrants were presented with four short vignettes about a fictitious migrant wage-cutter, a migrant seeking a roommate, a migrant aspiring to be market leader, and a political candidate. The caste and regional profile of the fictitious migrant/candidate was randomly manipulated by varying their name and the state from which they had come. Respondents were then asked to evaluate the fictitious migrant/candidate. This protocol allowed me to assess if these evaluations varied if the migrant/candidate was from the same or different caste or regional background as the respondent.
The results of this experiment push against portrayals of migrant populations as either completely retaining or discarding village-based ethnic ties. Respondents did sharply discriminate against migrants from other castes or regions when picking roommates, informal chowk leaders, and political candidates from their rural region of origin. However, ethnic differences did not exacerbate animosities towards wage-cutting migrants or reduce support for urban political candidates.
Why do poor urban migrants sometimes divide along caste lines, and sometimes unite across them? Follow-up interviews suggested migrant attitudes are sharply affected by the presence of urban elites. Wage-cutting was seen as a practice engineered by exploitative employers who “make us cut each other’s rates so they can pocket more". Importantly, migrants believe these elites perceive and treat them in class (and not ethnic) terms, noting “you think these maliks know I am a Brahmin? We are all just labour (to them)". Such uniform mistreatment helped unite migrants when evaluating wage-cutters among them.
A similar logic informed the low salience of caste in evaluations of urban political candidates. Much of the motivation for voting on caste lines stems from expectations that politicians will disproportionately reward their co-caste supporters. Such beliefs hinge on politicians actually knowing the caste of their supporters, as migrants believe rural candidates do. Respondents believed urban politicians viewed them as an undifferentiated lump of “labour log". By contrast, decisions about whom to select as a roommate or chowk leader take place within migrant communities, away from the unifying presence of urban elites. In such decisions, ethnic differences continued to divide poor migrants of the same class.
Clearly, the simplified folk wisdom serving as our basis for understanding complex and multifaceted migrant communities is inadequate. Far more research is needed on these so-called “invisible" populations who build our cities, while hiding in plain sight.
Tariq Thachil is associate professor, department of political science, Vanderbilt University.