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The Peripatetic Indian

The Peripatetic Indian

Indians are mighty footloose, and a new book underlines the scale of the phenomenon.

In Kottayam, Kerala, two young men from Uttar Pradesh wash a dozen cars a day. The owner of the car wash charges Rs 200 a car and gives them half and a room to stay in, they inform me. Elsewhere in the town, men from the northeast work at fruit shops, stores, hotels and restaurants. They, of course, illustrate a striking phenomenon - that of north Indians invading God's Own Country. Over two million of them work there, reckons migration scholar Chinmay Tumbe.

That is no surprise. In Kerala, labour commands a daily wage of over Rs 800 versus under-Rs 200 in impoverished Uttar Pradesh.

What's more, Indians have migrated for centuries, Tumbe's debut book points out. Migration is often circular (many migrants return to their homes seasonally) and is vital for a pluralistic society (it is a different matter that the trend invites a backlash at times, as in Gujarat).

The scale of India's migration is mind-boggling. Over 300 million Indians, mostly women, shifted for marriage or because households moved, according to the 2011 census. And The Economic Survey estimated last year that 50-100 million moved due to economic reasons. "The Great Indian Migration Wave is arguably the largest and longest non-coerced migration stream for work in documented history," Tumbe declares.

He has strong credentials. He has written extensively on migration, teaches at the IIM-Ahmedabad and was a Visiting Scholar in Business History at Harvard Business School. In a foreword to the book, the government's former Chief Economic Advisor, Arvind Subramanian, reveals that the young economist contributed to a chapter in The Economic Survey of 2016-2017.

Subramanian says it is a terrific book, a 'Big Book' that is going overboard, but then, the book does cover vast ground. Tumbe looks at all sorts of migration - domestic, international, voluntary and involuntary - from an Indian perspective. He zeroes in on a couple of regions from where people migrated - Saran district in Bihar, Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, Udipi in Karnataka and Ganjam in Odisha, to name but a few - before surveying migration from India to all over the world.

Migration certainly leaves a big impact on many regions. They become "remittance economies with strong consumerist cultures, little manufacturing and a booming service economy". Indeed, as much as 30 per cent of Kerala's GDP comes from remittances.

The book also throws up several nuggets and here is a quick look:

Migrants from Bihar's Saran district used to head to Bengal from the 15th century onwards in search of work. The women of Bihar feared that "the beautiful Bengali women would seduce their husbands".

In 1898, The New York Times noted in an article the "originality and vigor" of the Indian postal department that had launched several money order innovations to tackle the remittance problems of migrants.

A Syrian Christian, K.C. Zachariah, wrote the first account of Mumbai's migrants. Tumbe describes him as "the doyen of migration research in India".

Mahindra & Mahindra was formed in 1945 as Mahindra & Mohammed but acquired its current name after Ghulam Mohammed quit to become Pakistan's first Finance Minister.

But make no mistake - this is an academic book. It draws on a huge body of literature and goes into considerable details. The chapter on migrant capital and entrepreneurs, for example, reads like The Illustrated Weekly with its articles on India's communities when Kushwant Singh was its editor. What worked then became tedious later.

Tumbe clearly has spoken to migrants and others but could have leavened his work with greater field reportage. Other academics have done this. The book's editors have also not been hawk-eyed enough - a few grammatical errors and Indianisms leap out of the pages.

My verdict: An impressive book. It could have been a great one.

The reviewer was a resident editor at two financial dailies and a deputy editor at The Telegraph

Published on: Oct 29, 2018, 9:13 AM IST
Posted by: Jatin Kumar, Oct 29, 2018, 9:13 AM IST