IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis

The urban migrant and the ‘ritual’ tug of home

6th August, 2020 Economy


  • The migrant worker, when in crisis, is not seeking material help from his family in the village; they are, anyway, much poorer than he is.
  • What disturbs him profoundly at such times is the fear of dying alone with nobody to perform the rites for him. In nearly every religion, the family plays a central role in the observance of mortuary rituals.


Unemployment as part of life

  • It is considerations of this kind, more than financial hardship, that prompt single migrant workers to leave for their rural homes.
  • The Indian labouring classes are much less rattled by joblessness, as unemployment is a frequent, if unwelcome, visitor at their door.
  • This is clearly an outcome of the fact that 93% of our economy is informal. Ironically, the Industrial Disputes Act encourages this trend.
  • It mandates employers to pay severance wages, and other benefits, only if workers are hired, and on the rolls, continuously for over 248 days. This law has had the unintended consequence of making it attractive for management to periodically flip labour around. As a result, only a minuscule minority stays employed for long.


Forget the industrial glue

  • When faced with an imminent threat to life, the tug of home and family is much stronger for the migrant worker than the industrial glue that comes with an urban occupation. This job could be well paid and the worker may have even held it for some time.
  • Again, in Surat, in 1994, the plague scare prompted over 6, 00,000 to leave their work stations for the railway station.
  • On the other hand, when demonetisation happened in 2016, only a few migrant workers left because this distress was primarily economic, without a threat to life.
  • Later, in 2020, when COVID-19 started killing wantonly, there was a radical shift; now, men without families went home because they did not want to die alone.

Data from survey

  • A 2018 CBRE survey shows that 80% of young Indian millennial lives with their parents.
  • Census figures show that joint families are growing, albeit slowly, in urban India, but declining in the villages.


Rituals and customs

  • Among Muslims, washing of the body as well as the lowering of the shrouded corpse are important aspects of death rituals and ought to be performed by the immediate family.
  • Death rituals vary among Hindus too. There is no consensus, for instance, on how many days must elapse before major mourning rituals such as chauthaand shraddha can commence.
  • Further, among Hindus, male blood kin alone can perform the pind daan and the ritual erasure of debts, or (rin), of the dead relative. If these, and other rules, are not followed correctly, the soul of the dead person could suffer perpetual torment in the other world.


Gender factor

  • Newspapers were quick to notice that it was mostly men walking on highways, or leaving from train stations and bus stands. Though the image of vulnerable women and children in the midst of all this is much more wrenching, their numbers were not that many.
  • This is not a trivial observation because women actually form 55% (or, the majority) of rural migrants to urban India. If there were fewer of them on highways, it was because arranged marriages have brought most of them to the city, not a flimsy job prospect.
  • This makes their transition more permanent because they now generally have properly anchored urban husbands.
  • On the other hand, rural men migrate with tentative employment prospects and it will be a long time before they can, if at all, imagine getting their families over.