Study Reveals Why Dalits, Tribals, and Christian Workers from Odisha Prefer Kerala Over Gujarat

Shifting from the Ganjam-Surat Migration Corridor to the Ganjam-Kerala Migration Corridor- The allure of Kerala as a destination for migrants from Surada in Ganjam district grew steadily during the late 1990s. SCs, STs, and Christian communities comprised a significant portion of the initial migrants to Kerala, drawn by factors such as higher wages and a more inclusive work environment.
The emergence of a new migration corridor between Surada block of Ganjam district in Odisha and Kerala signifies a notable departure from the long-standing migration route between Ganjam and Surat in Gujarat.
The emergence of a new migration corridor between Surada block of Ganjam district in Odisha and Kerala signifies a notable departure from the long-standing migration route between Ganjam and Surat in Gujarat. Pic- Madhusudan Nag

Ganjam, Odisha- Imagine being a Dalit migrant worker, far away from home, facing unfair treatment every day. It's painful when nobody wants to share a meal with you or even use the same water pot.

Then, when you need to send money to your family, the people who could help, like the higher-caste workers, refuse or ask for extra money. Going back home often is expensive, and even getting someone to deliver your money is a challenge.

This unfair treatment makes life even harder for Dalit migrant workers, making them feel isolated and hopeless.

These distressing experiences are precisely why Dalits, marginalized sections, and Christian workers are steering clear of the Ganjam-Surat corridor, once a major labour migration route in the country.

The emergence of a new migration corridor between Surada block of Ganjam district in Odisha and Kerala signifies a notable departure from the long-standing migration route between Ganjam and Surat in Gujarat.

This shift in migration patterns has garnered attention through a recent study co-authored by Madhusudan Nag, a Doctoral Scholar at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram; Benoy Peter from the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, Perumbavoor; and Divya Varma from Aajeevika Bureau, Udaipur.

The study was published in Odisha Economic Journal which sheds light on how the evolving migration pattern and caste dynamics not only influence the type of work undertaken but also the choice of destination.

Migrant workers who returned during the festival leisurely unwind in Surada block, Ganjam District, Odisha.
Migrant workers who returned during the festival leisurely unwind in Surada block, Ganjam District, Odisha.Pic- Madhusudan Nag

Migrant workers from the SC/ST communities in Ganjam initially migrated to Surat as 'Dadan' labor. However, as the population of migrants from dominant castes in Surat increased, they subjected SC workers from Ganjam to the same discrimination experienced in their home villages in Surada.

This hostile treatment by fellow OBC Odia migrants marginalized the SC migrants, leading to their gradual withdrawal from Surat. Consequently, the Ganjam-Surat migration corridor became dominated by OBCs and other castes, with minimal presence from the SCs in Ganjam.

In a conversation with The Mooknayak, Madhusudan Nag, the lead author of the study, elucidated the intricate findings and insights uncovered during their research endeavour. "Our study delved into the oldest and well established migration corridor between Ganjam and Surat," Madhusudan began. " Dalits from Ganjam constituted the primary migrant cohort to Surat. However, as time progressed, individuals from higher castes also joined the migration stream," he explained. "By the late 1990s, a concerning trend emerged as Dalits started facing marginalization in Surat due to discrimination and a lack of cooperation from higher caste Odias," Madhusudan continued.

He then shifted the discussion towards the subsequent migration patterns, noting, "In response to the challenges faced in Surat, marginalized groups, including Dalits, Tribals, and Christians, began seeking opportunities elsewhere. This led to the emergence of a new migration trend from Ganjam to Kerala." Madhusudan emphasized the comparative safety and reduced discrimination experienced by migrants in the Ganjam-Kerala corridor compared to the Ganjam-Surat corridor.

When asked about the current migration landscape, Madhusudan shared, "While the Ganjam-Surat corridor remains larger in terms of migration flow, we found that Dalits and other marginalized groups increasingly prefer migrating to Kerala and other southern states for livelihood opportunities." He elaborated on the preferences of younger migrants, stating, "Our study revealed that younger migrants from marginalized groups are drawn to Kerala due to its healthier work environment and safety standards. They are primarily employed in the construction sector and unskilled domestic work."

As the conversation delved deeper into the living and working conditions of migrants, Madhusudan highlighted the disparities between Surat and Kerala. "In Kerala, migrants enjoy better working and living conditions compared to other states," he noted. "Accommodations are typically provided by labour contractors or shared among migrants from the same village or caste," he added.

Madhusudan underscored the significant influence of caste dynamics on migration decisions and destination preferences. "Our findings reveal how caste not only influences occupational choices but also affects migration destinations," he remarked.

A  village scene in Surada block, Ganjam, Odisha, evoking a sense of emptiness.
A village scene in Surada block, Ganjam, Odisha, evoking a sense of emptiness. Pic- Madhusudan Nag

Marginalized Communities Find New Opportunities in Kerala: A Tale of Few Migrant Workers

Raghunath Nayak, (changed name) a 62-year-old construction worker from the Pano Scheduled Caste (SC) community, is presently a construction worker in Thrissur district of Kerala and has a long history of migration spanning various states in India.

His journey began in the late 1970s when he migrated to Surat, Gujarat, seeking employment opportunities in the construction and loom sectors. However, his experience in Surat was marred by discrimination and violence perpetrated by upper-caste migrants from Ganjam, prompting him to flee the city along with his relatives.

“ We worked in Surat for nearly two years. At that time, so many Odias were there in Surat. One day, when we had returned from work, we saw that the room was unlocked and all our belongings were thrown around. Later an Odia from Nayagarh district informed us that people from Ganjam had done the damage. We got angry and complained to the house owner. However, he did not respond" Nayak says.

Adding further, the elderly man states " On another occasion, when we went to an Odia mess for lunch, a confrontation occurred, and we were insulted and beaten up. They (the upper caste Ganjami) informed our co-workers from Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra about our caste background after which they stopped cooperating at work. In another incident, I had sent money home through a Teli person (OBC) and later came to know that he did not deliver the full amount to my family. I got angry and picked up a big fight in which they (the OBC) were injured. Fearing repercussions, I had to run away from Surat that night. My cousin, uncle and friends also came with me as they feared that they may also be targeted because they were from my caste and village. We came to Mumbai by train without food and money."

Subsequently, Nayak worked in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh before finding employment in Kerala's pineapple fields in 1997/98.

In Thrissur, Kerala, Nayak found a more inclusive and peaceful work environment compared to his previous experiences. Despite the presence of migrants from various caste backgrounds, interactions were harmonious, and caste-based discrimination was minimal.

Similarly, 50-year old Tilak Naik (pseudonym), a former migrant worker from the Pano SC community, faced discrimination and harassment from upper-caste migrants in Surat, Gujarat, during his early migration experiences.

He eventually migrated to Kerala, attracted by better working conditions and a more inclusive environment. Naik found Kerala to be a safer and more peaceful place to work, where caste considerations were minimal, and upper-caste migrants from Ganjam were less likely to mistreat SC workers.

According to Tilak Nath, “Working in Kerala is more peaceful. People do not bother about our caste even after they come to know. Now even upper caste people from Ganjam work in Kerala. But they are less in number and not in the position to misbehave with the SCs. Besides, the younger kids are not like their fathers or grandfathers who mistreated our people in Ganjam.”

His two sons currently work in Kerala. One of them joined him in 2004 and the other joined him in 2011. His elder son works as a mason and the younger one as his helper. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Tilak Naik’s elder son returned home, but the younger son continued his work in Kerala. He came home after the regular train services resumed. He experienced no difficulties in staying and getting food in Kerala during the lockdown. On the contrary, in the same village, some people who worked in Tamil Nadu and Surat had suffered. They rushed back by paying a hefty sum for transportation

Banshi Hadi, a 27-year-old from the Hadi caste, represents the first generation of migrants from his family.

With a basic education up to Class 6, he ventured into migrant labor, becoming the trailblazer for his family's migration journey. In 2010, Banshi embarked on his migration journey to Kerala, accompanying members of the Pano caste who were among the pioneering migrants to the state. Initially employed in cow-buffalo care, Banshi later transitioned to the construction sector, where he found stability and respect from his employers. The conducive work environment and the sense of dignity afforded by his employers contributed to Banshi's decision to settle in Kerala.

In Kerala, Banshi is part of a growing community of migrants from his village who have found employment in the same area. The presence of fellow villagers has fostered a sense of community and support, further solidifying Banshi's attachment to Kerala as a preferred destination for work.

When questioned about his decision not to migrate to Surat, Banshi says, “From my family or even from the Sahi (colony), no one works in Surat. Most of them go to Kerala, and others work in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Bhubaneswar. Therefore, I had no scope to even think about going to Surat.”

Pic- Madhusudan Nag

The study claims that the Christians from Surada also preferred to move to Kerala as they found it difficult to obtain accommodation in Surat and faced harassment from the upper caste Odias.

The Christians not only went to Kerala but also to Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The Surada Christians arrived in Kerala through their relatives living in the neighbouring Kandhamal district. Here, a significant number of Christian families have migrated to southern Indian states.

This was particularly after the Kandhamal riots in 2008, a conflict between the Hindus and the Christians that displaced the latter. With a considerable Christian population in Kerala, the Odia Christians who migrated to the state had better jobs, higher wages and they also felt less threatened.

As the Surada block shares a border with Kandhamal, the riots also impacted the Christian communities of Surada. According to a key informant, “Christian people of our region do not go to Surat. Some people have gone there, but their experience was not good because in Surat a person will get a good job only if he knows the people or if any of the relatives work there”.

 A picturesque view of a village predominantly inhabited by the Christian community
A picturesque view of a village predominantly inhabited by the Christian communityPic- Madhusudan Nag

Navigating Uncertainty: Migration Trends and Future Prospects

Expressing uncertainty about the future, Madhusudan conveys, "While Kerala currently stands as a preferred destination, we cannot overlook the potential for change in migration trends." Reflecting on the historical role of Dalits as pioneers in migration from Ganjam, he remarked, "Dalits were the trailblazers in migration, but as OBCs and other upper castes followed suit, they brought along injustice and intolerance, making life difficult for Dalits."

Acknowledging the imperfections in Kerala, Madhusudan cautioned, "It's important to recognize that casteism exists in Kerala also, and the situation may not be perfect." However, he emphasized that, "For the present, Gujarat's Surat presents a poorer environment compared to Kerala." Yet, Madhusudan remained circumspect about Kerala's enduring appeal, stating, "No one knows what the future holds."

Co-researcher Benoy Peter from the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development states, " The findings from this study affirm findings from earlier studies that attest to caste continuing to be a crucial factor in migration decision making. Migrants tend to cluster around in areas where there is a large presence of people from their communities.

Co-author of the study and Director- Knowledge and Policy, Aajeevika Bureau, Divya Varma states , " Despite advancements in infrastructure and economic opportunities, caste-based discrimination continues to influence migration decisions, limiting the social emancipation of marginalized communities. Moving forward, efforts to address caste-based discrimination and promote egalitarianism are essential to fostering inclusive migration practices and facilitating the social mobility of marginalized populations in Ganjam and beyond.

Evolution and Growth of the Ganjam-Surat Corridor

As per details in the study, the Ganjam-Surat corridor emerged as a significant internal migration route, ranking among the top districts for male out-migration across state borders in India. This migration corridor constitutes a substantial portion, comprising 78% of the total out-migration from Ganjam.

Interestingly, the Ganjam District Gazetteer (2017) claims the following: "Migration from Ganjam District is not attributed to distress. It is rather attributed to the quality of expertise people possess. Ganjam traditionally sends more than half a million people to Gujarat to work in textile Industries, diamond cutting and polishing Industries and ship breaking yards. Such huge migration to Gujarat is not due to distress conditions but due to the demand of such labourers in these Industries. Such migration is mostly suo-moto through peer-connection’.

Surat, an industrial hub in Gujarat, has been a primary destination for migrants from Ganjam, with migration patterns dating back to the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The growth of export processing zones and various industries in Gujarat provided ample employment opportunities, attracting workers from Ganjam as agriculture in their home region faced challenges due to frequent natural calamities.

Initially engaged in gardening and construction work, migrants from Ganjam gradually transitioned into the textile and diamond industries in Surat, gradually replacing labour from other states like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan.

Consequently, the Ganjam-Surat corridor became one of the primary routes for labour migration in the country, with an estimated 6-8 lakh migrants from Ganjam residing in Surat as of 2018. The cultural presence of migrants from Ganjam is evident in Surat, with establishments like 'Odia Mess' eateries serving native cuisine and the observance of cultural festivals such as the 'Rath Yatra' (Car Festival).

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