SOME PRELIMINARY CONSIDERATIONS OUT OF HOMING’S FIELDWORK IN PUNJAB, INDIA
by BARBARA BERTOLANI
During my research in Punjab (India), on August 5, 2019 I went to the Center for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID) in Chandigarh to deliver a lecture on South Asian Immigrants in Italy. The lecture was addressed to PhD students and faculty members. On that occasion I was a guest of Professor Aswini Kumar Nanda at the CRRID Population Research Center. At the end of the lecture, the students and teachers participated in a focus group on “Homing” research topics. We talked about the current migratory processes abroad, the economy in Punjab and remittance houses. The focus group allowed me to get a lot of information that – together with the interviews and ethnographic observation I conducted in Punjab – will be the background to my research. I will briefly summarize them below, following some principal arguments of analysis.
- International emigration from Punjab: changes with respect to the past. Emigration from Punjab is a very ancient phenomenon, but in recent years it seems to be increasing. It no longer concerns mostly the rural areas but also the urban areas of Punjab, as well as castes and social classes that until now had not invested massively in the migration of young people, especially males. Despite this, there are no official data on emigration flows from Punjab. It seems that this phenomenon is considered by the authorities as a private matter that should not affect public policy.
The underlying causes of contemporary migrant flows are manifold:
- The lowering of agricultural product prices (prices set by the federal government) that made agriculture unproductive, while in the 1960s and 1970s Punjab was the granary of India thanks to the “Green Revolution”;
- The scarcity of public investment policies and resources to support agriculture, compared to an increase in current expenditure for small landowners. For example, the presence of immigrants from other Indian states that carry out agricultural work in place of young Punjabis affects the current monthly expenses of the peasants, whereas their earnings are concentrated only a few times a year. In fact, payments of agricultural products by the state are made periodically and sometimes delayed. This forces many farmers to contract debts with very high interests that they often fail to repay, thus being forced to sell the land. This is at the origin of a growing number of suicides among the rural population of Punjab (Vishav Bharti, 2019). Furthermore, investments to cover damages caused by natural disasters (floods or other) are completely insufficient. All this leads families in rural areas to diversify risks (Kong‐Pin Chen, Shin‐Hwan Chiang and Siu Fai Leung, 2003) and to encourage their children, especially boys, to enter the public administration (which guarantees a fixed monthly salary to the extended family, covering current expenses) or to emigrate abroad (which can guarantee a flow of remittances in the future).
- Another issue is the change in consumer expectations of young Punjabis even in rural areas, increasingly inspired by a western lifestyle and hard to be satisfied with the revenues from agricultural work. Many young people, having studied, no longer want to carry out the hardest agricultural jobs that were previously carried out by post-partition generations. However, they find themselves in a situation of scarcity of alternative jobs. In fact, also because of the civil war that bloodied Punjab up to the Nineties and its geographical position on the border with Pakistan, this region continues to attract industrial investments to a much lesser extent than the neighboring states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. Furthermore, in the agricultural sector, 95% of the work is carried out without a regular contract. This exposes the workers to exploitation risks.
- Another factor is the increase in consumption of hard drugs among young people, often underemployed or unemployed. This is perceived by many as a real social emergency. Families do not feel adequately protected by the state and the police who, according to some, do not fight this phenomenon as they should. All this leads many parents to encourage the migration of their children.
- The inefficiency and lack of confidence in the state bodies at all levels, exposed to widespread corruption and the absence of a public and universal welfare system to cover the most important social risks. Added to this is the logic of internal functioning and career advancement in the public administration, based on seniority rather than merit, which discourages the most ambitious young people who might engage in public employment.
- Remittances, attachment to Punjab and local development. The current emigration from Punjab occurs in a very different socio-economic context from that of the post-war period and the following decades. It is characterized by widespread economic crises, massive globalization processes and liberalist and nationalist policies. All this has led, for example in Western countries, to the weakening of welfare state and social guarantee systems, to the liberalization of the labor market and to attitudes of closure and hostility towards migrants. This new scenario changes the chances of integration and stabilization of migrants and has a series of consequences, including economic ones.
- Even today, many farmers and small landowners in the Punjab decide to sell or commit their possessions to finance the migration of their children. The latter, however, only partially send remittances to repay the debt contracted by the parents, to buy land or to build or renovate houses, as was the case among the previous generations of emigrants. In fact, the chances of employment and good earnings in western countries are more scarce than in the past. It is often the families of origin that from India sustain their children over time in case of job loss. They thus continue to send money abroad not only in the first phase of the migration process, but also later. This type of economic flow tends to be poorly studied. Migration projects and the amount of remittances differ a lot also in relation to the phase of personal life and the settlement country. Some countries that are traditionally a destination for Indian migrants especially from Kerala, such as the Gulf countries, hinder their stabilization and family reunion. Therefore, it is estimated that Indian migrants working in these countries send many more remittances to their country of origin. When the migration project leads to stabilization and family reunion of migrants abroad, instead, the flow of remittances is drastically reduced over time.
- Remittances are sent more and more often through informal channels to evade taxes that are very high, so official data underestimate the phenomenon. Among the Indian states, the one that receives the most remittances is Kerala, as the migratory project of Indian migrants originating from this state usually involves the return to India and the investment of revenues in consumer or productive activities. For Punjab the situation is very different: almost all of emigrants, especially if they are young, have the project to leave so as not to return and, above all in recent years, do not show an attachment to the mother country. On the contrary, especially the Sikhs in Punjab feel discriminated against by the central government as a result of the civil war. Moreover, in countries like Canada and the USA there are various organizations that fight for the cause of Khalistan, that is, a state for the Sikhs, independent of India. These political instances are perhaps even more accentuated in these countries abroad than in Punjab through lobbying and contribute to strengthening a diasporic identity. The consequences are a presumed lower sending of remittances to Punjab compared to Kerala, a flow of money to foreign countries that cannot be quantified in support of the emigration of young people from India, less investment in philanthropic projects and in restructuring or construction of houses compared to the past by Punjabi migrants.
- Philanthropic projects funded by Punjabi migrants in the local area can create conflicts rather than improving economic and social conditions. This is especially the case when they are perceived by local communities as “charity”, rather than genuine interest and attachment, by those who have become rich and flaunt their own well-being by humiliating and devaluing their fellow citizens. The few local development projects that seem to work presuppose the continuous involvement (with regards to the objectives and functioning of the project) of the local community itself and constant monitoring by associations rooted in the territory or by individuals who returned permanently, or who can count on the presence and involvement of their family members (Taylor and Singh, 2013). In other words, local development projects require a constant “social maintenance” to be able to function, since they fit into established balances and hierarchies of power, sometimes challenging them.
- Remittance houses. According to my interlocutors, in recent years there has been less investment in remittance houses than in the past, at least in Punjab. There are still examples of very luxurious houses, especially in villages or rural areas, where perhaps the local competition between families is more marked than in urban areas. These competitions sometimes challenge the traditional hierarchies linked to caste or social class membership. Remittance houses affirm the high social status reached by the family in the context of origin, through their facades, the richness of the materials used and the architectural style, the richly decorated gates. Many of these houses are characterized by symbolic objects (such as water tanks on the roof in the shape of airplanes, clearly linked to migration), decorative statues (also placed on the roof, testifying to the strength and honor – izzat – of the family: horses, eagles but also bodybuilders who lift weights, etc.) and signs at the entrance with the owner’s name (where the family’s caste or goth and the settlement country are often specified). However, the fate of the already built remittance houses, for example in the Doaba region (Taylor, 2013), seems to be uncertain.
- More and more often these houses remain closed and abandoned or used only for a few weeks a year. The new generations, born or grown abroad, show much less emotional attachment and investment towards the country of origin and remittance houses, which are considered simple “possessions” to manage. Many would therefore like to sell them; however, since the real estate market is currently in crisis, they are waiting for the right time to do so, leaving those houses empty and abandoned.
- The owners in fact do not rent the remittance houses, for fear that the tenants can ruin them or that, over time, they can take possession of them. Many leases are not registered and this exposes the owners to risks of embezzlement by their tenants. Even when there is a contract, it can become very difficult, long and expensive to evict a tenant who does not pay the rent, especially for those who live abroad and cannot afford to return to India to follow a legal case which can be inevitably long, slow and with uncertain outcomes. My interlocutors talked to me about sentences that prevented the eviction of tenants, against the payment of a symbolic rental fee, since the judge considered that the house did not serve the legitimate owners residing abroad. In general, there is little trust in the functioning of justice and in the application of the law, while quite many people expect to become victims of corruption or malfeasance.
- It would be reductive, however, to consider remittance houses simply as tools for affirming personal and family status. In reality, as other authors have noted in other contexts (Codesal, 2014), these houses also play an important role in family welfare. Those inhabited, in fact, often host elderly parents or widowed mothers, or divorced sisters who return to the home of their family of origin. Sometimes, these houses offer shelter to women of the family who have suffered abuse or domestic violence.
- The remittance houses that are found in the villages or in rural areas (whether they are newly constructed buildings or old renovated and enlarged houses) follow – even in the organization of spaces – a social and economic structure still based on the extended patriarchal family, which is composed of various related families that cohabit in the same household. This structure is functional to an economic activity that requires constant commitment and collaboration between family members, as in the past could be the agricultural work. However, as my ethnographic observations and interviews suggest, the extended cohabitation, the sharing of spaces and substances within a remittance house can become a problem, especially for those young couples who are part of an emerging middle class engaged in economic activities that are distinct from agricultural ones (such as teachers, professionals, civil servants, traders, etc.). They do not depend economically on other family members, manage a separate budget and may show a greater desire for autonomy, privacy and family intimacy. Some remittance houses that I visited, being extended households, were crossed by strong conflicts and family tensions concerning the use of objects, space control, expense management and family authority in the absence of the male breadwinner.
The topics addressed during the meeting with the teachers and students of the CRRID were many and constitute a fruitful stimulus for reflection and analysis. Thanks to CRRID and Professor Aswini Kumar Nanda for their collaboration with HOMInG!
Vishav Bharti, “Farm suicides unabated in Punjab, over 900 in 2 years”, The Tribune, 2019, available at: https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/punjab/farm-suicides-unabated-in-punjab-over-900-in-2-years/727671.html (last access on 19 September 2019).
Diana Mata Codesal, “From ‘Mud Houses’ to ‘Wasted Houses’: Remittances and Housing in Rural Higland Ecuador”, REMHU, XXII, n. 42, 2014, pp. 263-280.
Steve Taylor and Manjit Singh, “Punjab’s Doaban Migration-Development Nexus Transnationalism and Caste Domination”, EPW Economic & Political Weekly, vol XLVIII, n. 24, 2013 , pp. 50-57.
Steve Taylor, “Transnational emotion work: Punjabi migration, caste and identity”, International Journal of Work Organisation and Emotion, Vol. 5, No. 3, 2013, pp. 281-295.
Kong‐Pin Chen, Shin‐Hwan Chiang and Siu Fai Leung, “Migration, Family, and Risk Diversification”, Journal of Labor Economics, Vol. 21, No. 2, 2003, pp. 353-380.