Known Face Unknown Life: Voices of temporary migrants in west Bengal.


In this publication, thirteen men who have experience of migration for temporary work around the Indian countryside, or from the countryside to towns and cities, tell their stories in their own words. They speak not only of migration, but more generally about the dynamics of living in the Bagri region of Murshidabad, West Bengal, with its intensively irrigated, multiple-cropped agriculture, dense population, ecological challenges and, for many job-seekers, a lack of employment.

The life histories reveal that migration for paid manual work from this region is often a reluctant choice, one made in the face of few alternative income sources. Yet, the stories told here evoke a sense of the agency of workers as they decide whether to go, whom to travel with, and then embark on journeys which may involve negotiations with employers they have never met at labour-market places, or returning to people who have employed them before, or being transported by labour contractors to a road-building or construction site. Agency is also revealed through actions to seek redress from employers who do not pay the amount promised, and from the awareness and use of variations in bargaining power in recruitment when the ratio of work-seekers and potential employers varies over a short period of time.

The stories are wide-ranging and cover issues of how health care and schooling are accessed and the relation of these to different forms of livelihood. Because of the limited quality and quantity of public services, investing in social relations with other households in the village, not just with one's own kin, emerges as vitally important in order to be able to count on support in times of difficulty. Several of the narratives hint at the importance of the particular samaj to which the speaker belongs, how these informal groupings are subject to dissolution and reemergence, their connection with political parties, and the important role of the leader.


DRC Research Report, November 2008, 119 pp.

Known Face Unknown Life: Voices of temporary migrants in west Bengal.

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