I was fortunate to spend time in the beautiful city of Udaipur. A lot of people associate Udaipur with its historic palaces and lakes. Not many people know that it is also home to a vibrant intellectual community working closely with nearby villages. This community is not just well connected but also very welcoming of independent researchers coming in to work with nearby communities. I got tremendous help from Aajeevik Bureau and Seva Mandir and I am really grateful to their generosity which not just helped me forge connections with local communities but also get acquainted with the socio-political realities of these communities.
While I was based in Udaipur, I spent time in the villages around the city mostly in Gogunda, Kherwada and Salumber blocks. This region of southern Rajasthan is a high migration region with waves of men migrating to nearby states in search of work. Since this is also a tribal belt (the local, assembly and state election seats in this region are reserved for the Schedule Tribe community), the population comprises of a traditionally marginalized community who no longer rely on their natural environment for their livelihoods. This area also remains under developed and barely touched by industrialization resulting in a paucity jobs for the people in this region. Men migrate to either Gujarat/ Maharashtra or even as far as Bangalore (in Southern India). They work mostly in the construction or hospitality industry. Again, the kind of jobs men migrate for are segregated by caste.
Outside the War panchayat member’s house in a
In my project, I was particularly interested in understanding not just the nature of this migration which is dominated by men but also in understanding the plight of women who are left behind. We don’t know much about the sociological and political implication of male migration in women. I conducted interviews with women and local political officials in these villages. Since I was unfamiliar with Mewari (the dialect being spoken here), I took the help of a woman from the community to help me not just enter the village but also to serve as my translator. I was very aware that I would stick out like a sore thumb in these villages and felt it was essential that I don’t just drop by and start bombarding people with my questions. Taking the help of a local helped me to penetrate better into the community.
It was clear from a few visits that since men were away for long periods of time, women had taken over conducting the day to day activities within the household – taking care of the farms and cattle and also do care work (for children and the elderly). The gender norms in these villages was shifting, but since men came back at regular intervals (maybe for a day or two), they were still sticky. One of the biggest challenges for me in terms of conducting fieldwork was getting respondents to speak to me about politics. Politics is mostly a male arena but women in India re also now highly aware of the topics discussed in campaigns. But there still was a lot of reluctance among women (at least in the first meeting) to start talking to me about it. Th way I worked around it was that I did multiple visits to the same place so that they got comfortable with me and understood my motives. I don’t blame them since they are are just weary of any outsider coming into their community and asking them questions. When they knew I wasn’t going to use what they tell me against them, they were more comfortable with talking to me.
Another challenge that I faced when I was on the field was at times getting to these villages. As I mentioned before, this region is a tribal belt and most villages are far off from the main town. It is also hilly with long winding roads. While this gave me the opportunity to enjoy nature and feel the wind in my hair (since I was traveling by a scooter), it did tire me out since the sun was right above me with only my dupatta covering my head.
I am very glad I was able to spend time on the field talking to these amazing women welcomed me into their homes with open arms. I am grateful to each and everyone of them for willing to spend their valuable time speaking between working on the field, cooking and standing in long queues to collect water. This experience busted a few myths for me in terms of how women were being impacted by the absence of men. It opened up new areas of enquiry and most importantly it helped me forge relationships with community members and the vibrant grassroots organizations in the district. It has given me a lot to think about but since I only held unstructured interviews, I perhaps might not have returned with tangible figure on women’s empowerment or political awareness but it will help me in honing my prospectus and ensure that I don’t have too many surprises when I get back on the field to do my dissertation fieldwork.