Left-Behind or Left-Ahead – Part 2

This summer I conducted phone interviews with elites, frontline workers, and resident men and women in Bihar. The goal has been to to use this as a hypothesis and theory building exercise for my dissertation project. I have completed 20 interviews that have helped me hone research questions and also shed light on the lives of women in migrant sending regions in Bihar.

For the uninitiated, my dissertation project looks at the political consequences of male migration on women’s lives in migrant sending regions. Migration in India is heavily gendered with men being away from home for long periods of time. While we are aware of the influence that migrants have on politics in destination regions, little is known about their impact on source regions in India. In this project I particularly look at the gendered consequences of migration in source region politics. My definition of political participation goes beyond voting to also incorporate civic engagement, claim-making and other interactions with state, and knowledge of politics/bureaucracy.

Here I outline some of my findings on the changes in women’s lives in teh absence of men:

  1. Changes in women’s lives: Women are experiencing higher levels of mobility – either to local markets or pachayat/ block offices. They are expected to travel to the GP or block office for “official work”. the increased mobility also increases their exposure and knowledge.

“You won’t believe it, but my sister knows even the name of her BDO while her husband who is away for long periods knows nothing about getting any official work done” – Broker in Bihar

2. Increased interactions with the state: The state looms large in the lives of people living in rural areas. Be it paying an electricity bill or getting the monthly ration or even seeking why they didn’t get the ration they were entitled – interactions with the state are necessary. They might also be required to fulfill paperwork to get their entitlements related to pension, MNREGA, Aadhaar etc. In the absence of men, women are expected figure out a way to get this work done (either on their own or with the help of others).

“Women have risen to the occasion by taking care of their homes, families and other official work” – Mukhiya in Bihar

3. Exposure increases political knowledge and political network: It was clear from the interviews that women in migrant households experience much higher levels of mobility which indirectly also exposes them to information on politics they would otherwise not be privy to.

“I have seen that when women go to the chauraha they hear others talking about politics and learn about candidates that are going to win. They get information that helps them with their decisions.” – Frontline worker in Araria

4. Women in local politics: Since not all men are able to go back home for local elections, women become important constituents. Politics continues to be male dominated and campaign strategies are targeted towards men, even if they are mediated through women (by asking women to request husbands to return or directly calling men to talk to their wives about whom to vote for).

Under normal circumstances fieldwork is not possible without help from local field researchers (whose knowledge and experience is invaluable). And this new normal is no different. This research would not have been possible without the invaluable help and support of Sitansu Sekhar, Chandan Kumar, and two frontline workers in Bihar. I am grateful for their time and help on all fronts.

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About Rithika Kumar