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Mainstream, VOL LX No 31, New Delhi, July 23, 2022

Impact of Migration to the Gulf in a Odisha Village | Radhakanta Barik

Friday 22 July 2022, by Radhakanta Barik


by Radhakanta Barik *

INDIA IS THE LARGEST country of origin for international migrants. It is, thus, the world’s top recipient of remittances from Indians working abroad. Eight million workers working in the Gulf region help about forty million people within the country live well through these remittances, which not only benefit society but the government too. Besides the material benefits to families living in India, this access to funds allows people from small towns and villages to lead relatively ‘free’ lives with choices. It also gives women of beneficiary families more education and dignity.

There is a large number of macro-level studies on the impact of migration on the government and the exchequer and its contribution to the nation’s foreign exchange reserve. There are also several studies on the impact of migration to the Gulf region, on specifically Kerala’s economy (Prakash 1998; Rajan 2016). The past fifty years’ experience has shown that remittances have played a creative role in local economies. It has transformed the rural and urban economy of Kerala.

Odisha has similarities with Kerala as the land issues are very similar. The majority of people do not have access to land. They are educated but unemployed in both the States. Migration started in Kerala in the 1970s and people from Kerala continue to be the majority workforce in all the Gulf countries. They contribute to both, the skilled and unskilled, labour. Until the turn of the century, Odisha had very few workers working abroad. Today, lakhs of workers from rural Odisha migrate to the Gulf in search of work and better prospects. It is an interesting fact that the local economy in many Odisha villages has improved considerably due to migrant remittances.

Here is a micro-level study of a village in Odisha, where 104 migrant labourers have changed the face of the local society.

A Case Study from Sadansa

The village of Sadansa in Cuttack district of Odisha today has 200 households. The elite so long comprised landlords, moneylenders and educated teachers with fixed incomes who, through generations, maintained an exploitative relationship with the ordinary people. The people belong to all castes — Brahmins and other upper caste people, Khandayat to Teli or Gauda and Dhobi, Kandara and Dom. Once upon a time caste determined the economic status of the communities here.

Memories of discrimination cast their long shadows on this study when we spoke to families of migrant workers in this village. Many told us their fathers got paid one ‘gauni dhan’ that amounts to Rs fifty today by the landlord, not necessarily as daily wage, but for a job done. Some of the upper caste respondents told us, ‘their fathers (the fathers of migrant workers) used to work in our houses and their women used to help us in grinding rice at a festival time... they wore torn clothes and came to work. In winter, they had no warm clothing. The children used to carry a slate in their hands and had no school bags. Today they return to the village in cars’. Memories of power continue to haunt some landlords and upper-caste families.

The caste communities continue to stay together in their respective huddles, giving a socio-cultural matrix to the village. In the past, when workers from a community left the village to work elsewhere, the community would employ a Brahmin cook to prepare a feast for the village. This practice has vanished today. Upper caste discrimination of a lower caste individual has reduced considerably. Now, in the communities, one person serves as a cook while the others all go out to work. The change in their social behaviour has occurred due to considerable asset acquisition from steady work. The unique factor about migrant labour is that each one helps the other in the community and across communities. They bring other co-workers’ money home, whenever they are visiting families in India; this happens even when an individual worker has come for social reasons like a marriage or a death ceremony.

Freedom in Rural societies

 In Indian villages, freedom is not an abstract concept; material culture sustains human freedom. Human freedom is located in social relationships and not independent of it. Traditionally, in a village, the socially elite has functioned in a complex relationship with people by controlling the freedom of others. It is based on caste relationships or economic relationships. Lower castes vs high castes create a power relationship that is based on caste hierarchy. In economic relationships, one finds those having land and money use it to control the lower classes, thus creating a class relationship. In both ways, society in villages have always been dominated by the higherups, in terms of caste and class. The equation of inequity is simple. If one has to go to the moneylender for money to buy seed for cultivation work, then he and his family have to remain subordinate to the money lender.

Assets in Rural Societies

Assets are a great equaliser in modern India. A job in a Gulf country helps change the social equation dramatically. First of all, bank accounts are created for old parents, wives, and children in India. There is cash to buy food and clothing. Access to schools become possible as school fees can be paid. A moneylender is no longer needed even for buying seeds for planting. Families can now build houses in the villages, giving prosperity to localities.

Migrant workers spend little on themselves; only on food and clothing and are able to send back home as much as Rs 40,000 a month. Their remittances enrich the village and the community. Many who earn a lot today buy land from the landed families, which are often cash strapped. People still continue to have a Chayanovian concept of peasant society (Shanin 1971), in which a worker stops working once his/her basic needs are satisfied; the old-fashioned idea was, that there is no incentive to work. However, this has changed in the twenty-first century. People work to grow.

Given that the total available land in a village is a constant, the rich often sell land for cash. This is when the landless start buying it. It is a cyclic phenomenon in every rural economy. The perception has been, that when one rich person goes down, many rich people emerge as the total land is the constant. This is happening in rural societies in India. Asset accumulation includes today a piece of land on which a house stands and a very expensive motorcycle. During this study, we often heard stories of a son going to work in the Gulf, to save the traditional landowner’s land.

Acquiring Skills

All the workers from Sadansa village are educated but do not possess any skill or are not skilled enough. Going to the construction industry as workers, they have picked up their skills on the job. Each person’s income in the Gulf is more than an average family’s in the village. For families who have members working in the Gulf, the average income is four times that if they had worked in India. They spend more on food, education, health care, and transportation. Unlike in Kerala, the social composition of emigrants from Odisha villages basically remains from one religious’ group. Muslims form a very small community. As the employment for the educated has shrunk in Odisha, like in the rest of the country, causing emigration to the Gulf region, the possibility of steady work elsewhere has created a lot of hope for the future.

Remittances have boosted, both, the local economy as well as the State’s economy. There is momentum due to the fact that these young people between 20 to 35 years have managed to add wealth to society. They are popular in the marriage market too. Most of them prefer to get into love marriages, cutting across the oppressive caste system.

Jain, in 2005, looked at the vulnerability of migrant Gulf workers who get exploited by the agents and live and work without any security. Barring in Kerala, most States in India have poor healthcare infrastructure, said the New Indian Express in an article in 2018. On their return back home during the two years of the Covid pandemic, migrant workers from most States suffered as in the Indian States, low testing rates, shortage of staff, lack of protective equipment, and a poor disease surveillance system, burdened India’s already fragile healthcare sector. Their vulnerability led to a lucrative business for private hospitals when migrant workers accessed healthcare in their home States. (Rhea 2021). Overall, however, in this Odisha village migration to the Gulf has had a positive outcome.

Instead of bending low before the landlord or the money lender, people now walk straight. Their women are better clothed and have toilets at home. Their children are well fed and healthy and go to school with satchels on their backs. Well-to-do families hold village functions for deaths and births. An example cited to this study was the case of a Dalit man working in the Middle East, who fed 8,000 people on the death of his father. It was the best public feast in a long time in the entire neighbourhood.

The invited 8,000 do not go to money lenders either and they do not depend on land for work. Today workers who have left their villages get Rs 350 per day even in India, which was unthinkable before people started migrating to the Gulf. Now, when one sees people walking straight or talking loudly, one is sure the person belongs to a family where someone works in the Gulf. The issue is no longer about caste or religion. One welcomes these young people working in Gulf, helping other people leave the village to realise democracy and their dreams.

Young people aspire to have a life better than their fathers, which is the only reason for going so far off for work, leaving families behind. Many of them have not yet married. In rural Odisha marriages happen within communities, where kinship networks already exist. Today, with integration into the market economy and the world, and with public transport available, marriages in far-off places have become possible. In other words, distance does not matter much in establishing kinship now. It is interesting to note here that one example in this village is of a Brahmin boy marrying a scheduled caste girl, following years of courtship. The boy’s father, a priest, has accepted the bride. After the marriage, the boy has left his wife and a daughter in the village home, to go work in the Gulf and his father takes care of them all.

To conclude this essay in one sentence, the migration to Gulf countries has improved the national economy, regional economy, and village economy. This study explains the improvement of village society in terms of assets and human freedom. One must acknowledge that the Indian state, with its creative diplomacy, needs to maintain cordial relations with these Gulf countries as these countries are a part of the mental and social landscape of rural and urban India now.

(Author: Prof. Radhakanta Barik is former faculty member of the Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi)


  • Prakash C Jain, Indian Migration to the Gulf Countries: Past and Present, India Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 2 (April-June, 2005), pp. 50-81
  • B A Prakash, Gulf Migration and Its Economic Impact: The Kerala Experience, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 33, No. 50 (December 12-18, 1998), pp. 3209-3213
  • K C Zachariah and S Irudaya Rajan, Kerala Migration Study 2014, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 51, No. 6 (February 6, 2016), pp. 66-71
  • Rhea Abraham, Migration Governance in a Pandemic: What Can We Learn from India’s Treatment of Migrants in the Gulf? Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 55, No 32-33 (August 8, 2021)
  • Theodor Shanin (ed) Peasants and Peasant Societies, London: Penguin,1971.

The above article was edited by Papri Sri Raman

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