What about migrants from Cooch Behar in this crisis?

Voice of Jaipur, September 25, 2020

By Pradeep S Mehta and Trinayani Sen,

As the nation witnessed a large scale reverse migration induced by the lockdown, one wondered whether readers in Jaipur are aware of a large group of migrant workers who are calm and restful. They are what is called Rajbanshis from Cooch Behar, a small district in northern West Bengal, situated just over Bangladesh. Their journey to Jaipur began when Princess Gayatri Devi married Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II of Jaipur in 1940.

With her wedding Gayatri Devi brought five maid servants in her trousseau as was the custom. That number multiplied manifold. Today the Rajbanshis are about 500,000 in number living all over Rajasthan, though majority live in Jaipur. What began as a spillover effect of conjugal ties soon became a trend, instigated by the lack of economic opportunities and the plight of a land ravaged by the channel-shifting Torsa River.

A study by Aajeevika Bureau reveals that,West Bengal, especially Cooch Behar, is one of the four states from which the major proportion of migrants working in Jaipur hail from. Women from that district have, over the years, dominated the domestic help market. Their male counterparts have taken up different informal jobs ranging from being hotel and restaurant staff, pulling rickshaws to skilled construction labour.

Given the magnitude and historical connotation of their presence, a pertinent question arises. How is this community tackling the current crisis?

In order to explore that, the first thought that crosses the mind is, where do they actually belong? A conversation with Hari Narayan Burman and Kamal Burman, who work as office boys at CUTS office in Jaipur, reveals that they migrated to Jaipur close to 20 years ago and now call it their home. There is a clear distinction between their ‘desh’ or native place, and their ‘ghar’, where they have settled down.

While they like to visit their native place, once in a year, for special occasions or for spending time with extended family, their home is in Jaipur. In fact, many find their matches locally among their own community and get married. Some have married outside their community but no one objects to it.When asked if they too are disturbed like many other migrant communities in this pandemic, their answer is in the negative. Thus, they don’t feel the need to travel back to Cooch Behar to feel at home.

A closer look into the economics of the situation, however,shows a difference of views. When asked about migrants flocking to their homes, through harsh conditions and number of uncertainties, Kamal says that their contemporaries,some of who were employed in factories and have been out of work since the lockdown was implemented,have been forced to go home. On the other hand, his situation is better given the continuity in his income, even though his wife who works as a domestic help, has been out of work. Thus, while survival is difficult, for this community, it has not reached a level where they need to panic and leave for Cooch Behar.


(The authors work for CUTS International, a Jaipur-based global public policy think tank.)

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