top of page

Narratives of resilience and coping in India: Rural migration and livelihood diversification

By Ritwika Patgiri | OMC 2024

Photo from one of the surveyed households in rural Assam. Households practise numerous activities like weaving, making pickles, and drying turmeric to earn additional income (photo courtesy of the author).

A recent piece by The Economist has identified India as an “immobile republic” and has claimed that a greater rate of internal migration could benefit the country more. According to estimates, India’s domestic remittances were worth the equivalent of 1% of GDP in 2016-17, which could be higher with a higher level of domestic migration. Seasonal migration has emerged as an important livelihood strategy of rural households in India as income from agriculture becomes insufficient. While there is a lack of panel data on seasonal migration in India, a growing number of studies have found evidence of increasing seasonal migration both in absolute terms and also in the relative size to the population.

In 2023, I conducted a survey of 329 households in rural Assam, located in the northeastern region of India, to try to understand the determinants of rural migration in the country. I found that migration, particularly seasonal migration, has emerged as an important livelihood strategy for rural households in India. Based on past literature and my own findings, I have identified 4 kinds of seasonal migration in rural Assam: migration for survival, migration for coping, migration for additional work or income, and migration for better remuneration or a better work environment.

Migration for survival happens in cases of extreme economic, social or political hardships, and is often taken up by the landless or land-poor, unskilled or illiterate poor labourers. Usha Rao’s fieldwork on the Palampoor or Mahabubnagar district of Telangana identified a shortage of rainfall leading to drought and poor irrigation infrastructure to be the major reasons behind such migration. This type of forced or involuntary migration is characterised by labourers who migrate seasonally for survival and work for extremely low wages. Similarly, in his work on Andhra Pradesh, Rao found that a shortage of fodder and water for livestock was the main reason behind migration. Migrants would often sell their livestock before migrating or take them along with them. 

Migration for survival is different from migration for coping which arises as a response to unexpected hardships, often climate-led. Migration for coping is not driven by survival but as an alternative when migrants’ main source of livelihood is disturbed. This form of migration is not undertaken by people who are below the poverty line, but by those who will fall below the poverty line if a coping strategy is not undertaken. Migration for additional income is undertaken to account for future risks of income loss and happens after the harvest is over for all crops. Finally, migration for better remuneration or for better work environment or opportunity are often undertaken by better-off households, or households, which are not in the lowest rung.


I have used narratives and life histories as a research method to highlight the differences between these four kinds of migration, one of which – migration for survival – I discuss in this article. 

Migration for Survival

Saidul Ali is a 66-year-old landless casual worker who is working as a construction worker and who mostly travels outside his village for work. He and his wife Nazia have four children: 25-year-old Haider, eleven-year-old Reshma, nine-year-old Fatima, and six-year-old Rokeya from Badarpur, Karimganj. Haider dropped out of his school in class four when he was thirteen years old. He quickly started helping his uncle who worked as a rang mistiri (daily wage painter). When Haider turned seventeen, he started travelling outside the village for work along with his father. The wages and uncertainty of casual construction labour was not enough to feed the family of six. Haider started working as a tempo (a type of four-wheeler used for rural transportation) driver shortly after that. At 20, he married Rubiya. With a few years of experience as a tempo driver and some savings, Haider decided to buy his own e-rickshaw. However, this did not generate much income.

In 2019, Haider started working in Hailakandi town as an e-rickshaw driver. He would commute from his village to Hailakandi town in search of passengers. As his father Saidul’s health started deteriorating, Haider decided to migrate to Badarpur along with his wife and the e-rickshaw to earn more money. Hailakandi is one of the poorest districts of Assam, and Badarpur in the nearby Karimganj district is the second-most connected town in the Barak Valley after Silchar.

As Haider and Rubiya moved closer to Rubiya’s parents’ house, Haider’s income increased as compared to when he was driving the e-rickshaw in Hailakandi. Rubiya also acquired a job in a nearby beauty parlour. Saidul is now completely bedridden and his three daughters are studying in classes six, five, and one respectively. The household owns no livestock or poultry, lives in a one-room kuchcha (mud and straw) house, has a kuchcha toilet, and is deprived in terms of drinking water, cooking fuel, as well as ownership of assets like TV, fridge, cycle, etc. They are a multidimensionally deprived household, surviving only through the remittances that Haider sends, around 15000 INR (~140 GBP) annually on average. Haider’s migration was driven purely by survival.

Haider’s story reflects that landless and unskilled workers are vulnerable in the rural landscape when not enough farm work is generated. Further, health shocks can push already-vulnerable families to new forms of vulnerability, and migration can work as a form of resilience in such cases. In rural Assam, as seen from the case above, migration for survival has emerged as a result of the opportunities created by the casualisation of rural non-farm labour.

Ritwika Patgiri is a doctoral student at the Faculty of Economics, South Asian University, New Delhi. She has a Masters in Economics from Jamia Millia Islamia University and a BA in Economics from Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi. Her PhD is on Rural Transformation and the Non-Farm Sector in Assam. Her other areas of interest include feminist economics, migration, poverty, inequality, and gender. You can connect with her via X (Twitter), Facebook and LinkedIn.


bottom of page