The corner of India that exports both mangoes and men

On the move.
On the move.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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Summer in India is incomplete without the sweet taste of mangoes, and the Alphonso variety, or Aphoos in Marathi, rules the roost in Maharashtra. Those who have grown up eating them attest to attaining nirvana at an early age and acquire an inevitable arrogance about its superiority over the numerous other varieties found in India.

Legend has it that it was named after a Portuguese general of Goa, from where its cultivation spread up north along an undulating terrain between the Western Ghats and the sea. It is now grown mostly in the Konkan region and has been a constant export from the region for over a 100 years. But the Konkan has been exporting more than just mangoes for a long period of time. It has been exporting manpower as well.

Between 1872 and 2011, the sex ratio of Ratnagiri district in Konkan Maharashtra never fell below 1100 females per 1000 males. In a country of “missing women,” where sex ratios hover around 900 and in some regions dip well below that due to the preference for sons and discrimination against daughters, this is an astounding statistic that has persisted for 130 years.

The “missing men” phenomenon of Ratnagiri persists because men have been migrating for work in large numbers, primarily towards Mumbai which is around 300km north. Even today, over a third of the households in Ratnagiri report outmigrants from whom they receive remittances. When did this mass migration wave in Ratnagiri begin and why did it persist over such a long period of time? 

Migration was a “well-established tradition” in Ratnagiri by the mid-19th century which affected all the three principal castes: Chitpavan Brahmins, Marathas and Mahars. The migrations were initially directed towards Pune and beyond. Brahmins migrated first to secure administrative positions in the Peshwa court of the Maratha Empire and later towards newly established educational centres.

These migrations were often family-based and permanent. By the early 20th century, these had produced an impressive list of political leaders and social reformers such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856–1920), Dhondo Keshav Karve (1858–1962) and Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866–1915). Marathas from Ratnagiri, the dominant land-holding caste, were recruited much earlier into Shivaji’s army and, later, in the Bombay Army and police. Remittances and pensions brought in by these soldiers formed significant portions of the district’s economy.

The British army was also the site for recruitment of Mahars, the outcastes or Dalits in today’s parlance. Small sparks of upward mobility were lit up by these opportunities of exposure to different regions, customs and ideas. This gave rise to people such as Gopal Baba Walangkar, a pensioned soldier who began the first Mahar newspaper, and Ramji Maloji Sakpal, a subedar major and father of Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891–1956), who would in turn father the Constitution of India.

Migration for military service and education was, however, quickly displaced in importance by the rise of Bombay’s cotton textile industry in the late 19th century. A pernicious land tenure system known as the khoti system had already strained agriculture. The collapse of the Deccan trade after its connection with Bombay by rail in the 1850s triggered the impulse for mass migration from Ratnagiri.

By 1881, 15% of those born in Ratnagiri were working in Bombay. Migration for mill work was not through the medium of contractors but an extensive kith–kin based social network dominated by the Marathas. Mill work gave a new sense of identity to workers but woeful and expensive housing led to little permanent settlement in the city. The chawls that sprung up were male ghettoes as migration was overwhelmingly male-dominated.

Migration flows were temporarily reduced or reversed during bouts of plague in the early 20th century and economic slowdown induced by the Great Depression of the early 1930s. Mass migration towards the textile industry held sway until the closure of the mills in the 1980s following prolonged labour strikes, after which it diversified into other service sectors and destinations such as Surat and the Gulf countries.

To understand the persistence of a phenomenon like the Ratnagiri migration, one has to understand the psychology of the children growing up in the Konkan region. Young boys grew up in a place where virtually every second male member of the village worked outside. They were brought up in a culture of adult male absence punctuated by return visits during Ganpati and other festivals.

Their grandfathers would recount stories of their experiences of migration, the adventure of living outside the village and the thrill of being able to retire amidst the lush green hillsides of Ratnagiri. Young girls on the other hand were taught from an early age the value of looking after one’s land in the absence of men and the premium in the marriage market for the “Bombay boys.”

When these children grew up, they enacted the same rituals that they had carefully observed during their childhood. It did not matter therefore if a major employment  sector like the textile industry collapsed as migration routes quickly adapted to new sectors. It did not matter if regions within Ratnagiri got better amenities as they were associated with even higher rates of outmigration.

These migrations led to considerable upward economic mobility within each caste but left existing inter-caste inequalities unchanged. Migration of the lowest castes was dented in the late 19th century itself due to a sudden change in army recruitment practices. Subsequently, migration rates were lower among the lowest castes and, over several decades, the distribution of village land holdings remained the same.

The mango orchards themselves are no longer looked after by local labour but by tens of thousands of Nepalese immigrants. Those who settled outside Ratnagiri were those who had earned enough money to secure their own house, though they rarely snapped all connections with the village. A common phrase in Ratnagiri is “Jyechi kholi, tyechi Mumbai [Mumbai belongs to those who can own a room].”

The Ratnagiri diaspora today is several million strong and every other village has a diasporic association at the destination site. Its contribution to Indian public life has been immense as over 10% of all awardees of the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, have been given to people directly or indirectly associated with the mass migration from this region.

Historical legacies of migration for military recruitment are etched in the vocabulary of the Indian army as “Maratha” and “Mahar” continue to be mentioned in the names of two infantry regiments. Mass migration from Ratnagiri has also contributed immensely to the rise of Mumbai.

The interconnections are best viewed from the prism of village names in Ratnagiri. Dadar and Borivali are important train stations in Mumbai but are also names of villages in Ratnagiri. Similarly, many surnames ending with “kar,” such as Ambedkar and Mangeshkar, refer to ancestral villages in the greater Konkan region.

Ratnagiri is known to Indians for its famous Alphonso mangoes but its migration history suggests that it should also be known for man goes. In fact, Ratnagiri’s export of mangoes and manpower often collided with each other on the busy ferry steamers that plied between Mumbai and the Konkan. In the 1930s, a legislative debate took place on how passengers were being displaced by mango parcels in the month of May!

Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House India from India Moving: A History of Migration by Chinmay Tumbe. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com