Book Review: Ramesh Sunam’s Transnational Labour Migration, Livelihoods and Agrarian Change in Nepal
One of the defining features of agrarian change amongst the peasantry in the last two decades is the rising importance of labour migration to supplement fragile livelihoods. Increasingly, migration does not represent a “break” from the land as part of a process of proletarianization; the peasantry are choosing to combine land-based livelihoods with migrant labour. In spite of this transformation across the Global South, there is relatively limited research on what this means for the trajectory of change within agriculture — particularly when one observes the scale of the transformation. Ramesh Sunam’s book, Transnational Labour Migration, Livelihoods and Agrarian Change in Nepal: The Remittance Village, thus fills a critical gap in scholarship through the case of Nepal — a country which has experienced an exponential rise in labour migration in a relatively short period of time. The book is grounded in a rich ethnography of a community in the Tarai-Madhesh district of Sunsari; a participatory methodology has been used to identify measures of poverty and prosperity and to understand the criterion through which a family makes the transition between the two.
Sunam accepts that migration is a core component of global livelihoods and utilises the analytical prism of a “remittance village” to understand how local livelihood dynamics are embedded within and shaped by transnational flows of labour, leading to unique local trajectories of change. Importantly, the book explores the pathways out of poverty in the context of labour migration. It asks why poverty remains entrenched, even in the context of overseas migration and examines the mediating roles played by one’s access to land and assets, as well as caste and ethnicity in shaping the outcomes for migrant households. At a time when neoliberal narratives of the poor “lifting themselves out of poverty” predominate in the development industry, Sunam’s book points to much higher-level questions over whether households are really able to make this transition, while acknowledging the role of social structures in mediating individual outcomes, even when facilitated by the potentially transformative role of remittances.
The analysis offers fascinating insights into the mixed fortunes of households under a remittance economy — outcomes which are heavily mediated by existing social divisions. Sunam places consistent emphasis on the importance of land inequality in shaping poverty outcomes for households in a remittance economy. Tracing the skewed distribution of holdings and high levels of sharecropping tenancy, the book focusses on how land is not only a route out of poverty through farming but also mediates non-farm pathways out of poverty, including through migration. The book shows how those with land escape the financial burden of having to buy food — freeing up cash for investment elsewhere. Land also reproduces one’s social status in the community and in turn shapes access to social networks. It is a safety net during times of crisis and is a perquisite to access credit and even citizenship papers. Within the overall agrarian structure, it is the landless who have remained trapped in inter-generational poverty. Most are from the Dalit Musahar community and experience caste-based discrimination.
From land ownership and access, the book moves to the role played by agriculture in rural livelihoods in the context of migration. It is clear from the outset that agriculture is rarely a pathway out of poverty on its own. It is migration which increasingly fills the gap when faced with dwindling returns from the land. Importantly though, Sunam breaks away from common narratives that people are abandoning the land. For a large number of land-poor households, including many tenants, agriculture remains the backbone of their livelihood. There are also many poorer farmers, and particularly landless farm labourers from the Dalit community, for whom overseas labour is not even an option in the first place, given the high upfront costs to fund the migration process. Next, the book explores the local non-farm economy. It suggests that non-farm livelihoods have received a boost due to remittances fuelled by a construction boom. However, even with the higher wages that construction work offers, it remains unreliable and casual and falls short of being a route out of poverty. The same applies to small businesses or government employment, which is out of reach for poorer households due to a lack of networks or caste-based discrimination.
Subsequently, the book goes on to explore migration itself and the critical role it plays in shaping the transition out of (or into) poverty. Sunam offers a number of real-life experiences that speak to both the experiences of successful migrants and to those who have returned without savings and have accrued debts. At the same time, he offers a systematic analysis of these divergent migration outcomes while reinforcing the core message that one’s pre-existing wealth and assets play a significant role in shaping the migration experience. Sunam acknowledges that there were many poorer households who had risen out of poverty due to migrant remittances. Inevitably though, this process is greatly facilitated for those with more land and assets. The key is to be able to use remittances to invest productively — and not for consumption. Many of the “success stories” recounted, including those who had returned from overseas and become agro-entrepreneurs, were those who already had their own land to invest on and prospered as a result of successful diversification of their livelihood, with investments both on and off the farm. For a majority of migrants though, remittances simply allowed them to simply “tread water,” as Sunam puts it.
Another critical reason why better-off households were having greater success in migration was that the cash flows coming back from overseas were also higher. For poorer households, by contrast, the migration experience would often start with a high interest loan from a private lender. Poorer households were also more likely to be cheated — paying more money to middlemen, being deceived and receiving lower wages than agreed or making significant losses after being provided the wrong type of visa. Sunam offers the astonishing figure that 30% of households classified as “poor” were not in this group prior to migration but “became poor” after migration.
In sum, it is clear from this fascinating book that migration can support poverty alleviation but only as a supplementary strategy and in combination with other livelihood activities and resources, access to which is grounded in caste and class privilege. There is also an important cautionary note that migration can create the conditions which perpetuate inequality. The book therefore raises important policy lessons about how governments should deal with migration by addressing structural inequalities in the distribution of land and assets.
Post edited by Siddharth Chakravarty. This is an abridged version of Fraser Sugden’s review of Ramesh Sunam’s Transnational Labour Migration, Livelihoods and Agrarian Change in Nepal: The Remittance Village.
Image from Routledge Books