Importance of teaching about migration in economics: Learning about girmitiyas and geet gawai..

The more you read and follow, the more you realise how much of economics training is just so narrow. It hardly tells you anything about the society at all.

Thanks to the ongoing Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas in Bangalore one came across this group of migrants from India- Girmitiyas (pardon this blog’s ignorance). They were not migrants per se but forced labor from India taken onto further British interests in their other colonies of Fiji, Mauritius, Caribbean and so on.

Girmitiyas’ (indentured labourers), the name given to generations of Indians, who were forced to leave the country in the middle and late 19th century to serve as laborers in the then British colonies where they eventually settled down for more than a century. Girmit is a corrupt form of the English word ‘agreement’; an agreement under which thousands of laborers used to emigrate, a labour so emigrating under Girmit is a Girmitia. The word ‘Girmitia’ was coined by Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, who called himself ‘Pehla Girmitia’ (first Girmitia), as a recognition of his fight for the cause of the community.

Migration of unskilled manual workers from Bihar and other parts of India is not a new phenomenon. It began in the middle of the 19th century, when they left for Mauritius, Fiji, Suriname, Guyana, the Caribbean Islands and other distant lands during the British Raj as indentured labourers. Years of toiling by these people in their adopted countries has transformed barren lands into the mines of golden crops, bringing prosperity and abundance for themselves, fellow African labourers and the natives.

Most of them ended up leading lives of unmitigated hardship and abject penury. But some fought against all odds to not only to survive, but also to pave the way for a better future for their descendants. They embraced the local culture and assimilated themselves totally in the alien lands. In fact, some of their descendants went on to become the heads of the governments in those countries, underlining the triumph of human spirit over all impediments.

One just partly knew all this but did not understand the linkages and details.

It was also fascinating to read about how this diaspora is keeping traditions alive by singing geet gawai – songs in bhojpuri:

Geet Gawai, a musical ensemble that encapsulates the cultural heritage in the Girmitiya nations (to which indentured labourers were brought from India’s Bhojpuri belt by the British two centuries ago) was recognized by UNESCOas “The Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” last December.

Geet Gawai came to Mauritius when the first batch of indentured labourers arrived at its capital city Port Louis in 1834 and has been orally passed down through generations. The Indian diaspora emphasized the need for making Geet Gawai a recognized cultural expression and worked towards it. One such Mauritian who was instrumental in getting the “intangible heritage” tag for Geet Gawai was Sarita Boodhoo, the chairperson of Mauritius Bhojpuri speaking union and head of Global Woman Council of GOPIO.

Amazing to read all this.

These migratory forces are so so crucial to understand economics not just from a historical perspective but to understand issues until today. But these matters are termed as soft and not discussed in mainstream economics at all. How people migrate (forcefully or intentionally) from one place to the other in search of better livelihood or economic opportunities. Then how they bring their own traditions and mix with their new place. Sometimes this mixing becomes positive and other times negative. These outcomes eventually matter for development. If we look at it, this is all there is to economic development after all..

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