The Invisible (mountain) Man: Migrant youth and relational vulnerability in the Indian Himalayas


Ritodhi Chakraborty

PhD defended at: 

University of Wisconsin-Madison


Do young migrant men impact the vulnerability of their rural households beyond just financial remittances? Or are they as the literature presents them of little consequence to the reproduction of
the household, passive victims of unequal structures of development? In Uttarakhand, a state in the Indian Himalayan region, where I conducted mixed methods research in 2015-2017, there were many young men, engaging with new processes of mobility. Contrary to popular accounts, their journeys were not linear and neither were they catalyzed by exceptional regional and household precarity.
Instead they represented attempts at mediating the various process and aspirations that their worlds were embedded in. Different tools of development were transforming communal cultures of work, kinship and reproduction and the youth engaged with these transformations within the vital relationships producing their households.

The role of youth within the household has been rendered invisible in most accounts by a welfarist, component based assessment of and production of household vulnerability. This framing effectively focused on the structural forces at play in the region, marginalizes the aspirations, anxieties and agency of different household members. Additionally, youth desires for informal, mobile lives, lived in-between different spaces and expectations positions them beyond the purview of most placed based explorations. However, viewing the household as a set of relationships exposed an entangled, material and affective assemblage. Intra-household negotiations around agricultural futures, livelihood aspirations, reproduction and death seemed to echo the different emerging subject positions. The youth were intimately involved in these negotiations, mediating generational and historical anxieties about regional trysts with seemingly powerful processes of modernity and development. In the process they confronted the limitations to their own agency and used such knowledge to justify their subversion and reproduction of particular communal notions of regional belonging and masculinity.

This research makes important contributions to scholarship on critical studies of youth migration, non-elite mobilities research and the relational studies of vulnerability. By focusing on young lives, rendered invisible by both the politics of the state and the politics of knowledge production, it provides valuable insight into the provisional agency of marginal people and their important role in place making.