‘My drunk husband doesn’t know’: Informal income, phone-banking and female migrant workers in Kolkata, India

by Atreyee Sen

Associate Professor

Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen

‘My drunk husband doesn’t know’: Informal income, phone-banking and female migrant workers in Kolkata, India By Atreyee Sen
Photo by: Atreyee Sen

With more than half a billion internet and digital subscribers, India is one of the fastest-growing markets for digital consumers, second only to China. Through Aadhaar, the world’s largest bio-metric identification system, the central government has driven individual citizens to link their personal data to a host of services, including mobile sim cards, bank accounts and welfare schemes. For example, mAadhaar is an official mobile application that permits Aadhaar identity-card holders to link their banking information solely to their personal smartphones. While public opinion in India usually favours Aadhar as it offers a channel for financial inclusion, critics have been disgruntled with the coercive nature of invasive bio-metric technologies.

Etched in relief against the surface of this debate, narratives of underprivileged women employed in the informal domestic sector in Kolkata, a city in eastern India, shows how female migrants arriving in the city from neighbouring villages collectively conspired with each other, and creatively managed Aadhar and smart banking in order to scatter their wages into different bank accounts in the city. The confidentiality of personalised digital banking, more accessible in the city than in rural settings with limited internet connections, ensured that a chunk of women’s urban income did not come under the radar of financially demanding marital/kin networks in the village. Retaining control over these undisclosed wages emboldened migrant women to envision non-normative gendered subjectivities. These subjectivities were premised on retaining private savings, which in turn allowed female workers to imagine economically secure fiscal futures.

To offer a story: Krishna (42) left her village in one of the northern districts of West Bengal, a state in eastern India, and moved to Kolkata, in search of care work. She was one of the thousands of rural migrant workers who arrived in the city on a daily basis to join the informal domestic labour sector which serviced the burgeoning middle-class housing estates across the city. When Krishna arrived in the city she went to live in a slum in southern Kolkata, a region which housed the largest number of modern residential colonies. As the demand for female cooks, maids, cleaners and nurses for ‘elderly care’ grew in these urban areas (and more rural areas that constituted the farming sector fell into ruin), the traffic of women workers travelling between the city and its semi-rural peripheries developed around access to domestic wage work.

Bon, Krishna’s sister, introduced her to a number of other women in the slum who worked in housing colonies across the region. One of them asked: ‘Aren’t you the one who is getting beaten up by her husband for twenty years? How did you survive?’ The women reassured Krishna that many of them had come to Kolkata not just to look for work, but also to temporarily escape domestic abuse. ‘What is your money arrangement with your husband, do you have an Aadhar card?’ asked Rama, who was the local female kingpin, and had most influence in the domestic care sector in the neighbourhood. Krishna said that her husband had asked her to keep only a small portion of her salary for her own upkeep and travel, and the rest had to be sent to him and his family through Western Union money transfers.

‘Don’t be mad,’ said Rama. ‘Your husband will suck you dry when you are with him, and suck you dry when you are not with him. And then spit you out. Think about your own future, you are not young,’ she advised. Rama and other women the slum told Krishna that she must get her own Aadhar ID card, secure a smart phone (usually from one of her new employers), open a bank account (preferably in a bank that is not that accessible in rural areas) and secretly deposit a part of her earnings in there. Then, she can send the rest of the money either in cash to her husband, or through bank transfers to her husband’s account in a rural/regional bank. Under no circumstances, was Krishna to declare her real income to her husband, which would be substantially higher than what her husband would come to know about.

When Krishna received her first coterie of wages, she asked one of her employers whether they had a smart phone lying around the house which she could borrow. Rama and Bon went to the bank with her, sought help from the bank-teller, opened a savings account, procured the cheapest data package and downloaded the savings app through which the account can be managed. Krishna did not tell her husband about the new phone, and only disclosed a part of her salary to him. She deposited the rest of the money in her new bank account, and learnt to manage the account through her new smart phone and Aadhar ID. When I met Krishna and she discussed how she enhanced her digital savings through support from this network of migrant women workers in the slums, she said, ‘I have my own savings for the first time. My drunk husband doesn’t know.’      

For several decades, rural women in the developing world have been the targets of an effort to democratize banking, credit and financial services, beginning with microfinance in the 1980s. For example, Kenya’s M-Pesa money transfer service via mobile phones, introduced in 2007, had become a digital channel for diverse finance products targeting women, including banking, credit, payment, e-commerce, insurance etc —and for nonfinancial services, such as electricity, water, and solar power. However, in the context digital divide research in India, rural women’s low employment, education and income, as well as poor internet provision services are considered to be barriers to women’s engagement with mobile technologies, including digital banking.

My research on migrant women workers in India underlines the intersections between urban social capital and technical resources in developing phone/digital banking. The gendered support and knowledge frameworks that support women’s phone-banking in the city, enables us to explore novel ways of thinking about digital technology and social inequalities. Gendered cultural capital mediated through technical prowess becomes a strong critique against this digital divide research, which argues that marginalised women are less likely to engage with communications technology. Poor women’s denial and secrecy about access to new technologies keeps their cash flows invisiblised in migration settings, but they are prominent consumers of digital technologies related to finance. Women become actors and agents in this digital universe, and are keen to seek out micro-channels of economic empowerment without overtly challenging their patriarchal desire for legitimate marriage and motherhood. These shadow networks of open domestic remittances and secret savings lie at the interface of emerging digital technologies and gendered social relations within local migration landscapes.