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India Accelerating - last of four articles: The Great Migration - New York Times

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  • Andie Miller
    INDIA ACCELERATING Last of four articles: The Great Migration http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/07/international/asia/07highway.html India Accelerating | The
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 7, 2005
      Last of four articles:
      The Great Migration


      India Accelerating | The Great Migration
      All Roads Lead to Cities, Transforming India

      Published: December 7, 2005

      SURAT, India - This western city has at least 300 slum pockets, grimy
      industry, factory-fouled air and a spiraling crime rate. A 1994 epidemic -
      reported as pneumonic plague - that originated here caused national panic.
      It is the kind of place where the body of a woman killed by a passing truck
      is left in the street because no one knows her.

      The city hardly seems like a beacon, yet for young men across India it
      shines like one.

      In his central Indian village, B. P. Pandey heard that Surat was a "big
      industrial town" and made his way here to work. Rinku Gupta, 18, one of Mr.
      Pandey's five roommates, came from the north. Hundreds of thousands more
      have traveled from Orissa, in the east, and from Maharashtra, to the south.

      In the rural mind, Surat, in Gujarat state, looms with outsized allure, and
      its girth is growing to match. In less than 15 years, its population has
      more than doubled, to an estimated 3.5 million, making it India's ninth
      largest city. A majority of Surat's residents are migrants, drawn by its two
      main industries, diamonds and textiles.

      Surat's growth spurt is being replicated across India. At least 28 percent
      of its population now lives in cities and many more of its citizens move in
      and out of them for temporary work. In some southern states, nearly half the
      population is in cities. In 1991, India had 23 cities with one million or
      more people. A decade later it had 35.

      As the people shift, so does the very nature of India. This is a nation of
      600,000 villages, each of them a unit that has ordered life for centuries,
      from the strata of caste to the cycles of harvest. In this century, cities'
      pull and influence - not only financial but also psychic - are remaking
      society. Less visible than the heated consumerism or western sexual habits
      changing India, this slow churning may be more profound and, for a country
      weaned on the virtues of village life, more wrenching.

      "From all over India, they are coming," said Kailash Pandey, a milk seller,
      of the migrants pouring into Kanpur, one of the million-plus cities.

      Kanpur, Surat and 17 of the other biggest cities sit along the so-called
      Golden Quadrilateral - 3,625 miles of national highways that circle the
      country and are being modernized in an epic infrastructure project. Earlier
      this year, a New York Times reporter and photographer drove that route,
      looping through India's megalopolises - New Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai,
      formerly Madras, and Mumbai.

      The highway brings in and out almost everything cities need, including much
      of the cheap labor that men like B. P. Pandey supply. So with the road's
      improvement, Surat and other cities are surging anew, spreading toward the
      highway as if toward their life source.

      The redone highway is also shrinking the distance between villages and
      cities. In the countryside through which the route passed, the buzz was
      about places like Surat, and the sense of a nation on the move.

      "This is rural India - people don't stay," said Anil Kumar, a shopkeeper in
      the village of Kaushambi. "The highway has made it easier."

      Compared with China, whose rural population is also moving, India's
      urbanization has been a saunter, not a sprint - slower, looser and more
      haphazard. That is partly because some of India's economic policies have
      served to constrict its cities' possibilities. Decisions made during and
      even after four decades of quasi socialism have crimped the kind of
      manufacturing that has spurred China's urban growth.

      Good jobs or not, India's migrants still come. Their presence is creating
      new challenges: battles for land, competition for jobs, strained resources
      and religious and political tensions. So diverse is Surat's population that
      the municipal corporation now runs schools in eight languages.

      And when the migrants return home, they bring new views and aspirations with
      them. Their perspectives are combining with the improved highways to open
      up, and out, the closed worlds of India's villages.

      Waiting for a bus at the station in Jaipur, Surender Yadav offered his own
      village as an example. Bypassed by development, it sat down a wretched road
      off the highway between Jaipur and New Delhi. There was no medical
      dispensary, and perhaps more galling to Mr. Yadav, a 26-year-old doctoral
      candidate in Hindi, no newspaper delivery.

      But the highway's widening and resurfacing meant villagers were no longer
      waiting for development to come to them. Every morning, Mr. Yadav said, 20
      or so people rode their motorbikes to the highway, parked and hopped on a
      bus. They went to New Delhi, two and a half hours away, or Gurgaon, even
      closer, and worked as police officers, low-level clerks or customer care
      representatives in call centers. India, ever absorptive, had absorbed the
      highway, and turned out something new: the commuter village.

      The village is becoming less a way of life than a place to live, a stop on
      the journey to the metropolis.

      Brighter Prospects

      During religious holidays, 200 to 300 buses a day pull out of Surat and head
      north for 10 hours on the national highway. Their destination: the rural
      region of Saurashtra. Their cargo: diamond cutters and polishers visiting
      the drought-parched villages they left to work in the city.

      By the hundreds of thousands, the young men of Saurashtra have found good
      livings in Surat, even though most lack good educations. They earn about
      $2,400 a year - nearly five times the average per capita income - in diamond
      work, and sometimes significantly more.

      Rajesh Kumar Raghavji Santoki, 28, had tried farming for a year at home, and
      given up in the face of a water shortage. After just three years in Surat,
      he was earning in a month more than the $500 his farmer father earned in a
      year. He owned a house, a motorcycle and a van.

      India found its niche in the cutting and polishing of low-cost diamonds for
      the global middle class, and today more than 7 of 10 diamonds in the world
      are polished in Surat. It has created close to 500,000 jobs here alone.

      That is nearly half as many jobs as India's entire information technology
      industry. Bangalore, the symbol of India's knowledge economy, may be a
      global buzzword, but the fate of India's rural poor depends more on
      industrial cities like Surat.

      Together, the cities' dominance means that India will never return to a
      farming-based economy. The urban portion of the gross domestic product is
      roughly double the urban population, a fact not lost on Mr. Santoki or his
      boss, Savji Dholakia.

      Nearly 30 years ago, Mr. Dholakia was an impoverished farmer's son, who at
      age 14 came by bus down the highway from Saurashtra to Surat.

      Today, he runs a family-owned diamond business, Hari Krishna Exports, that
      did $103 million in exports last year. He speeds back to his home village on
      the revamped highway in a silver Mercedes E220. His example spurs more young
      men to follow him back.

      In a fine white shirt and gold chain, Mr. Dholakia sat in his round white
      office, its sterile modishness far from his dusty youth, and analyzed his
      ascent. In today's India, he said, migrating from country to city was the
      only way. He was rich enough now to buy his entire village many times over.

      "If you want to play international cricket, you need a proper playground;
      you cannot play in a field," he said, with six television screens to monitor
      his workers before him. "If you want to grow internationally, you have to
      leave your place."

      Dreams to Chase

      In the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, B. P. Pandey intuited as
      much, although his dreams were more prosaic than a multi-continental
      business empire. He came to Surat, he said, "to earn and enjoy."

      Rough nubs, not polished facets, had brought him from the rural hinterland.
      Surat, once famed for its silks and brocades, has become a synthetic textile
      hub. The clacking of 600,000 hidden power looms fills its streets. Its
      factories texturize yarn, produce embroidery thread, weave saris and ship
      all of it along the highways to Punjab, Tamil Nadu and elsewhere.

      Mr. Pandey had come to be a cog in this enterprise. Farming back home was
      dying, and his aspirations rising. He did not want to work in his home area,
      he said. He wanted what the city offered - energy, opportunity, the rewards
      of globalization.

      Those rewards were not yet in reach. Mr. Pandey, 30, working in a yarn
      texturizing factory, earned only 2,100 rupees, or $46 a month. It was more
      than he could earn at home, but hardly enough to lift him from poverty. Yet
      he counted himself lucky to have a job.

      India's relatively low exports and underdeveloped manufacturing sector -
      only 25 percent of its economy - meant the demand for factory jobs in the
      city far outstripped the supply. Many migrants eked out work as street
      vendors or day laborers.

      The expanded highway was already giving Surat's textile industry a boost,
      cutting the time to move goods to ports, and to cities around the country.
      It had also cut the travel time to Mumbai, formerly Bombay: the 155 miles
      separating the two cities now could be driven in just over three hours, and
      Mumbaikars were coming to Surat to invest.

      But fixing the roads would not be enough to make India competitive. Ports
      and airports also need work. Inflexible labor laws, excessive bureaucracy
      and indifference to quality by industries long sheltered from competition
      have undermined India's race for a larger piece of the global economy. Even
      Surat's two main industries were vulnerable to these handicaps, and China
      was hungrily eyeing them both.

      Rigid and strike-happy labor unions, meanwhile, have cramped growth, and
      prompted industry to migrate toward cities without them. One result was that
      workers like Mr. Pandey had no union, and thus no benefits, no contract, no
      job security. He worked six and a half days a week, his only shift off
      stemming from a mandatory power cut, when he rested in his room. He lived in
      a barren tenement above the factory where he worked, in an overcrowded,
      underserviced industrial estate.

      Mr. Pandey had come to enjoy, but the city had no real entertainment, and
      only 774 women for every 1,000 men. For many migrants, alcohol - brought
      down the highway like everything else here - filled the gaps.

      Money and Motivation

      If cities' conditions were grim, and the earnings meager, their fruits still
      tasted sweet in the village. To the rural poor in India's eastern and
      northern states, Surat and other cities to the south and west offered the
      best hope for a decent job.

      The men in the state of Orissa, on India's eastern coast, had long ago
      concluded that literally crossing their country to work beat farming the
      fields next door. In Surat, they had cornered some of the more lucrative
      textile jobs, and shoehorned relatives and friends from Orissa into them as

      The money-order economy they had created was reconfiguring life back home.
      Sushant Mohanti and two dozen other men from his village, which sat next to
      the highway in Orissa, regularly went to work in Surat's textile factories,
      about 870 miles away. He sent to his family at least one-third of the $150
      or more he earned each month, as did the others.

      For many rural families, having a member working in a city protected against
      vagaries of weather or crops. But it could also mean enough money for a
      substantially better life. Mr. Mohanti swept his hand grandly across the
      product of the migrants' labors: a row of solid, or "pukka," houses that had
      replaced the village's thatched huts.

      But migrants were bringing home more than money.

      Five hundred to 700 people from the village of Golantara in Orissa had gone
      to Surat to work, said Bibuti Jena, a former village head. They came back
      with new drive, haranguing less motivated peers who used caste barriers,
      unemployment or a lack of land to justify their inertia.

      "I go out and work, why don't you?" the returnees said, and their words

      "People are less lazy," Mr. Jena said of the village that spread behind him.
      "The work culture is changing."

      So were desires. A bit north on the highway in Orissa, Nila Madhav, 21,
      stood on the median, next to fellow villagers selling watermelons to passing

      After four years of traveling to Bangalore to do embroidery work for $90 a
      month, he said, he could no longer see himself cultivating watermelon, or
      farming at all. It wasn't only the money: he had adapted to the city's ways,
      and south India's gentler climate, in the process rejecting the life of his

      Skip to next paragraph
      Last of four articles:
      The Great Migration

      Articles in this series are examining India's highway modernization, a vast
      undertaking reflecting the country's overall transformation.

      Related Sites
      . National Highway Authority of India (nhai.org)
      . Yahoo! Finance Group on India Highways (finance.groups.yahoo.com)
      . U.N. Aids - India (unaids.org.in)
      . India's National AIDS Control Organization (www.nacoonline.org)

      India Accelerating: The Great Migration "It's very hot here," he said of the
      spot his family had farmed for generations, "and I don't like to work in the

      Mr. Madhav had returned from the city with not only a new attitude, but also
      with a new language. His native language was Oriya, but he was holding forth
      on the median in Hindi. In cities like Bangalore and Surat, far from the
      Hindi-speaking north, Hindi had become the migrant lingua franca, the
      vernacular of a new pan-Indian culture.

      Urban work was creating new identities. And in a country where caste has
      determined fates from birth, it also offered something subversive: freedom.

      The Power of Labor

      Given that they were sleeping at a highway crossroads in the city of
      Udaipur, 315 miles north of Surat, Shankar Lal Rawat and his fellow pavement
      dwellers did not look like liberated men. They had come from a village to
      the north, and were living day and night on their patch of cement, where
      they waited for contractors to hire them as porters or construction workers
      for less than $2 a day.

      They were farmers, but the dynamics of their village had made farming
      unprofitable. As Adivasis, members of India's indigenous tribes, their
      status matched that of the lowest castes. The power in their village, much
      of the land, the money-lending monopoly and access to the water supply all
      belonged to a Rajput, or upper-caste, landlord named Jaswant Singh.

      He paid just over a dollar a day for the men to labor in his fields. He
      charged prohibitive rates for the water they needed to work their own land,
      and for the loans they took to pay him for it. In their village, as in much
      of India, the caste system had conflated ritual status and economic power.

      So they had chosen to travel down the new highway to the city and its
      thriving construction industry. The men's migration had deprived Jaswant
      Singh of his labor supply - a problem emerging for upper-caste landlords
      across India as lower castes leave - and asserted their financial

      Gandhi idealized villages as the way to return Indians to their precolonial
      state. B. K. Ambedkar, the Dalit, or untouchable, leader who helped write
      India's Constitution, saw it differently: he called villages a cesspool, "a
      den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism," and urged untouchables
      to flee them for urban anonymity.

      In a modernizing India, Ambedkar's words are being heeded as never before
      for economic, not social reasons. Over time, the results may be the same.

      Mr. Rawat, 30, and the other laborers living by the highway had traded rural
      poverty for urban, and left their families behind. The city's daily wages
      amounted to only slightly more than they would have earned tilling Jaswant
      Singh's fields. But in the choice of where to struggle, or whom to owe, was
      power - hardly a revolution, but a start.
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