India Accelerating - last of four articles: The Great Migration - New York Times
- INDIA ACCELERATING
Last of four articles:
The Great Migration
India Accelerating | The Great Migration
All Roads Lead to Cities, Transforming India
By AMY WALDMAN
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.
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
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
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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.
. 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.