07 October 2006

India’s cities: a life source for millions

As India’s urban affluent head out on the highways for a joy ride in their fast cars (see my previous post), millions from India’s over 600,000 impoverished villages move into the cities for a daily living. Travelling in trucks and buses, on trains and even on foot, they migrate not only to the nearest town but also to distant cities (people move from Orissa to Delhi, Bihar to Surat, Kerala to Mumbai), offering themselves as cheap labour to their new city employers.

Working for 50 rupees a day (just over US$1), they take their chances with the new economy that has permeated everything they see, leaving behind their fields and their farming forever. Typically, they look for factory jobs or jobs at construction sites, in groups, sharing meals, spending nights in most squalid conditions. Supply outstripping demand, many are found begging on the streets or turning to crime. If they get lucky, they become street vendors, owing their allegiance to a local ‘boss’.

Of course, not all migration is of this type. There are others: smarter people, with some education, coming to the city with a friend’s contact, staying eight to a room. They take up jobs in shops or offices (recent attractions have been India’s retail and service sectors); become drivers for cars, auto-rickshaws or tempos (India’s version of utility vehicles); perhaps join the police force; or, in a place like Surat, become a well-paid diamond polisher. They get absorbed by the city, straining its resources, and, in turn, over the years, changing the city’s demography and culture.

There’s a churn in the villages too. With people moving out of villages, the village landlord’s power base is slowly withering. Moreover, when these city migrants return home for a visit, they not only bring with them money for the family, but also a new outlook to life and self-governance. They share their stories and experiences of their struggle, of sustenance, of self-reliance, of consumerism, of indulgence, of aspirations… giving hope to millions who, in turn, look to India’s cities as a life source.

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