x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

As Indians migrate from rural areas, the real India resurfaces in cities

Indians are moving from the villages to cities in a wave of internal migration that is creating mass urbanisation and changing livelihoods

Mahesh Sharma, a gardener, originally from the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, with his family of 7 children at their rented one room home in sector 17 of Gurgaon, India, where many migrant families live. Sami Siva for The National
Mahesh Sharma, a gardener, originally from the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, with his family of 7 children at their rented one room home in sector 17 of Gurgaon, India, where many migrant families live. Sami Siva for The National

NEW DELHI // There is a slum on the outskirts of Delhi to which I am often drawn.

To reach it, I pass Delhi’s congested roads and travel into Gurgaon, a boomtown of glass and steel buildings, with construction cranes for a backdrop.

Gurgaon is where some of India’s largest companies, from telecoms and outsourcing to IT, are located. Alongside the skyscrapers are towers with affordable housing for India’s middle class and shiny, new malls displaying what seems like the best of the Indian dream.

Yet, just as you reach this new and modern India, the roads end, potholes appear and you spot, sometimes for kilometres on end, makeshift houses packaged closely together.

Rickshaw drivers, maids, gardeners, security guards; the man who brings you a jug of milk on his bicycle from your local kirana shop, call these structures home.

They are certainly not India’s middle class. But they are not always the poorest of the poor.

They are somewhere in between: an aspirational group of migrant workers who left rural towns and villages to pursue bigger dreams in the cities.

India is rapidly changing and these people form one of the strongest narratives that defines the transition from old to new. Yet, they are difficult to know. They rarely belong to unions or established organisations. They are not as scrutinised by analysts and statisticians as the extremes — the poor and the rich. They are the more than 300 million people, one-fourth the population, that India’s census calls internal migrant workers.

Mahatma Gandhi said that the true India is not to be found in its cities but in its villages.

Gandhi’s India is struggling. No longer is it possible for villagers to eke out a living by farming. A lack of modern irrigation and the fragmentation of inherited land between siblings is making earning a living difficult, and impossible for some.

Of course, not all migrant workers fare well. Their experiences vary as much as their travels. Others keep one foot in the village, working part-time in cities to supplement their income.

Yet, many Indians are moving to the cities, such as the family of Geeta Devi, who left behind their home in the state of Uttar Pradesh, to move to Gurgaon.

The tightly packed rows of breeze block homes here are scorchingly hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. It is easy to think that they have made a terrible mistake. But they do not think so.

Mrs Devi’s husband, Daya Ram, a gardener, said: “It was hard. We had to move.”

Mrs Devi said more. There was a growing lack of respect, food and money for this family of six, she said.

After yet another bad harvest, seven years ago, Mrs Devi reached out to her brother in Delhi after the land they farmed was split between four brothers. She asked him to convince her husband to move.

Mr Ram arrived in Delhi, spent time at a local nursery, learnt the craft, paid off debt, then rented a room and sent for his family. All in one year.

This is not unusual among migrants, who often follow a family member from the village to the city.

Most families, including Mrs Devi’s earn enough to send their children to school, occasionally even private schools. They hope their sons and daughters will learn to speak English and receive a leg up in a country where an English-speaking graduate is afforded higher status and better job prospects.

Not only the men work: the women gladly shed restrictions that meant they could never be seen outside their village homes. They stitch clothes, run beauty parlours, sweep and cook for a living. Those with some education go onto better jobs in factories or as female security guards. Mrs Devi, 32, works as a thread cutter in a garment factory.

The women I spoke with took great pride in their children’s educational achievements. When they return to their villages, they proudly look on as their children speak some words of English.

Mrs Devi especially enjoys an evening walk in the park. She laughed at the idea of doing the same in the village.

“As if,” she said. “As if they would let me.”

To Mrs Devi “they” are a number of things. For instance, her in-laws and the diktats that defined how she behave as a wife, mother and daughter-in-law in the village. And for the simple fact that no one there leisurely strolled through the fields.

What Mrs Devi is really proud of is that she is now a wage earner in the family. There is more respect within the confines of their home, she said. Despite the hardship, and the gaping inequality of today’s India, and in spite of the prejudice they face, their lives have changed for the better now.