Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXX No. No. 14, November 16-30, 2020

The future of mega cities

by Shreesh Chaudhary

Sanjay may be in the early-40s now. I have known him for over 10 years. He came to Chennai with his father, Ram Pujan Chaudhary, from a village in Buxar District of Bihar. Ram Pujan is a class one mason. He has led a group of masons and unskilled workers and has worked on many projects, like the new secretariat on Anna Salai, new hostels on IIT M campus, etc. I ran into Ram Pujan accidently one rainy afternoon at a teashop near the Taramani gate of IIT Madras. Taking shelter there, we discovered that we were both from Bihar, earning a living at IITM. Gradually, we came to know and help each other in many small ways. A few years ago, Ram Pujan left to pass his final days at his village, giving the charge of his group to his elder son, Sanjay, who led it very ably. Ajay, his younger son, also trained by Rampujan in Chennai, moved away with another group to Dubai.

Sanjay got new contracts, worked in new projects, and, owing to regional rivalries at construction sites, got into new fights, lost some, won others, but kept his flock together. Sanjay also helped when I needed it. He sent workers, and accepted whatever I gave him. In the last week of April, Sanjay called me to say that he and his group had been in distress and would I please do anything to help them have some meals, some water, and to return to their village. It was truly distressing.

Sanjay and his group were somewhere on the Rajiv Gandhi Salai, near Sholinganallur, stranded and jobless since the imposition of complete lockdown. They had run out of provisions and savings and were starving. I called a senior police officer I knew. The officer was kind. He asked me to give him their location etc. and also to find someone who could coordinate on their behalf. The officer was looking for someone who spoke English and Tamil. Luckily, I knew another Bihari, a friend who had been raised in Chennai. He speaks Tamil and English fluently, besides being good in Hindi, Maithili and some other Bihari languages. He agreed to help. By sunset the same day, the local police gave them some rice, dhall and water. They were a group of about 50 people. In about a week, they boarded the train to Patna and reached their respective villages, grateful to police and friends in Chennai. I do not know if and when they will come back to Chennai.

Since the mid-eighties or even earlier, Bihari labour started coming to Chennai; until then, they went to Calcutta, and, after Calcutta became a “dead city”, as Rajiv Gandhi said, they moved west to Delhi, Punjab, Rajasthan, Bombay, Pune, etc., finally turning South. I have found Bihari labour all over from Vizag to Tiruvandrum, selling paan, working in restaurants, working as security guards, lift operators, taxi and autodrivers, and doing many other odd jobs. A senior revenue intelligence officer of the Government of India once told me that if all Bihari labour went home, then tea shops, paan shops, construction work, private security services, etc. all over India could be badly affected.

I came to Chennai in 1988 and I found that there was a Bihar Association, with its own premises and address in Gopalapuram, where people from Bihar, working in different parts of Chennai and suburbs, gathered and celebrated Bihari festivals. Satyanarayan puja every full moon evening drew all members of this association, and the guests staying on its premises, together every month; they were just about enough to comfortably fill the hall on the ground floor. Until about 2005, it was not difficult to find a seat in its hall. Most people here were in government jobs or in some small businesses, and knew one another. Bihar Association building, Rajendra Bhawan, is on the Cathedral Road, almost next to the American Consulate, opposite Stella Maris College. The Association got this piece of prime property in Chennai due to the benevolence of the Late Shri Ramnath Goenka, owner of The Indian Express, whose mother perhaps came from Darbhanga in Bihar. So, when approached by his friends from Bihar, he gave them some land and money. And Bihar Association got a permanent address in Chennai.

By about 2015, the situation became bad. So many people came from Bihar to Chennai to do and to look for jobs that it was impossible to get them all into one hall. Most were in IT companies, recruited from a thousand tech institutes all over the South. Then there were the construction industry, marketing agencies and support services like catering, transport, security, health care, education of children, etc. hiring skilled or otherwise but cheap labour from a region that had unending supply of them. So many people from Bihar now were studying and working in Chennai. You frequently heard Maithili, Bhojpuri, Magahi – the principal languages of Bihar, in public places in Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and other big and not so big cities in the South. Villages in Bihar, and entire North Bihar from Purnia to Champaran is one big village, had hardly anyone between 16 and 60 left there. Like they used to say about women in the army, so was the case in these villages, “some were above 50 the others below nine”.

Boys and girls, they all had converged in Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, etc. swelling their population, drawing on their precious natural resources and surviving. Even places like Taramani, a slum surrounded by rich neighbours, became crowded with these young people living in dozens in one or two-room-plus-toilet accommodation which had hardly enough water or space or rain shelter for so many people. But because they worked in shifts, they managed.

Within a decade, the city stretched in all possible directions in all possible ways. When Metro Water had hardly enough for its registered customers, it had millions in the queue waiting to be served. All essential commodities – housing, air, water, local transport, healthcare services, catering, parks and entertainments, school seats, milk, fruits, vegetables, meat and fish, street sanitation services – were breathless. All have been in short supply and high demand, raising prices and lengthening queues, and placing goods and services beyond the reach of at least about 25 per cent of the local population. For one thing, Elliott’s Beach was no longer a place for a family on Sunday evenings.

Can Chennai afford to have so many migrant workers? Has this kind of unrestricted industrialisation ever helped? Has an insatiable appetite for money and more money ever in any culture and civilisation led to a healthy and sustainable growth? I would much rather be in Mangalore, that after giving birth to four nationalised banks decided to move their bigger operations out of South Kanara and to save its rain washed laterite rocks amidst the green slopes of the Western Ghats, than in Bangalore which mortgaged not only its idyllic parks and gardens, but also its soul. Its crime graph is rising fastest in South India. Did anyone, local or folks like us, who fell in love with it at first sight, bargain for a Bangalore of this kind, where you are unsafe at night, and unsafer during day!

It is late already, but not too late yet for Chennai. It can learn from others that have trodden this path of unchecked industrialisation before it. Look at Calcutta, the flourishing city, the best Asia had until about 1947, early 1950s – it had industry, art, culture, education, publishing, navigation, parks, museums, cinema, theatre, everything. Calcutta was the place, but because of its appetite for more and more, it finished itself. It became the headquarters of two railway zones, Eastern and South Eastern Railways, of oil companies, of Coal India, of the Tea Board, of Steel Authority, of banks, etc., when these offices should have been there in Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam, Orissa, Eastern UP, etc. which is where their main operation happened. Let alone towns and cities in neighbouring states, Calcutta did not allow other cities even within Bengal to grow. Chennai at least has let Coimbatore, Madurai and Trichy come up.

I am witness to the dichotomy in the attitude of the locals towards the migrant labour. You want them to clean your used vessels and bedsheets, but you do not want them sitting next to you in the park or on the train. Your children will not work in or learn your mother tongue, but you insist upon these people learning to speak yours. Time and again Chennai police has done a commendable job in this area. It has always stood up against Tamil chauvinism. But then it adds to the work of the police. You had one constable per 1,000 people, now you have one per 10,000, at least in Chennai. The only metro city in the Indian subcontinent to have escaped terrorist attack has not yet been able to locate how and where a wagonload of demonetised currency notes coming from Trichy to Chennai disappeared. You may not recognize it, but you do pay a price.

If Chennai and other cities in the South still want to survive, they have only one way; they can take their businesses out also to those places where their labour came from. There is no reason why all not so big companies of India and from outside should not create at least one office in North Bihar. They can have all the natural resources there, most important of which, in my opinion, is abundance of relatively cheap and skilled workers, followed by, so far, air and water as God made them. Some imaginary problem is there in terms of law and order, of floods and droughts, of frequent holidays, and inadequate infrastructure, etc., they are all managerial problems, and can be handled accordingly. Regional boundaries, as the current pandemic has shown so clearly and painfully, are a burden from the past, unprotectable by passwords and firewalls. We must share with all, and like all.

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