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Experiencing small town India at Narendranagar, Tehri Garhwal #employment #migration #aspiration

Having tried my hand at being an entrepreneur, I’m always impressed by people who are brave enough to venture into new territory with ideas and initiatives. My friend Biplab is one such person. I’ve known him for a while, though not very well. And when my research work started focusing on what’s happening in small cities, I remembered his venture and drove over for a chat.

Biplab runs a BPO called EGramServe in Narendranagar (will refer to it as NN), a town of about 10,000 people a short drive uphill from Rishikesh. In starting this venture, he (like several others, of course) has created a window of opportunity for young people who otherwise have no choice but to migrate out to larger cities. The stories he told me, about his own entrepreneurial journey and the experiences of his employees, stuck in my head for days after our chat. And I decided to pay NN a visit. As I was leaving, my kids were curious to know if that’s Narendra Modi is from (no escaping NaMo)!

After an eventless and comfortable train journey (a frequent traveler on this sector, Biplab is an expert in wangling seats even when tickets are unconfirmed!), we got there early Monday morning and walked around town. As a planner, I was struck by the orderliness of the town. NN came into prominence in 1919 when King Narendra Shah of the erstwhile kingdom of Tehri Garhwal moved his capital here from Tehri. It’s orderly main street and relatively wide streets and uncluttered feel contrasts sharply with the messiness of other pahari towns, which are usually trading or market towns. The shops and residences along this main street, I learnt, are still owned by the municipal board and leased out to individuals.

Approaching Narendranagar

Approaching Narendranagar

EGramServe occupies the ground floor of the only hotel in town

EGramServe occupies the ground floor of the only hotel in town

The managerial staff at the BPO lives on the top floor of the same hotel. Was mighty amused at the interiors!

The managerial staff at the BPO lives on the top floor of the same hotel. Was mighty amused at the interiors!

Criss-cross wires and a typical hill town view, albeit much less crowded than any other I've been to!

Criss-cross wires and a typical hill town view, albeit much less crowded than any other I’ve been to!

Mainstreet, the legacy of a royal past

Mainstreet, the legacy of a royal past

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An early morning view, but it doesn't get too busy even at peak hours

An early morning view, but it doesn’t get too busy even at peak hours

More vestiges of a royal and institutional past

More vestiges of a royal and institutional past

IMG_6205The view from NN, which is also the closest town to the world famous Ananda spa resort, is beautiful. It is a remarkable thing that, so close to Rishikesh, this lovely hilly location that experiences excellent weather is so tranquil and languid, the pace of life barely impacted by the proximity of the fervent religious tourism of Rishikesh and Hardwar below or the seasonal tourism of the hill stations above.

The town looks onto lush forest areas and the lights of Jolly Grant airport and Rishikesh sparkle in the distance during the night

The town looks onto lush forest areas and the lights of Jolly Grant airport and Rishikesh sparkle in the distance during the night

IMG_6169Its tranquility is reflected in the conversations I have with its residents, some of who are from families who settled here during the time of Narendra Shah and consider themselves insiders and others whose families have migrated here from surrounding villages or from other parts of Tehri Garhwal in search of livelihood.

My two-day visit was a most interesting experience thanks to Biplab’s warm and sincere hospitality. He was kind enough to give up his accommodation so I could be comfortable and also enthusiastic enough to introduce me to people all over town. Over the next few weeks, I hope to unscramble some good information from the 20-odd interviews I managed to take. I hope to understand better the experiences and aspirations of the young people who work in EGramServe, their linkages with their family/community and what role cities like NN can play in keeping young people close to home.

I was driven back to Haridwar railway station by two enthusiastic members of Biplab’s team. The most marvelous drive through the lush greens of Rajaji National Park alongside the Ganga canal  served to remind me of how precious the hills, the forests and the rivers are for our survival. In addition to providing opportunity, I remember thinking, encouraging sustainable development that involves communities that can no longer rely on agriculture for survival (low productivity, climate change) is critical. And here too, small cities like NN could be important in tying these rural communities together and linking them to regional economies.

The Ganga Canal, a critical irrigation waterway in the region

The Ganga Canal, a critical irrigation waterway in the region

The road we took through the Rajaji National Park is closed at dusk because of the frequent crossing of wild elephants. They've known to attack and crush cars in the past!

The road we took through the Rajaji National Park is closed at dusk because of the frequent crossing of wild elephants. They’ve known to attack and crush cars in the past!

Hope vs reality: Life in a slum

As always, I return energised from visiting the slums. My destination today was Bhumiheen Camp in Govindpuri, New Delhi. This where Katha runs its public school, a buzzing pulsating place full of joy and cheer. Like in all other schools, the walls reflect the happenings. I was amazed to see how deep the understanding and explorations of concepts went. Through the medium of exploring life in the sea, these children had studied and debated issues like sustainability and exploitation, diversity of life forms, survival and propagation of species, life cycles and natural systems. Also they had a philosophical take on the sea. How they identified with the sea; And being the sea change!
After interacting with the staff here, I see a passion and hunger for learning and teaching, a will to make change possible. It’s impossible not to be inspired! I look forward to two days of interaction with class 12 kids in January, when mHS gets in a group of American students to interact with Katha kids and try and develop a template for what quality of life means to a slum dweller. Since children will facilitate this, it should reveal some surprising results.
Walking out if the community, I captured two images that offer contrasting aspects of slum life for our consideration. One on hand, slum dwellers struggle to access basic services. You can see people gathered around a water tanker. On the other, the pace of life, home based work and an intensely interdependent social network means people can catch a few hours of repose on their charpais in the warm winter sun. On the street onto which their tiny dwellings spill out, while taking in the hustle bustle and latest gossip. Plus chai!

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