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Conversations with the auto driver and the irreversible nature of migration- July 5, 2012

I had an interesting auto ride today. Walked a bit in the heat and didn’t find an auto, so when one stopped by with the driver apologetically inquiring if I minded him stopping by to fill gas, I hopped in. The driver was polite, reassuring me that the wait at the CNG station would take 5-7 minutes and generally seemed like a nice bloke.

And so, we had a full fledged conversation. Netrapal Singh, from Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh. He was happy to meet someone who had lived in UP. He had lived in Delhi for some 20 years, 16 of which had been spent driving an auto riksha. We spoke about Akhilesh Yadav, the wonderful politeness of UP dialects and about how one-way the phenomenon of migration is (though his retirement dream consists of chilling in the village someday!). His kids went to school and he, matter of factly, commented on them being ill at ease when they visited the village house and eager to return to the city. He was also understandably proud of being able to educate them and even more so of being able to build his own home in an urban village in Badarpur, which is on the border of Delhi and Haryana at Faridabad. He is now saving to add a second floor to his home. He earns about Rs, 25,000. I also learned that he can fill 4l of CNG in his auto and each litre gives him an average run of 25 kilometres. So he can run 100 km in one refill. Fascinating! I was happy to know I could strike up mundane conversation with my auto driver. He was happy to have a chatty ride.

He reminded me of another Netrapal. Also from UP, he used the be the office boy in CCPS, where I worked about a decade ago out of a poky office in Nehru Place. Now this chap was our man Friday. Once when I had asked him to get me a grilled veggie sandwich from round the corner for lunch, he looked very very concerned. He wanted to know why I wanted to pay an obscene sum of Rs 100 for shredded cabbage stuffed between two pieces of sort of stale bread! He expressed this in very colloquial Hindi, and it was hilarious! I’ve never been able to have a veggie grilled sandwhich since! Netrapal was one of those rare people who actually did go back to his place of origin, Bulandshahar or thereabouts if I remember right. That happened because he managed to wangle a government job back there. Now that’s one thing that can reverse rural to urban migration!


Excited about elections: Anecdotes from middle class voters across India- Feb 29, 2012

Election fever is all around. And this time round, I’m seeing the voters I know getting excited about things, for the first time in my living memory. I’m talking middle class, salaried people, not known for their love of the poll booth and most of who are happy to indulge in armchair discussions without any real political affiliations.

Perhaps we should thank Anna and his team for this gift to the nation- some sort of awakening of the middle class voter towards his responsibilities as opposed to his usual emphasis on rights (voter turnout has been increasing steadily for local and assembly elections throughout India and many voters claim to vote for development and not traditional reasons like caste). Or perhaps its my eyes that have opened, late in life.

A few weeks ago, at a wedding in Lucknow, much of the discussion among the local guests was about the impending voting in the city, which was to be the following Sunday. Rahul Gandhi’s every gesture was analyzed and Akhilesh Yadav seemed to have impressed quite¬† a few with moves that reminded old timers of the Mulayam of their youth! Strangely, it was unclear what the election issues were from these conversations, the focus was entirely on the personalities!

Last night, a chat conversation with my cousin Pooja who lives in Goa spoke of the absolute excitement about the elections in our constituency of St Cruz, a bit outside Panjim. The villagers are being wooed by promises of better infrastructure and connectivity and of course, the possibility of real estate development is a huge lure for politicians in wards surrounding Goa’s large cities, where several residential projects are mushrooming in a rather haphazard manner.

An infamously corrupt and flamboyant local politician Babush Monsterrat from nearby Talegaon, she told me, was contesting from St Cruz this time round. Of course, his wife was contesting from their home seat, which got us into a discussion about women often being dummy candidates.

Last week, I was having dinner with friends, one of whom is from Pune. The recently concluded elections for the 152 seats of the Pune Municipal Corporations, this friend informed me, resulted in 51% of the seats occupied by women  corporators, who number 78 as opposed to 74 men. This means that beyond the reserved seats, several women have won general seats as well. The number of woman applicants this year was 1,260 as against 2,080 men. The NCP and Congress gave tickets to 76 women, out of which 24 NCP and 14 Congress woman leaders secured a place in the House. Again, many of these could be dummy candidates put up by male politicians (husbands, fathers) who are seeing a decline in their political fortunes, or have criminal charges against them, or are embroiled in some controversy. Even so, locals feel there are many noteworthy, serious women politicians in power, which is a heartening thought.

It is unclear what these changes mean for our cities and citizens. Unfortunately, better voter turnout in a democracy does not result in better politicians, better governance or better accountability. More needs to be done to make politicians accountable to the people, and a lot needs to be done to mobilize communities to debate issues, list priorities and place adequate pressure on governments and bureaucracies to perform; but getting the middle class slightly more excited about elections is a good start, don’t you think?

Musings on a train: Reflecting on the urban-rural relationship Feb 10, 2012

What is it about train journeys that makes you think about life, goals, ambition and experience? Especially a daytime journey. Watching the fields whizz past. Wondering if rural life is even half as idyllic as it looks from a speeding train. And then inevitably thinking of your life, where its going and where you are taking it.
People around me, who probably travel often, are snoring and chattering. For me, travel will always be linked to introspection.

The flat landscape of the Gangetic plain evokes images of contentment and plenty as God intended it to be when he created a land of fertile soil, sunshine and a natural irrigation system of beautiful rivers and seasonal streams. In reality, the flatness represents the dull sameness of each day as it passes, each sunrise bringing little hope of change, let alone positive change.

As I glide through the Uttar Pradesh I grew up in, the UP that is right now going to vote, I think back at childhood journeys. Today most villages we pass are made of brick and mortar homes whereas the village of my childhood was a collection of thatch and semi pakka huts. (Ironically they looked better finished, had a certain aesthetic as compared the straggly brick dwellings I see today.)

Anyhow the point I’m making is that change has come, albeit very slowly. From our urban perspective where we change phones every other year and shop at nearly every end of season sale, the pace of change in rural life is negligible. Yet the new economy brings the awareness of choices and that’s what makes life frustrating for rural youth. To know that there is the possibility of a whole new life even as you stare anxiously at the sky, knowing that one good rain is what stands between you and a pakka roof!

An article in Mint today says that Jaimesh Ramesh is claiming that the MNREGA has reduced the incidence of distress migration. If that is true, I am heartened. Passing by mofussil towns, garbage overflowing their open drains, I find myself in a cynical mood. How do politicians dare to ask for votes when even the most basic needs of people are not met? How will migration mean better opportunities if our mofussil towns see no investment and growth? Its obvious our metros are sinking and migration adds to the stress. And is stemming distress migration via government dole outs sustainable when there is inadequate commitment to creating a real and sustainable rural economy?

We city dwellers would do well to constantly remind ourselves of how closely our lives are interlinked with the rural. It isn’t someone else’s problem what happens in India’s villages. It’s ours too!

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