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Brothers eagerly join India's urban march

Social Movement: An economic migration is under way in which people are fleeing villages for life in the cities

By John Stackhouse
First published Nov. 24, 1994


Ram, Ashok and Rajinder Kumar are part of India's biggest social movement of the late 20th century.

The three brothers have joined the urban revolution.

As the youngest of five sons of a Biharipur farming family, the brothers have decided that the small village has no future for them, so they have moved to India's booming capital region, 300 kilometres to the west.

"Jobs are easy to find here," said Ram, 23, showing off the $15-a-month room that the three brothers share along with Ram's wife, Guddi, and one-year-old daughter, Rakhi. "Anyone can find a job here."

That most industrial jobs in Delhi pay about 25 cents an hour does not faze the brothers. In the big city, they each save about $30 a month; in the village, they had no savings at all.

In a city of 8.4 million that attracts about 200,000 newcomers a year, the Biharipur brothers, sipping Coca-Cola in their industrial colony, appear to delight in urban living.

Through their rooftop flat's single window dangle two important cords, one for electricity, the other for cable television. Under the window is a cooler (cost: $70); above it a 14-inch black-and-white television ($75). And illuminating the room, a 40-watt light bulb.

Downstairs, a neighbour has tap water which the brothers share. No more hand pumps.

Down the narrow alley, there are community latrines. No more fields.

And at the end of their block is a market full of vegetable carts, sweet shops, restaurants, juice stands, jewellers and cigarette stands. No more five-kilometre walks to town.

In Biharipur, the brothers left behind verdant rice fields, mango groves and fresh air. In Delhi, they have found cinemas, markets and an Asian version of multicultural television. "We don't understand a word of it," Ram said, "but we still like it."

There are more serious advantages to city life, too. When Ram's wife, Guddi, last year gave birth to Rakhi, she did so in a private nursing home in Delhi, paid for with his factory savings. In Biharipur, she would have delivered the baby in the family's adobe hut, attended only by the village's untrained midwife.

Thousands of economic migrants such as Ram and his brothers pour into Delhi every week. By 2001, the city's population should reach 12 million. In 1981, it was half that number.

Ram joined India's urban march in 1991, when a family friend secured him a job packing crates at the city's Campa-Cola factory. His younger brothers soon followed.

With the opening of the Indian market to foreign competitors such as Coca-Cola, the Campa-Cola plant was doomed. This summer it laid off its Delhi workers, including the Biharipur brothers. But with investment money gushing in the potholed streets of Delhi, Ram and his brothers quickly found other work at a nearby plastics-recycling factory, where they can earn 1,400 rupees ($60) a month, 250 rupees more than they made at the bottling plant. Best of all, the income is stable.

"In the village," Ram said, "too much or too little rain can change the whole year. There's a steady income here in the city. There are many companies. In the village, it is hard to fill your stomach."

What secured jobs for the brothers in the big city was a Grade 9 education - the minimum for any decent-paying factory job. They can read, write, multiply and divide, and they carry themselves with a confidence lacking in many of the other young men in Biharipur who did not finish primary school.

"After so much education, why sit at home and work in the fields?" asked Ashok. "It would be a waste of time, so I decided to try my luck in Delhi."

Now ensconced in the city, the brothers return by crowded bus to Biharipur for the big annual festivals of Diwali and Holi, and for family weddings. And always bearing gifts of new clothing for their parents.

Five months ago, at the height of the summer, the three brothers sat around their family home in Biharipur, waiting for Ashok's wedding to a girl from a nearby village - a girl none of them had seen before.

Their aging father, Mathura, who arranged the marriage in Ashok's absence, acknowledges that there are advantages to life in Biharipur: "You know the people you're working with. You can see your work grow. In the city, you have to work through the night sometimes. You have to say 'Yes' to the boss all the time. Here, I'm my own boss."

But Mathura, as he feeds the family's single cow, says there is no room for his three younger sons.

He has two older sons to work in the fields. "The younger ones need work," he said, "although I would have been happier if they had government jobs. Government jobs are permanent. A private job, they can fire you."

Dressed in blue slacks and a neatly pressed white T-shirt, Ram looks as though he does not belong in the village any more. His wife, Guddi, who is expected to stay inside the family compound when she visits Biharipur, is not happy about village life, either.

She prefers the city, and she wants Ashok's new wife, a village girl, to move with them back to Delhi, where she alone cares for the three brothers.

"It's up to her husband to decide where she will go," Guddi said. "But really, it would be nice to have another woman in Delhi. She would like Delhi."

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