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India's burgeoning cities attract new migrants

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-09-05

CHENNAI (India) - This southern city, long known as a centre for classical Carnatic music and the Bharata Natyam dance, is celebrating the 350th anniversary of its founding.

Most residents of this capital of Tamil Nadu state will contend, however, that their metropolis is even older, dating back to antiquity. Its age doesn't matter, though, because Chennai - formerly known by its British founders as Madras - is economically thriving and a place sought by professionals from all over India because of booming opportunities and the relatively low cost of living. The heat and humidity doesn't deter migrants either: the late Indian poet Dom Moraes famously called Chennai as being "on the hinges of hell."

Neither does it matter that the Tamil Nadu administration of Chief Minister Jaya Lalitha - a former actress - is reported to be so corrupt that, as the local saying goes, gratuities need to be paid to get officials to accept bribes so that they could approve projects such as traffic flyovers and dazzling new office buildings. What does matter is that economic growth in this state of more than 64 million people is complementing - and competing with - progress in neighbouring southern states like Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, all of which have benefited from the technology boom of recent years.

"There's a cross fertilisation among Indian states by professionals as never before," said Prof. Nitin Desai, a former Indian Finance Secretary and currently a professor at the London School of Economics. "There's always been migration from poor states like Bihar by itinerant labourers toward states like Punjab and Gujarat, especially during the harvest season. But the high mobility of skilled professionals is a relatively new phenomenon."

This wave of migration toward states that are perceived as progressive inevitably means that some regions of India - which has 29 states and seven federal territories - are developing faster than others. The four southern states - Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu - have each registered annual growth rates of more than 10 percent, substantially more than the national average of seven percent.

Similarly, the industrial state of Maharashtra on India's west coast is doing well economically. So is Punjab, long considered the granary of India. Now, according to Mr Rana Gurmit Singh Sodhi, Political Secretary to the state's Chief Minister, Mr Amarinder Singh, Punjab's cities such as the capital of Chandigarh are rapidly developing technology centres - and thus attracting new waves of talented professionals from other states.

India's economically progressive states are so confident of sustaining their economic development that they have opened trade offices in Southeast Asian countries, and in Europe and the United States, to woo foreign investors. They have opened new universities that specialise in the curricula of contemporary globalisation - computer science and business administration. They have expanded call centres that cater to multinational companies, creating additional job opportunities not only for locals but also Indians from other states - particularly the economically backward areas of the so-called "cow belt" of Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

"I'm surprised at the number of Indian professionals settled overseas who've expressed interest in returning to their homeland," said Mr Jagdish Tytler, India's Minister for Overseas Indians Affairs.

They are heading toward not only the traditional centres of technological excellence such as Bangalore in Karnataka state and Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, but also cities that heretofore did not have major technology campuses such as Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, Ahmedabad in Gujarat state, and Pune, a small city south of Mumbai. Pune, in fact, used to be long considered a small resort community; like other towns that have burgeoned into cities, its population grew exponential as industries like Bajaj Automobiles and others moved in because of low cost and a highly educated population.

No one knows, however, just how many Indian professionals actually migrate toward economically progressive states. Officials at the Ministry of Labour in New Delhi say their guess is at least a million each year from within and outside India. That figure may be perhaps on the high side because India's total labour force - of both skilled and unskilled workers - is around 300 million, and the national unemployment rate is around 15 percent.

But the figures for the annual migration of seasonal unskilled labourers are more reliable: about 10 million. That's almost the same number of people who crossed borders between India and Pakistan when the British carved the two countries out of India in 1947.
Says Mr P. Sainath, a development specialist who has studied migration patterns within India: "There will be Biharis in Punjab or Assam. Oriyas in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh. People from Tamil Nadu on the road crews of Mumbai. Workers from Rajasthan struggling in Gujarat. Those from north Karnataka will be scouring Maharashtra. Adivasis from Madhya Pradesh will be in the brick kilns of Haryana. That's an incomplete list. There will be countless millions of them, forced to scrape out a living away from home."
Mr Sainath says that "distress migrations have risen since the early 1990s, and exploded since the late 1990s, with the collapse of rural employment."
A decade ago, the National Commission on Rural Labour said that there were "more than 10 million circular migrants in the rural areas alone. These include an estimated 4.5 million inter-state migrants and six million intra-state migrants."
Partly as a result of such seasonal migration, and partly on account of rising unemployment in rural areas, the populations of India's major cities have swollen considerably in recent years. In Mumbai - which already is India's biggest city with more than 14 million people, half of whom live in slums - some 10,000 people arrive each month in search of jobs, which are scarce.
Some of them are young women who seek careers in Mumbai's film industry; many of them are eventually forced into prostitution, according to Mrs Bakul R. Patel, a prominent social worker. "Bollywood dreams have a way of quickly turning into nightmares for these women," Mrs Patel said.
Cities like Mumbai and New Delhi are also proving nightmares of a different kind. "The roads, the municipal services, the infrastructure - these are increasingly becoming intolerable," said Ms Niti Malhotra, She spoke on a mobile phone from her: she had been stuck in traffic for more than an hour on the way from her home to her office at Pragati Maidan, where large trade fairs are held in New Delhi. In earlier years, her journey would take less than 30 minutes. "Now I spend anything up to two hours in my car each way," Ms Malhotra said.
Her experience is hardly out of the ordinary. New Delhi, a city of some 12 million people, is estimated to have 22 million automobiles. Traffic conditions have become so bad that they've spawned numerous cases of road rage, according to officials of the city's Municipal Corporation.
Just a couple of days ago, for example, Mr Babulal Jain, a well-connected local businessman, was taking a foreign visitor around the city. Their car was suddenly cut off at an intersection by another car, one with licence plates from neighbouring Haryana state. Mr Jain's companion, a New York businessman, instinctively got out of the car and went across to confront the offenders.
He was startled by the fact that the car's four occupants each produced revolvers and aimed them at him.
Mr Jain quickly advised his friend to return to his car. Fortunately, there was no shooting.
But Delhi officials say that each year more than 2,000 murders can be attributed to road rage.
Contributing to bad traffic conditions in cities like New Delhi is the fact that formidable infrastructure construction is being undertaken. Delhi's Chief Minister, Mrs Sheila Dikshit, has embarked on a program of relieving traffic congestion by building dozens of flyovers. A new underground commuter railway system, called the Delhi Metro, is also being built. Delhi's infrastructure master plan isn't expected to be completed for another five years - years during which most city residents expect to see more chaotic traffic.
Bad traffic notwithstanding in cities like New Delhi and Mumbai, the migrants keep coming. This has led to a dramatic escalation in real estate prices, and in rentals.
In Mumbai, for instance, a two-bedroom apartment in the coveted southern section of the city cannot be bought for less than the equivalent of US$1 million. Renting a similar apartment would cost more than US$2,000 a month. In New Delhi, rentals are lower - but not by much. An American business executive recently rented a three-bedroom apartment in the suburb of Dwarka for the equivalent of US$1,800.
He also had to pay what Indians call "key money." Plainly put, this is a bribe to the landlord, usually handled by a real-estate broker. The businessman was also required to pay three months' rent as a security deposit, and another three months' rent in advance. Fortunately for him, his company picked up the tab.
Mrs Ayesha Dahra, a young business executive at the fashion firm of Satya Paul, wasn't so lucky. A single mother of two children, she simply couldn't afford an apartment in the city. So she moved to the distant suburb of Gurgaon, from where her daily commute by car to her office in New Delhi takes at least two hours each way.
"I'd be lucky to get to spend more than a few minutes each evening with my kids," Mrs Dahra said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they considered me an absentee mother."
One of her neighbours in Gurgaon is Mr Sunil Ghorawat, who returned to India after acquiring a master's degree in business administration from Case Western University. He became part of the water business, a global US$400 billion industry that's growing rapidly because of the increasing need for clean water in industrial and Third World countries alike. Indian cities, in particular, are notorious for water shortages. As urban populations grow because of migration, these shortages are becoming more acute by the year.
Even though he lives in a fancy apartment, Mr Ghorawat was dismayed to find that the water situation was completely chaotic in Gurgaon. On some days, no water is available. Eight federal government ministries in India are entrusted with drinking and waste water, their rivalries and incompetence resulting in a situation where more than 600 million people - more than half of India's population of 1.1 billion - have no access to safe potable water. The United Nations, in a tough report issued not long ago, ranked India 133rd among 180 countries in water availability.
The same UN report said that in Indian urban homes, some 15 litres of water is used in a single flush toilet each day - while the world average is only five litres per flush.
According to Mr Ghorawat, 90 percent of patients in urban Indian hospitals suffered from water-borne diseases such as severe diarrhea - and that such diseases claimed 2,000 lives daily, deaths that were entirely preventable through controlling the 13 billion litres of industrial effluent and 23 billion litres of domestic waste water that daily polluted India's diminishing water supply.
"It was - and continues to be - a real horror show," the 35-year Mr Ghorawat, who stayed on in India to start his own enterprise, Everything About Water, said. "The government needs not only to be a better enforcement mechanism for existing anti-pollution laws, but also work better in tandem with the private sector to improve water supply. But it's not happening."
It isn't happening in much of the Third World, too. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 3 billion people, almost half of the current global population of 6.1 billion, lack access to sanitation as a result of water shortages. Most are in Africa and Asia. Another 2 billion people depend on groundwater worldwide but especially in countries with rapidly depleting groundwater resources such as India, China, West Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, the former Soviet Union and the western United States.
In all, 80 countries - half the number in the world - are experiencing serious water problems, or what's known as "water stress," which occurs when water consumption exceeds 10 per cent of renewable freshwater resources. In another 20 years, two-thirds of the world's population will be living under water stressed conditions because of a 40 percent increase in global water use.
While traditional inefficiencies might explain poor governmental performance in providing clean water, controlling contamination of groundwater and enforcing anti-pollution laws, the private sector in India and elsewhere is beset by a different set of problems.
One problem is that of fragmentation in the industry. Former giants like France's Vivendi are getting out of the water business because of poor management and over-diversification into other industries not related to water. While private companies now operate in 75 countries - up from barely a dozen just a decade ago - their competition often results in overlap. Still, the water business is so lucrative - in India alone, the annual US$4 billion industry is growing at the rate of 15 percent - that multinational companies such as the US's General Electric and Germany's Siemens are entering the field.
Another problem is that of lack of coordination between private companies, local governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In India, for example, NGOs and local governments receive nearly US$1 billion each year from American and European foundations and governments to create an infrastructure for providing water in rural areas. But corruption and neglect are so pervasive that the country's water problems are increasing.
"Our policymakers haven't understood the concept of sustainable development," says Dr. Kamal Chenoy, a professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "So they don't take issues like the environment very seriously, especially in urban areas."
Politicians, Professor Chenoy adds, much rather prefer mega projects such as dams "because there's so much money in it for them, and for their favored contractors."
One such mega project that's in the works is the linking of India's major rivers, with a massive grid of canals that would provide better irrigation as well as potable water for cities. But a popular activist, Ms Medha Patkar, who claims that the government should first implement nearly 500 existing irrigation and potable water projects, is vigourously opposing this.
"Again, this is a top-down approach that our policymakers favour," Professor Chenoy said. "There's little thought given to matters such as rural dislocation, and water overruns."
There's also the question of intra-regional conflict over water resources. For example, the southern state of Karnataka refused to channel water from the Cauvery River to neighbouring Tamil Nadu because of political differences among state leaders. It finally did so only after there was overflooding in the Cauvery. Similarly, the northern states of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan are locked in a bitter dispute over linking the Sutlej and Jamuna Rivers. The Punjab state legislature recently annulled inter-state agreements on the sharing of waters with Haryana and Rajasthan.
One would think that these states had better sense than to engage in costly political disputes over water when their overflowing cities lacked the basic amenity. But Indian history is replete with such disputes - often instigated by local officials at centres of pilgrimage who complained that visiting worshippers consumed local resources without paying for them.
Pilgrimages, in fact, explain much of historical migration in India. The major pilgrimage, for India's majority Hindus at least, is in the northern areas of the country. Benares and Hardwar, for instance, sit on the banks of the Ganges, considered the holiest of India's 12 major rivers. Pilgrims from all over India have trekked for hundreds of years to these sites.
That is one reason behind ethnic tolerance in most Indian states. Indians are simply accustomed to strangers in their midst.
This tradition gets occasionally breached, however. In Mumbai, the Hindu fundamentalist Shiv Sena - a political party launched by Mr Bal Thackeray, a cartoonist - had initiated a campaign of "Maharashtra for Maharashtrians." That meant that non-natives of Maharashtra state, such as Tamils and others, were to be ejected.
But when the Shiv Sena found out how much Maharashtra state's economy depended on migrants - both professional and unskilled - it abandoned its chauvinistic movement. Now it calls itself a secular movement dedicated to promoting economic growth and social progress in India's cities.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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