Posts Tagged ‘migration’

The Cosmopolitisation of Chennai

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

Mint, 2 September 2014

Of all the Indian metros, Chennai is the one I am least familiar with. I’ve visited it perhaps only four or five times in my life, and the last time was—if I remember correctly—a decade ago. So when I had to spend three days in the city last week, I went with the usual prejudices that many Indians who come from the north of the Vindhyas have about Chennai.

On my earlier visits, I had found it difficult to communicate with the average citizen—for instance auto rickshaw drivers and shopkeepers—because they insisted on speaking to me in Tamil, and I knew not a word of it. After a dispute over the fare with an auto driver—all I could understand was that he wanted to charge me more than what showed on the meter—I simply gave up and started to walk away. He came running after me, and explained in perfect Hindi exactly how much more he wanted. We then haggled and settled on a sum, and we parted on what I can’t honestly describe as friendly terms.

This may have been entirely my deluded suspicion, but I kept getting the feeling on every visit that I was being overcharged for everything all the time, because I was seen as a North Indian non-Tamil speaker.

During one visit, a Tamilian colleague of mine took me out for dinner to a posh restaurant, then threw a fit when he noticed that Urdu ghazals were being played to entertain the diners, had a long argument with the manager, and dragged me out in a huff, muttering about “cultural invasion” and “federalism”. We went back to my hotel and ordered room service.

In the mid-1990s, a Hyderabadi friend of mine, who had been posted in Chennai by a multinational and spent four years there, suddenly upped and went off to the US for higher studies. He seemed the most unlikely candidate to be interested in a PhD, so I called him and asked why he was moving. “If I have to live in a foreign land, I may as well live in a real foreign land,” was his reply.

So, yes, with apologies to all my Tamilian friends and readers, I carried a lot of baggage—whether justified or unjustified—when I made my way through the Kamaraj Terminal of Chennai Airport.

The first change I noticed was that I could ask questions in Hindi and get replies in the same language. The second—when I reached my hotel—was that most of the staff were non-Tamil; in fact, many of them could hardly speak Tamil.

When I found the room service phone number engaged for a long time, I walked up to the reception and placed my dinner order. The Tamilian gentleman at the desk picked up the phone, called up the kitchen and relayed the order in Hindi. When the food arrived, it was brought by a young man from Bolangir in Odisha.

In fact, over the three days, nearly every hotel staff member I interacted with was from either Odisha or Bihar or the Northeast.

For lunch, I was taken to a popular restaurant. The walls were covered with large framed black and white photos of Hindi film stars of days gone by: Raj Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar, Madhubala, Sadhana, Rajesh Khanna. The large plasma TV was tuned to a Hindi music channel. Salman Khan cavorted with his heroine on the streets of some picturesque European town. None of the customers seemed to mind. In fact, they took no notice.

I had gone to Chennai for a business meeting—and the four men I was meeting were all Tamilians, though one had spent much of his life in the North, and the other was settled in Bangalore. So I couldn’t help but ask. I had always assumed that Chennai was the least cosmopolitan of our metros. But clearly, the city I was encountering on this trip was not so at all. What had happened?

Various answers emerged. The software industry that had grown very fast in the city over the last decade had brought in thousands of people from other states. There had also been massive migration from the North and Northeast of blue-collar workers. This was not surprising. It had been predicted by a two-decade-old Planning Commission study. With the northern states, especially Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, having much higher population growth rates and much lower employment opportunities than the southern states, a shift in population was bound to happen.

But the Planning Commission member who had spoken to me about the study had not been too sure what the ultimate impact of this migration would be. How would the sons of the soil in the southern states react to this influx? The study could not help but mention the possibility that if this migration continued unabated, India could be headed towards dangerous and widespread social disruption and violence. The only way this conflagration could be avoided would be if population growth rates went down in the poorer northern states and employment opportunities rose dramatically.

However, from what I was seeing around me, that feared crisis appeared very remote indeed.

“All the menial jobs in Chennai are now done by the migrants,” said one of my friends. “So what are the Tamilians doing?” I asked. “Have they moved up in life and graduated to higher-level work?”

The replies I got were surprisingly cynical. “They are happily living off Amma’s welfare state,” was one view. “They eat at the Amma Canteens where meals are provided at extremely subsidised rates. They collect all their food rations from the public distribution system (PDS) shops and sell them in the market to the migrants. They make enough money. They are not interested in working any more. Life is easy.”

“When my family used to make its annual trip home to Chennai every year when I was a child,” said the friend who had been brought up in the North, “in the morning, when I woke up in the train and looked out, I knew instantly that I was in Tamil Nadu. There were rows of children in neat school uniforms carrying their bags walking to school. There were hundreds of women walking purposefully to their workplaces. I still remember the look on their faces—they were looking forward to doing their day’s work sincerely and well; for them work was truly worship. I don’t see that so much any more.”

So what happened? But here the conversation meandered. Both the major political parties in the state have focused only on welfare schemes to win votes. This has resulted in a big attitudinal change: from a strong work ethic to extreme consumerism. The only culture that Tamil Nadu has now is the mainstream Tamil film. Could I think of a single national-level cultural figure who has emerged from Tamil Nadu in the last two decades?

At some point in the conversation, the word Punjabification made its appearance. Everything is getting Punjabified, all my four friends lamented. Even our weddings now feature that Punjabi staple, Ladies Sangeet, a tradition that the Barjatyas, Chopras and Johars have spent lavishly on in their blockbuster films.

As a Bengali, I could empathise with that. Bengali popular culture, even clothes and ceremonies are more Punjabified than ever before, and there’s no end to the trend in sight.

But, I said, playing the Devil’s Advocate, hasn’t all this also made Chennai much less insular, much more cosmopolitan? Yes, a more cosmopolitan, inclusive Chennai is certainly a good thing and should be welcomed, my friends agreed. But not at the cost of Tamil culture and traditions. Even our cuisine is getting Punjabified, complained a friend. That certainly is intolerable.

I left Chennai with mixed emotions. I knew that I would now feel much more comfortable in Chennai than I had before. But I suspected that the middle-class Tamilian is beginning to feel less at home.

An unreal sense of security

Monday, January 16th, 2012

Mint, 13 January 2012

A recent BusinessWeek piece on the elderly in China led me to do some research. After all, we in India, at the drop of a hat, brag about 65% of our population being below 35 years, and the “demographic dividend” and so on. What’s going on in China, and how will the demographics of the two countries compare in the coming decades?

According to projections made by the United Nations (UN), China’s population will peak at about 1.4 billion around 2030, and then start dropping, when the country will feel the full impact of the one-child policy and growing urbanization (the country’s fertility rate fell below replacement rate in the 1990s). In the 2080s, the number will drop to below a billion, and by 2100, there will be less than 950 million Chinese.

India’s population will hit its peak around 2060, at about 1.6 billion (though fertility rates have dropped, it’s still 2.6 births per Indian woman per lifetime, higher than the replacement rate), and then begin dipping, to end the century at around 1.4 billion, making India the most populous nation on the earth by a margin of nearly half a billion. In fact, the UN expects India’s population to cross China’s by 2020.

But what is really fascinating is the projected composition of these populations. By 2030, while India will remain a youthful country, China will be greying. The Indian median age will be about 32 years (up from the current 26), while China’s will be 43 (it’s 35 right now). While Indians 65 years or older will form about 9% of the population, it’ll be 17% for China. According to the Vienna Institute of Demography (VID), by 2030, dependency ratio in China will be nearly 0.3, that is, every 10 Chinese of working age (15-64 years) will have to support three people of 65 years of age or older. By 2050, the ratio will cross 0.5. As VID puts it: “Over the coming decades, the world’s biggest national population will experience some of the most rapid and most massive processes of population ageing in world history.”

In 1990, China had nearly two and a half times as many relatively educated young men and women (aged 15–24 years, with a high-school education or better) as India. But, India should overtake China on this aspect by 2020. By 2030, according to VID, India’s pool of relatively well-educated young people will exceed 125 million—more than any other country on earth. China will have fewer than 75 million. And if one looks at all the people of working age with a high-school education or better, India’s number was only a third of China’s in 1990, but is set to outstrip China by 2040. Indeed, this number for India is estimated to jump 80% in the coming two decades, from 360 million now to 660 million.

Says Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute: “No other place on earth will see anything like this sort of jump in relatively educated manpower.”

And if we in India are ashamed of our gender imbalance, China is affected far more by the curse of female foeticide. The 2011 census estimates 107 Indian men for every 100 women. The 2000 census figure for China was a shocking 119 boys for every 100 girls. In 2004, the Chinese government brought in tough laws banning selective abortions of female foetuses. But demographers project that the imbalance will start slowly decreasing only by 2025-30. “In less than a generation, a fifth or more of Chinese men in their late 30s or early 40s may be essentially unmarriageable,” says Eberstadt. “This…may presage unpredictable social strains or political pressures.”

All these numbers look awesome for India, right? Well, here’s what I think these statistics may not be showing up in any way. These numbers are all averages—they do not take into account the huge disparities existing within the country; in fact, to the close observer, they could portend even wider iniquity. The averages do not reflect the massive material poverty we are mired in. India’s public healthcare system is at least 25 years behind China’s. About a third of India’s working age population is illiterate, while almost no one in that group in China is. The statistics for “relatively educated” does not in any way indicate quality of education and employability.

These seemingly rosy projections could also imply crippling regional skews in our developmental future. While some states will excel, others—and these are bound to be the more populous ones—could keep lagging. This can only lead to greater and greater migration from the poorer states to the richer ones. This has already been on for decades, and we have seen the social tensions being generated, which are being exploited to the hilt by cynical politicians. Unless India can manage to get the laggard states to catch up, we may be sitting on a socio-political time bomb that could just blow all the best-laid plans and economic dreams sky-high.

What should be bothering us is not China, but our internal irregularities. For India, arithmetic averages may hide far more than they disclose.