Villages devoid of young men in modern India

May 19, 2009
*Special to asia!

One of the most common scenes on Indian trains are men with their belongings on their backs, heading out to the big cities in search of a better life. Many of them come from the state of Bihar, where moving miles away from home for work is the only way for their families to simply subsist at home.

As India Votes 2009

Illustration: Vikash Sharma

Bihar is one of India's poorest states. It has been a deep Hindi heartland of India and when we arrived, it was like arriving into the 1930s. It was probably one of the most under-developed states, there was hardly any infrastructure. It has received some aid over the last couple of years and there are some roads and there is a train station and airport, but it has really fallen behind the rest of India. There are no jobs in Bihar, so the main theme in Bihar was migration.

Everyday, tens of thousands of people would leave Bihar for places like Mumbai or Delhi. Most of the people live below the poverty line and they have to find some way to feed their families. It is estimated that one in ten people is a migrant in Bihar and so when you go to the train station, you just see images of people, young men and old men, packed with their bags and belongings, just squatting on the platforms, waiting for a train to take them to their destinations, where they are going to be alone and afraid and trying to carve out a living for themselves. They would have left their families behind and have no choice because this is the only way that they can earn a living. .

We went with one of these migrants from Patna, Raj Kumar, halfway on his journey on a local train that he was taking on his way to Mumbai. We talked to him about why he wanted to go to Mumbai and leave his family behind.

He was quite distraught. He said, “Look, I have a mum, a dad, a wife, two children and a little sister. I wouldn't leave them if I didn't have to but without me, they won't survive.”

We met so many other young man like that on the train. When we spoke to Raj Kumar, we asked him if we could go back to his village and meet his family. He gave us the address and we hunted down the village which is two hours outside of Patna, the capital of Bihar, and the further we got into the village district, the more we realised the level of poverty in this state. I have to say that India has a lot of poor places but in my experience this was the poorest on our trip. There were really dry and gusty desert plains and when we finally found his village. it was a village of old men and women, mothers, wives and children. There were no young men there because they had all gone away. It was really strange.

I have been to so many Indian villages before and there is always a level of activity but this was a village of women and old men and little children. Every family had the same story – our husbands, our sons, they are in Mumbai, they are in Delhi, they are sending us 4,000 rupees or $100 a month, and we bought his new cow and so on.

It has to be said that this money isn't making them rich. That money is making them survive. It is not the same case like the way they are in for example the Philippines where they send money back and the next generation can maybe move up. In this situation (in Bihar), these people are literally living from hand to mouth. They need that money, they can't afford to live without it. I think that distinction has to be made.

When we spoke to Raj Kumar's family, it was a really tragic story. At the state level, what the government has been trying to do over the last years has been to try to attract investment, so that they can increase jobs in Bihar, but it has been really difficult.

People have a perception of Bihar and investors have a perception of Bihar as being very backwards and a problem in terms of the law and order situation. Unfortunately it has been nicknamed the “Kidnap capital of India” where people do get kidnapped for money because the situation there is so out-of-control in so many ways. It is much better than it used to be, and the more development the place gets, the more we will see things improve.

I spoke to someone from the World Bank who is trying to get investment into Bihar. He said to be honest, foreign investors do not even think of Bihar as being on their radar. They just think it is too dangerous to come.

The victims in this whole situation are people like Raj Kumar and his family.

Bihar historically, it was part of a bigger state, and it was divided. The part with most of the minerals is kolaja and Bihar was kind of the unlucky half. It was bad governance and Bihar has been riddled with cash politics, so the leaders that were voted into power, were voted into power due to the caste that they belonged to.

The caste system in India is a social structure that has been handed down for thousands of years. Though it has been officially outlawed, it is still extremely prevalent and what it means is that these leaders could tap into this sense of belonging amongst the illiterate and the rural people and say, “Look I am from your clan, vote me in!” rather than having to answer “ What are you doing for us? Have you built us new roads, have you built us new schools?”

These are really simple people living out in the middle of a desert, and it is bizarre how far removed they are from modernity. Perhaps one of the things that struck me on this trip is that within this country, you have a vibrant and ambitious city like Mumbai, and in the heart of the country, you have Patna, where you have people just a couple of hours out, who when we showed them our video cameras - we showed Raj Kumar's mum the tape that we filmed of her son the day before and his wife as well - and they were amazed. They had never seen anything like this and the children, they were agog with amazement when they saw the camera.

You have to understand that this is a completely different India. I think that is one of the things that have come out of this trip. It is a cliché but there are so many Indias. The challenge for any political leader or party at a national level is to try to bring these interests and concerns together and it is really difficult. I think that is the reason we have seen the emergence of these regional parties. The national parties cannot appeal to that man or that woman in that village near Patna because they just do not understand their concerns. This is why there are national parties tying up with regional parties and I think that is a trend that we will see in Indian politics for another ten years.


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karishma vaswani

Karishma Vaswani presents India Business Report for BBC World News. The Mumbai-based correspondent has interviewed numerous political and business leaders in the region. Karishma's family hails from Sindh and she was educated at Warwick University in England where she read English and American Literature. Karishma will be travelling with the BBC India Election train for the entire journey across Northern India.