Small city, big dreams

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Small city, big dreams


India’s cities are growing very quickly and young people want to live in them. Snigdha Poonam writes about how there are fewer and fewer opportunities in Ranchi.

Anoop Kumar had three minutes to talk about why English is important. He knew what he wanted to say. He had practised for days. ‘It is a global language – 400 million people in the world speak it,’ the young man began. ‘It opens a world of new opportunity. It gives you a better chance of getting a job at a multinational company. It will help you in travel if you have to go to another country for a job,’ he said. The English language, he said, is the way to progress. ‘Making progress feels great,’ he finished, and his 50 fellow students at a coaching centre for spoken English applauded.

Twenty-four-year-old Kumar has made a lot of progress in the past 10 years, but he is still waiting for that feeling of progress. In 2012, he left his village, Kanhachatti, in eastern Jharkhand, one of India’s poorest states. He moved to the state’s capital, Ranchi, which seemed a place of big opportunities. He was a student at one of India’s best colleges for technical education in the city, the Birla Institute of Technology. He studied software engineering, which was certain to bring success in today’s India. Then he began looking for a job in India’s $160-billion information technology industry.

He still hasn’t found one.

Most people come to Lalpur, a crowded part of Ranchi, and they are looking for ways to make progress. The coaching centre Kumar attends is one of hundreds there. Their slogans are everywhere:

So many opportunities

Get trained, get a job

Earn rupees 1 lakh every month

Lalpur also shows them what is possible after they make progress. For years there was nowhere to relax and meet friends in Lalpur. There were vegetarian restaurants and no-talk-just-eat sweet shops. You couldn’t go to the only Western cafe because Rs150 ($2) was too much to pay for a cup of coffee. Today Lalpur’s shopping mall, cineplex, and multi-cuisine restaurants are for those who earn Rs1 lakh (100,000 rupees or $1,417), or more, a month. A French baguette at the delicatessen costs more than Rs150.

Anoop Kumar does not have money for this. He receives Rs4,000 ($56) from his family every month. From this money he must pay the rent for his single room and the fee for the coaching centres he attends to improve his opportunities. ‘There is so much pressure on me. My father retires from his teaching job at the village school next year. Then I will have to take charge of the family. I run in any direction in which I feel there is hope,’ he says.

‘Everyone in my classes is looking for a job,’ says Moin Khan, Kumar’s 30-year-old trainer. He came to Ranchi from a village in Jharkhand 13 years ago when ‘he did not know ABC’. He says the city is no longer the best place for the many migrants who arrive here. ‘Ranchi is slower now. Industry is not coming. In January 2019 the big government job fair gave twenty-five thousand people interview letters. None of them got a job – at least no-one I knew.’

I am amused every time someone says Ranchi is small. The city has nearly 1.2 million people with a floating population of 50,000 to 60,000. Many people who live here haven’t seen a bigger place. It is the biggest city, and the capital, of Jharkhand, a state with more than 30,000 villages. People come here not only from across the state but from across central India – to study, to work, and to be rich and famous.

Since 1998, when my family moved to Ranchi from a smaller city in Jharkhand, things have changed. It’s a different Ranchi I see when I visit home every year. There are apartments on farmland a long way outside of the city. There are shopping malls where there were corner shops, and the streets are full of cars. I also see the cities in the city. People have moved away because they can’t afford the new prices of the new apartments. The shopping malls are taking market space from street sellers, and the cars take up so much of the streets that no-one can plan public transport. In 2016, they chose Ranchi to be a Smart City as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s idea of cities with sustainable development, investment opportunities, and good economies. ‘If you come here again in 2022, you will find a different city. You will wonder if it is the same city,’ Ranchi’s mayor said. After three years the results are mountains of waste in the streets and thick dust in the skies. It is difficult to see the economic model in Ranchi.

No jobs that people want or can get

At present, the state creates very few jobs, and only a few people want the kind of jobs the city’s private companies offers. ‘No-one wants to work for a call centre for Rs10,000 ($141) a month. When I tell my students about jobs at a call centre, they say they don’t want to make phone calls for a living,’ says Khan.

They want to work at global companies coding software and working on management solutions, but those jobs are too far away. With a good degree in software engineering, Anoop Kumar couldn’t find the right job in Ranchi, so he went all the way to Bangalore and one or two global IT companies gave him an interview. ‘I did badly at the interviews because of poor English,’ he says. He returned from Bangalore, but didn’t go back to his village.


A student in Moin Khan’s spoken English coaching class in Lalpur. Photo: SNIGDHA POONAM

Kumar doesn’t want to be a teacher at a poor village school for a salary of Rs30,000 ($425). He wants a ‘technical’ job that pays at least twice that. But that’s not the only reason he won’t go back to Kanhachatti. Kumar comes from a family of Dalits. Hinduism sees Dalits as the lowest caste or class of people. Most of them live not inside the villages but outside. They can’t use the facilities others use publicly, like schools and hand pumps. They work on the farms but do not usually own them. If you rebel against this system, there are risks, like economic problems and even violence.

But thousands rebel even with the risks and follow a plan for progress: education and migration to cities. Kumar’s grand¬father worked on someone else’s farm, his father got educated and got a government job, and Kumar took another step of progress.

This year’s jobs

Anoop Kumar has found in the city a lot of what he hoped for – energy, diversity, anonymity – but he hasn’t found what he needs the most: opportunities.

This is his seventh year in Ranchi, and he doesn’t know how much longer he can stay. ‘They stay in Ranchi year after year and tell their families back in the villages that they are “preparing” for something,’ says Moin Khan. Often that is a job in government. ‘People no longer want a Bachelor’s in Technology and a Master’s in Business Administration. Engineering and management colleges in the city are shutting.’

But the coaching centres in Lalpur are busy with news of government jobs. In June 2019 all of them were coaching students for exams for jobs in the railways. Twenty-five million people took exams for 90,000 jobs in the Indian railways in 2018. In the years before, thousands of people lost their jobs in global information technology companies in the big cities – Bangalore, Pune, Gurgaon, Hyderabad. They protested in the streets.

This week, 29 July 2019, Lalpur is full of notices about jobs with state banks. Next there will be jobs for clerical staff in government offices. That is the entrance exam Anoop Kumar is preparing for. He hopes the English language classes will help him this time. He has learned the ‘common mistakes in English’ he will need to correct in the written exam. If he gets an interview, he will introduce himself just as he learned in Moin Khan’s classes: as ‘sincere, honest, and hard-working’. If he passes the exam, he will probably find a job as a computer operator in a government office. It is a technical job after all. What about his education in software engineering, and his dreams of working for a transnational company? ‘Not everyone can get every job,’ he says.

Most people who come to Lalpur to find a job aren’t so happy when they don’t find one. Many blame others. Men blame women, Hindus blame Muslims, upper castes blame lower castes, and city kids blame country people for taking away their rights in education, jobs, and status – sometimes these are real or sometimes they imagine them. Prime minister Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) use their anger to help spread its political messages in every city and village.

‘These people have a lot of time and nothing to do. Often, they go straight from coaching centres to political meetings. Some of them have started working in the IT Cell. They get paid for spreading propaganda and attacking opponents on social media. The same political party employs them,’ says Moin Khan. The IT Cell is the technical term for the BJP’s national cyber units that employ hundreds of thousands of young and jobless people to spread its message to the Indian people. More men work for them than women. The women give up much earlier, they drop out of the race for progress for many reasons like marriage and because there are not many streetlights. The BJP did not keep its 2014 election promise to create millions of jobs, but it came back to power even stronger in May 2019. It won 303 of 543 seats in Parliament, far more than the 272 seats necessary to form a government.

Anoop Kumar did not go to even one political meeting. He ‘hates politics’ and believes politicians aren’t right for the job. Except one, he says: ‘Narendra Modi.’

Snigdha Poonam is national affairs writer with Hindustan Times in Delhi and the author of Dreamers: How young Indians are changing the world (Hurst, 2018). She writes for The Guardian, Granta, Financial Times, and The Atlantic.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)