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Small city, big dreams


Anoop Kumar had three minutes to make a speech about the ‘importance of English’. He knew what he’d be saying; he had rehearsed it word by word 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 increases your 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 continued, stressing every word. The English language, he said, is the key to progress. ‘Making progress feels great,’ he finished, drawing applause from his 50 fellow students at a coaching centre for spoken English.

Twenty-four-year-old Kumar has made a lot of progress in the past 10 years, but he is still waiting for that feeling. 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 to him a place of unlimited promise at that time. He had made it to one of India’s best colleges for technical education based in the city, the Birla Institute of Technology. He studied the subject guaranteed to bring success in today’s India: software engineering. 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 densely packed locality in the heart of Ranchi, looking for ways to progress. The coaching centre Kumar attends is one of hundreds operating in the area. Their buildings line the streets, their billboards swarm the skyline, and their slogans are scribbled on every surface, from public walls to private nameplates:

Endless possibilities

Beyond boundaries

Get trained, get hired

Earn rupees 1 lakh every month

The same neighbourhood also shows them what is possible after this progress is achieved. For years there was nowhere to ‘hang out’ in Lalpur; your only options were family-friendly vegetarian restaurants and no-talk-just-eat sweet shops. You couldn’t go to the sole Western-style cafe, either, because Rs150 ($2) was, by local standards, too much to pay for a cup of coffee. Today Lalpur’s hang-out scene – shopping mall, cineplex, multi-cuisine restaurants – is designed for those who do earn Rs1 lakh (100,000 rupees or $1,417), or above, a month. A French baguette at the local deli costs more than Rs150; a day of decadence will set one back by at least a few thousand rupees.

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

‘Everyone in my classes is looking for a job,’ says Moin Khan, Kumar’s 30-year-old trainer who himself came to Ranchi from a village in Jharkhand 13 years ago ‘not knowing ABC’. He says the city is no longer the transformative force for the migrants who continue to arrive here in hordes. ‘Ranchi has slowed down. Industry is not coming. Investor summits happen only on paper. Twenty-five thousand people were handed over interview letters in the mega job fair [organized by the government] in January. None of them got a job – at least no-one I knew.’  

I am amused every time someone refers to Ranchi as small. The city accommodates 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 encompassing 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 become rich and famous.

Since 1998, when my family moved to Ranchi from a smaller city in Jharkhand, it has been in flux. It’s a different Ranchi I see on every annual visit home: apartment complexes on farmland way outside of ‘city limits’, shopping malls where corner shops once stood, streets jammed with cars yet to be seen in Delhi. I also see the cities within the city created by this change. The apartment complexes have driven out people from entire neighbourhoods because they can’t keep up with the new property prices, the shopping malls are snatching market space from street hawkers, and the parade of cars takes up too much of the streets for anyone to plan public transport.

In 2016, Ranchi was chosen to be developed as a Smart City as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of cities defined by McKinsey-style buzz­words: sustainable development, investment destination, economic engine. ‘If you come here again in 2022, you will find a totally different city. You will wonder if it is the same city,’ Ranchi’s then mayor had proclaimed. Three years in, the most visible results of this ‘infrastructure overhaul’ are mountains of waste by the streets and a thick layer of dust under the skies. If there is an economic model in place for Ranchi, it’s hard to discern its workings.

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

Out of reach

At present, few jobs are created by the state, and there are few takers for the kind of jobs the city’s private sector has to offer. ‘No-one wants to work for a call centre for Rs10,000 ($141) a month. When I tell my students about openings [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 inventing management solutions, but they find those jobs to be either too far or too fancy or both. Out of college with a solid degree in software engineering, Anoop Kumar couldn’t find a suitable opening anywhere in Ranchi, so he went all the way to Bangalore and was interviewed at a couple of global IT companies. ‘I couldn’t make it through the interviews. I was rejected 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 makes a speech as part of the course.

Kumar doesn’t want to be a teacher at a rundown 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, whom Hinduism places at the bottom of its caste hierarchy. What they are and aren’t allowed to do is determined by this position. Most of them live not inside the villages but on the outskirts; they can’t access facilities others use publicly, from schools to hand pumps; they work on the farms but rarely own them. Rebelling against this system has repercussions, from economic ostracism to outright violence.

But thousands rebel in spite of the risks, following a template for upward mobility: education, affirmative action quotas, migration to cities. Kumar’s grand­father laboured on someone else’s farm; his father got educated and got a government job; and Kumar took another step forward.

This season’s job hunt

Anoop Kumar has found in the city a lot of what he had hoped for – agency, 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 hold out. ‘They stay in Ranchi year after year, telling their families back in the villages that they are “preparing” for something,’ says Moin Khan. That something is increasingly a job in government. ‘The once craze for B Tech [Bachelor’s in Technology] and MBA [Master’s in Business Administration] has died down. Engineering and management colleges in the city are shutting.’

The coaching centres in Lalpur are buzzing, however, changing their bill-boards with every new announcement of government job openings. Last month all of them were coaching students for entrance exams for jobs in the railways. Twenty-five million people took entrance exams for 90,000 jobs in the Indian railways last year. Over the preceding years, thousands of people had lost their jobs in global information technology companies based in the big cities – Bangalore, Pune, Gurgaon, Hyderabad – and protested in the streets holding placards inspired by workers’ revolutions.

This week, Lalpur is pasted with notices about jobs with state banks. Next up will be openings for clerical staff in government offices. That is the entrance exam Anoop Kumar is currently preparing for. He hopes the English language classes will help him ‘crack’ it this time. He has already memorized ‘common errors in English’ he will need to identify and correct as part of the written exam. If he makes it to the final interview, he will introduce himself just as he has been taught in Moin Khan’s classes: as ‘sincere, honest and hard-working’. If he passes the exam, he will probably end up working as a computer operator in a government office. It is a technical job at the end of the day. What about his education in software engineering, and his dreams of working for a transnational company? ‘Not everyone can get every job,’ he says, clutching his backpack to his chest.

Most people who come to Lalpur in the pursuit of progress aren’t so peaceable when they don’t make it. Many channel their frustrations through a politics of blaming the other. Men blame women, Hindus blame Muslims, upper castes blame lower castes, and city kids blame rural intruders for taking away or eating into their entitlements – in education, jobs, status – whether real or imagined. Their anger is validated by the majoritarian politics practised by prime minister Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and weaponized by its ideological offshoots present 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 rallies. Some of them have started working in the IT Cell, getting paid for spreading propaganda and attacking opponents on social media. They are all engaged by the same political party,’ says Moin Khan. The IT Cell is the technical term for the BJP’s nationwide cyber units that recruit hundreds of thousands of young and jobless people to drive its message deep into the Indian consciousness. More men work for these real and virtual armies than women. The women give up much earlier, dropping out of the race for progress because of factors as wide ranging as marriage and lack of streetlights.

Despite failing to deliver on its 2014 election promise to create millions of jobs, the BJP came back to power even stronger in May, winning 303 of 543 seats in Parliament, far exceeding the 272 needed to form a government.

Anoop Kumar did not go to a single political rally. He ‘hates politics’ and believes politicians aren’t eligible for the positions they occupy. 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). Her journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Granta, Financial Times and The Atlantic.

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