Recently, I was selected by a think tank for a research internship in public policy. I was hoping to be placed in New Delhi and I had told my parents just that. But they placed me in Patna. I instantly felt a little sad about being placed in a small city. My parents were even more concerned about what kind of a company was I working in that I would be placed in Patna!
But I practically grew up in Patna and had lived there for eleven years. So, I was shameful at my hypocrital feelings. And my pitiful sorrow wasn’t just about doing my internship in an obviously unrecognized organization. It was much more visceral.
After moving to college in Mumbai I have visited Patna every holiday – how come I didn’t want to work there? Was my affection for the place limited to it being a part of my memory? Did I really think that the city wouldn’t provide me with opportunities to prove myself in the work that I would do?
And the response from my parents and my relatives was also the same. It seems enigmatic that I would do my internship here. Even some people who I have met right here in Patna feel equally surprised. They ask me questions like – “Why didn’t you do ‘something’ in Mumbai itself, it’s a big place?” or “What type of internship did you get in a place like Patna?” And these things have stayed on my mind throughout my stay here.
In mid – June, I was travelling on a battery-operated rickshaw back home from the office. We were passing by a big conference hall, been built by the state government, when the driver said to me, “Nitish (Chief Minister of Bihar) is wasting money on all these halls in Patna? Of what use is this to the farmers. He should be doing other things. You see Modi (Prime Minister of India) is doing so much for our country.”
“There was a farmer’s conference just a few days ago in this place where Nitish listened to lots of farmers’ grievances”, I said to him.
“But he is not like Modi”, he replied.
“Well, what has Modi done for you? Tell me”, I asked him.
“He is going to so many foreign countries. Our image is getting stronger in the world. He is bringing GST”, he said glancing at me.
“Will you pay taxes by GST?” I asked.
“Of course, not”, he said as he spit outside by the road, something not quite contributing to Swaccha Bharat.
“So, what exactly has he done for you which has improved your life?” I asked him. He put up an awkward smile and we just kept silent the rest of the journey. My intention was not to praise Nitish or criticize Modi. I was trying to get to why he saw this spending on a conference hall as a waste of money and not the foreign trips. I will not delve into either.
However, I was struck by this unusual ‘farsightedness’ that I found in his words. And it is a theme that is quite common in the northern plains of India – the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. At tea stalls and in restaurants, you’ll come across people talking about some big event in a distant place, very skeptical, or unaware, of the local developments because it is not as flashy.
I will focus on Bihar here. The state contributes about 10 % of the IIT and civil service population every year. If you take a walk in the evening along Boring Road in Patna, you will find a sea of students coming out of or going into coaching institutions. Similarly, there are coaching hubs in Gaya, Muzaffarpur, Bhagalpur etc. That students are going to elite institutions is a good thing.
But where is Bihar? The per capita income of Bihar in 2015-16 was only 35 % ( Rs. 37000) of the national per capita income. There are islands of tall buildings in towns and a few in villages surrounded by slums of abject poverty. It is quite common to find a child or two comes to come to you begging as you step out of the rickshaw or your car. There are huge waste dumps in scattered across places – open and unrestricted – to the mercy of rag-pickers and the irregular pickup trucks. There are large number of flyovers that will take you from one place to another, but the sea that they shed indifferently is often unseen. Is that also a purpose of these flyovers?
Walking under one such bridge, I found a row of vehicles – small and big parked in the aisle of the road. In between batches of these cars are people lying on mats, some cooking food by burning waste paper and few chunks of coal, some selling edibles like corn, fish. Earlier, the fish market used to be on the roadside to the inconvenience of shops and shoppers, whose entry would get blocked. Now since they is in the middle under the bridge, the flying-over vehicles don’t get annoyed while the shoppers swipe away comfortably.
I am tempted to think that the revulsion that I felt when I was first informed about my internship in Patna was due to this unhygienic surroundings here. But I do not go to these places every day. Where I have to go regularly is a decent place, no worse than some pocket of Andheri. So, I would be disingenuous to reason that I felt unhappy because of the lack of cleanliness in Patna.
My family wants me compete for UPSC and I too think it would be a good place to work for the betterment of the country. I do sometimes feel like trying it out. But sometimes I feel like I should open a low-fee school in my village and teach students there. That would be more useful to the place where I come from because not a single good school has opened there in the last fifteen years, while temples have proliferated. But the privileged elite in me overlooks that idea more often.
And so I think. The people who do become civil servants, do they contribute? Of course they do.They keep the system running. Some even bring about changes in the way things happen, help the society. But what legacy do they leave – not an institutional one but an individual one, on the minds of young children in places where news of their success spreads like fire? When a young entrant into civil service from a small village from Bihar, it is so glorious to the village community that people arrive at railway stations to welcome the twenty-something newly-minted to-be-civil servant with garland and sweets. I have heard numerous such stories in the last few years. It becomes the stuff of the news where reporters talk to villagers about these. But nothing really changes thereafter – until a year later when somebody else qualifies.
However, these toppers become false role models for many parents and students – a symbol of guaranteed job and a presumably stable career – least equipped to change anything. We talk about our national brain drain so often. So many brilliant Indian minds fly off to America, Europe and elsewhere. We find these stories of high paying foreign placements from ours and other colleges every year – flashed across our newspapers and television screens, and yes our social media notifications. What we do not hear is the inter-state brain drain which has had significant impacts on various states, particularly the poor ones like Bihar. The stream of engineers, doctors and civil servants that are constantly advertised in media, how long will this stream flow? Or will it dry out ?
Metro cities have something about them that is magnetic, in a deliberate sort of way. You might be imagining their loud bars, their cascading traffic, their callous culture, their poor-rich dichotomy, and their screen stuck eyeballs…As deliberate as these things might be, a very subtle but deliberate change has also evolved, that is, we depict cities in such positive light that our places of origin appear to be less so, especially if it is not a city.
In Mumbai, I have found a good many Bihari drivers and workers, settled with their families in the outskirts of the city – deprived of the local familiarity. When I ask them why they migrate, the answer is usually to do with economic conditions. Many say that life is difficult away from their community in their native place and it feels good when they visit. And that they hope that they will return permanently someday but know that they may never.
And I think maybe I am this way too. Maybe I prefer to bask in the adulation of being an IITian (or a civil servant) to my village neighbors, a little uncomfortable to tell them about my internship in Patna – they equally surprised to hear about it – both conveniently refusing to negotiate the dust and sweat of the village in order to improve its conditions, even though it has been the source of money for my education up to the present day.