Don't worry, Bihari (no, really?)

Updated: May 13, 2020, 11:54 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

In more ways than one, Bihar has been to India, what India has been to West; and that could be a good thing

Of the seven, bright college-boys I hung out with in a town called Purnea only one wished upon himself a government job; rest wanted to do something of their own
Of the seven, bright college-boys I hung out with in a town called Purnea only one wished upon himself a government job; rest wanted to do something of their own

Mayank ShekharLet me tell you a li'l bit about Bihar. That it's not the same as Uttar Pradesh, UP, or Oo-Pee, as natives pronounce it. Or "UP-Bihar", as Bombaywallahs love to club-sandwich it, while they've encountered very few Biharis, in fact.

It appears to me that sometime in the '70s, there were two trains simultaneously starting from Bihar and UP, heading for Bombay and Calcutta. And between each other, the two states had to pick one train. Biharis chose Calcutta. UP-ites betted on Bombay. Don't need to underline who made the better choice.

Street-level Kolkata, among hawkers and cabbies, feels like Bihar. Just as Mumbai on the road sounds much like Oo-Pee — mainly among migrant men, mind you. The ladies are still back in UP-Bihar, working the field, managing home, raising kids, chiefly resulting from the husband's last vacation. This explains that the bai, the surrogate mum, in Mumbai, is almost always from Maharashtra and thereabouts.

'Sons of toil', like seasonal birds, will go wherever they can make hay while the sun shines. I've discovered Biharis in Khandala and Kerala; Delhi is currently India's migration capital, and it is trains to Punjab that primarily pack in the most Biharis during cropping months.

To gauge the importance of trains, you only have to look up the number of Biharis who've served as railway ministers in India — tasked with making movements of their constituents easier, and build a brand for themselves in the home state. The sense I get is it's not that there isn't equivalent work for Biharis in their village/block/district. It's just that they must settle for a third of the pay, or less, if at all.

They travel therefore for wetan, chakri (wage, work) since tankhwa, naukri (salary, job) is out of bounds — hugely benefitting Indian capitalists, in turn. This exploitation on a platter isn't limited to micro, small and medium-scale enterprises, or what are called MSMEs.

The quickest/easiest outstation reporting I've ever done was to prove that labourers in the world's top cycle factories in Ludhiana were being paid even less than Punjab's minimum wage. A casual walk down labour camps in the filthy by-lanes behind the plush factories and my job was done. They'd all indeed signed up for wages higher than the cash eventually handed to them, month-end.

A Danish newspaper had commissioned this piece since UNICEF Denmark was apparently buying cycles in bulk from these firms. Nobody in Ludhiana, or indeed other karmic Indians, could've cared for this art-house story. I drank beers with them instead, with a Polish singer entertaining us at a five-star Ludhiana bar.

Can't recall exactly, if those labourers were from Bihar, UP or Jharkhand. In "bahar gaon" (the world outside your own world), migrants from similar geography typically merge into a common identity stronger than their specific parental roots. They're all proud Bhaiyas in Bombay. Just as South Asians — Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis — are all desis abroad.

In many ways, I reckon, Biharis are to India, what Indians have conventionally been to the world: Natural exporters of cheap labour. Hardest working folk, under every government, except their own! Belonging to a 'native place' with a huge, almost unsustainable population, and a deeply rich history/past, going back millennia — but with a present/future that has hardly ever looked altogether rosy.

They've used migration as an exit route toward maximising their own potential. And you find them either disproportionately represented in the urban working-class, or among the top echelons — be it engineering, science/medicine, or (corporate/state) bureaucracy. It's only lately that you see some shift towards what are called "cooler jobs" — films, television, YouTube, news, stand-up comedy, etc.

Either way, both Biharis in India, as Indians in the West, have traditionally been subjected to an onslaught of clichés and stereotyping for where they come from, while those worlds have simultaneously changed so much in the interim.

Feeling like a foreign correspondent within my own country, the villages of Bihar I covered during 2019 general elections seemed wholly transformed to me, with the recent arrival of smart-phones, and cheap Internet. Its effects will get sharper still. The air around was cleaner, electricity not an issue, access roads in place. The state's capital seemed a complete hell-hole in comparison.

Of the seven, bright college-boys I hung out with in a town called Purnea — unless they were statistical outliers — only one wished upon himself a government job; rest wanted to do something of their own. A 20-year-old in the group already ran an e-commerce website, sourcing stock from China. They spoke to me about agro-business, entrepreneurship, money, but not migration.

Will this lot and similar others reverse a bad hand dealt to them over decades? Apply their skill/talent to build an opportunity, locally? I know poverty is a vicious cycle, but could such opportunities hold back the labourer from further humiliation, away from home, in places where he's considered a resource, but not human? India has had a soft, gradual change in its global rep since the early 2000s. Something tells me, for the same advantages, so would Bihar. Hoping. Eventually. Must. Has to!

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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