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 company I would be working for which had placed me in Patna.
But I practically grew up in Patna and had lived there for 11 years. So, I was ashamed of such feelings. And my pitiful sorrow wasn’t just about doing my internship in an obviously unrecognised organisation. It was much more visceral.
After moving to college in Mumbai, I had visited Patna during every holiday – then 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 seemed 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 back home from the office on a battery-operated rickshaw. We were passing by a big conference hall which had 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, spitting on the road, not quite contributing to “Swachh Bharat”.
“So, what exactly has he done for you which has improved your life?” I asked him.
He smiled awkwardly and we kept silent for the rest of the journey. My intention was not to praise Nitish Kumar or criticise Modi. I was trying to understand why he saw the spending on a conference hall as a waste of money and not the foreign trips. I will not delve into either. However, I wonder how he views the recent political developments in Bihar.
I was struck by the 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, unaware of local developments because they are not as flashy.
I will focus on Bihar here. In 2010, Bihar contributed to 9.4% of the civil service population. If you take a walk along Boring Road in Patna in the evening, 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. The fact 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% of the national per capita income. There are islands of tall buildings in towns and a few in villages surrounded by slums that show abject poverty. It is quite common to find a child or two come to you begging as you step out of the rickshaw or your car.
There are huge waste dumps scattered across places – open and unrestricted – at the mercy of rag-pickers and the irregular pickup trucks. There are a large number of flyovers that will take you from one place to another.
Walking under one such flyover, I found a row of vehicles – small and big – parked in the aisle of the road. Between batches of cars were people – some of them lying on mats, some cooking food by burning waste paper and few chunks of coal, some selling edibles like corn, fish. Of course, they were begrudged by car owners who felt their right to park had been usurped.
Earlier, the fish market used to be set up by the side of the road, much to the inconvenience of shoppers, whose entry would get blocked. Now, since they are set up under flyovers, the vehicles don’t get annoyed while the shoppers swipe away comfortably. It was a place where an old practice met modernity and made the latter late. Not anymore. Now they can just fly over, literally.
I am tempted to think that the revulsion that I felt when I was first informed about my internship in Patna was due to the unhygienic state of 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 if I said I felt unhappy because of the lack of cleanliness in Patna.
My family wants me to compete for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) examinations 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 15 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 help society by bringing about changes in the way things happen. But what individual legacies do they leave in the minds of young children in places where news of their success spreads like fire? When a young person enters the 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 news where reporters talk to villagers. 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 – symbols of guaranteed job and a presumably stable career but least equipped to change anything. We talk about our national brain drain so often. So many brilliant Indian minds fly off to the USA, Europe and elsewhere. We find these stories of high paying foreign placements from colleges every year, flashing across our newspapers and television screens, and yes, on social media.
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. How long will the stream of engineers, doctors and civil servants that are constantly advertised in the media keep flowing? Will it eventually 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 eyeballs stuck to the screens of mobile phones.
As deliberate as these things might be, a very subtle but deliberate change has also evolved – we depict cities in such a positive light that our places of origin appear to be less so, especially if it is not a city. All we want is a home – even a room – somewhere, anywhere, that’s not our village or town.
In Mumbai, I found a good many Bihari drivers and workers, settled with their families in the outskirts of the city, deprived of local familiarity. When I had asked them why they migrate, the answer usually had to do with economic conditions. Many said that life was difficult away from their community and it felt good when they visited their native place. And they hoped that someday, they would be able to return permanently. They also knew that such a day may never come. They had accepted the price of living in a more progressive place.
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 neighbours. I am a little uncomfortable to tell them about my internship in Patna and they are equally surprised to hear about it.
We conveniently refuse to negotiate amidst 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.