Return to sender: India's pandemic-struck population goes back home amidst uncertainity
The skilled workforce returning to their rural homes is likely to spearhead a new tech knowledge revolution in the hinterland.
Reverse migration to rural hometowns seems to be a rising trend among India’s youth, plagued with post Covid-19 employment uncertainty and alienation. The promise of a better lifestyle coupled with tech transformation has opened new possibilities.
India’s pandemic generation’s war cry is ‘Yeh Dil Maange More’! Professionals from metropolitan cities are moving to the countryside, including their hometowns, in a new post-Wave II trend that signals a shift in lifestyle and work attitudes of Indian youth. The skilled workforce returning to their rural homes is likely to spearhead a new tech knowledge revolution in the hinterland. They bring with them exposure to modern systems and practices which could make the difference. ‘Sweet comfort’ is how they describe their yearning to return to the comfort of small towns and rural areas. Poor medical assistance and the rising uncertainty of jobs are the catalysts for people like Jenson Varghese who cannot wait for the lockdown to end in Bengaluru. And no, it’s not just the pandemic and doomscrolling-induced fatigue that has gotten him down. The 29-year-old web and app designer cannot wait to leave the place he has called home for 29-long years—a sentiment that has grown stronger in the past few months. “I’m tired of the way the city has been treating people like me,” he says.
The tone of exasperation changes to longing and relief as he discusses his plan of action for the next two months: head home to Kerala and rent a 4-BHK apartment in Thiruvananthapuram to stay with his parents as they finalise plans for a new home in the suburbs. A reverse migration is happening in urban India, a sort of return to roots. Traditionally, people have migrated towards city lights in search of greener pastures. Varghese is not alone in his decision to quit the Garden City. Covid-19 has definitely played a role. “Before the pandemic, many moved to tier-II and tier-III cities from a tier-I city. Some of them liked the lower cost of living while others wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle. But there is no denying that the growing work from home (WFH) option has accelerated this shift,” explains Dr Neethi P, Researcher, Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru.
The reasons for the home run are varied. Varghese reached his breaking point during a recent Covid-19 scare. “When I called the official helpline to seek help for my breathing trouble, I didn’t get a proper diagnosis. Another time, I paid for an RT-PCR test but no one showed up,” he laments. City factors like noise, traffic and the claustrophobia of high-rise living have always been an irritant. “We get better medical attention from local hospitals in Kerala. Land is less expensive in the interior regions of Thiruvananthapuram. We’re negotiating to buy a half-an-acre plot at Rs 1.5 lakh per cent (one cent equals 1⁄100 of an acre),” adds Varghese, who will continue to freelance. “My parents are retired and I work remotely. There’s nothing tying us to the city,” he shrugs.
According to Bindu Gupta, 38, who moved back to her hometown Kashauli in Himachal Pradesh from Delhi—where she worked as a chef in a cloud kitchen—two factors vastly contributed to reverse migration: occupational opportunities and social prestige. “People like me don’t get much of either now in metropolitans. We draw a smaller remuneration back in our hometowns but purchasing power has actually gone up. I hated the culture in Delhi—brash, ruthless and corrupt. Now I am cooking in a small café, earning much less but living much better. My entire house expenditure is just Rs 20,000, including electricity and water. I save 70 percent of my salary now.”
Realty Plus, a real estate magazine in its Q2 edition, quotes a survey conducted during the lockdown period which revealed an unexpected social trend among Indian city youth. Among the respondents, who preferred to invest in tier-II and -III cities in 2020, 61 percent were end-users and almost 55 percent were aged under 35 years. At least 47 percent of respondents were focused on affordable properties priced below Rs 45 lakh. About 34 percent were looking for mid-segment homes priced between Rs 45-90 lakh. According to ‘How is the Hinterland Unlocking’ report by Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India), Action for Social Advancement, Grameen Sahara and other advocacy bodies, the maximum number of urban professionals migrating back to their hometowns was from the IT & ITES sector due to the WFH option.
This means the birthplaces of these homing pigeons could be the next tech landscape—smaller IT hubs in days to come. Sandeep Desabattula, a 25-year-old from Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh, made the big move to pack his bags for home this year. He had come to Hyderabad six years ago to study BTech and consequently joined a startup two years ago. “Currently, I work as a senior software developer with a web solutions firm. Since I work remotely, my move did not affect my productivity in any way. Initially, I thought I would go home until the lockdown was lifted.
But I realised soon that the same arrangement works well. That’s when I seriously considered the move to my hometown.” What made him take the leap of faith? “I can straight away save 50 percent of my pay by moving in here.” In the city, his monthly budget for rent, food, wi-fi, movies etc was Rs 30,000 of which half went to the landlord. Ever since Desabattula moved to Rajahmundry, he saves rent money, not to mention enjoying the greenery of his backyard and living in a 400 sq ft room instead of a 250 ft space. He was sharing a rundown apartment with creaky lifts and no parking in the city.
Now Desabattula feels pampered to be living in his own room where his mom cooks his favourite dishes for him. “Recently an entrepreneur pal asked me to design a website for his venture Grand Oven Hotels in Rajahmundry. I designed a responsive, creative website with a professional feel in five days. This was the first money I earned irrespective of my job. I have created an Instagram page for promotions on websites. I am learning the ropes. There is vast potential here and I want to explore this,” he explains. Desabattula had posted a photograph of him working from the trunk of his car on Instagram. “It was shot on the Grand Trunk Road. It inspired many other friends who wanted to move back to the village.” And, two of his friends have already bought land in Godavari district to return to their native place.
Skilled reverse migration is modernising the countryside which promises to rejuvenate rural economy. “Post second and stricter lockdown, we have been off to a great headstart. The local economy is reviving and is now again producing job opportunities for the local workforce. We are digging deeper in tier II-III towns of Uttar Pradesh at the moment with an average month over month growth rate of over 62 percent between June and August. And, more than 62 percent of the total opportunities are for white-collar jobs. We have also seen a decent raise in pay scale. In Q1, the average monthly salary offered was around Rs 13,500 which now has moved up to Rs 16,200,” says Atul Pratap Singh, CEO & Co-founder, Jobsgaar, a hyperlocal job-finding platform.
According to a report, released in August, by global management consultancy firm Kearney, 62 percent of value e-commerce will be driven by customers from tier-II cities and beyond, by 2030. The report titled ‘Value e-commerce: the next big leap in India’s retail market’ highlights how faster evolution in smaller cities has been led by disposable income, expansion of internet and supportive infrastructure.
So it’s no surprise that Smartworks, a flexible space provider, sees a growing interest in demand from companies to set up spaces in these cities. “Reverse migration has been one of the unintended positive consequence of Covid-19. We have seen an increase in 35 to 40 percent inquiries from enterprises compared to last year,” says Harsh Binani, Co-founder, Smartworks.
According to reports, a few months back software giant HCL ran a ‘comeback home’ campaign where they encouraged people to take up opportunities in their hometowns. The recruitment drive was conducted in Vijayawada and Nagpur. Singh of Jobsgaar doesn’t see skilling in rural areas as a stumbling block. “The fact is to realise and accept that a mass of the local workforce is ‘dynamic’. They can learn and adapt to newer job opportunities pretty fast. By this what we mean is that skilling is not a major problem. The problem is the alignment of reality versus expectation with regard to wages. If this could be managed, more people will be willing to work.”
Reverse migration has also propelled the demand for e-commerce services, logistics support and the need for temporary warehouses. “Today, we are present in 3,000 cities, serving over 19,500 pincodes and delivering one million packages a day,” says Harshal Bhoi, Chief Business Officer, B2C, XpressBees, a logistics firm. In the last one year, the company has doubled the presence in smaller cities. “Our rural market hiring has grown by 400 percent as compared to last year,” he adds.
Going by a recent report, the urban-rural digital divide is a thing of the past. By 2025, rural India will likely have more internet users than urban India, says a report released in June by Internet and Mobile Association of India and consulting firm Kantar. “While internet users grew by 4 percent in urban India reaching 323 million users in 2020, digital adoption continues to be propelled by rural India—registering a 13 percent growth in internet users over the past year,” it states. Says Rahul Goyal, Co-founder, Realatte, a digital marketing agency with realty domain expertise, “Small towns are better prepared than people think they are. We observed that internet connectivity was good, power supply was better, less noise, and fewer distractions. People adapted to technology solutions to mitigate challenges and digital conveniences made working convenient and more effective.”
The University of California (UC), Berkeley, earlier in 2021 in a report stated that it was working with several Indian firms to come with new business models that create value for the business ecosystem. The UC mooted a world where villagers, weavers and artisans can access global markets by uploading their products to online platforms and selling their products and having their bank accounts credited instantly. A creativity boom in rural India can’t be rule out.
Nikita Dawar, a potter with her own studio in Indiranagar, Bengaluru, had sustained dreams to be at one with nature. A year ago when the pandemic was ravaging city healthcare systems, Dawar and her partner Karthik Ramaraj moved to Jambuneradipalli, near Bodabandla village, in Andhra Pradesh. And this was at a time when her studio was thriving. Daily stressors still exist, but a sense of tranquillity has prevailed since moving in January this year. The added benefit? “My expenses are five times less than before,” says the 30-year-old. “There’s no Swiggy, no Dunzo.
The closest store is 10 km away. So, we try to be as self-reliant as possible, be it DIY spa sessions or making up our own version of whichever dish we want.” While Dawar took the plunge fully, Sohini Bagchi decided to keep one foot in the door. Having always been a “city girl”, the 40-year-old did not want to leave the city behind completely. Now, she lives on the outskirts of Bengaluru, next to the Kolar border. Despite the two-hour commute to work during non-lockdown days, Bagchi has never been more at peace. “Once I’m back home from work, I feel instant relief. The air is cleaner once I’m surrounded by the forest on my farm. This was Step One. Within the next five years, I want to cut off from the city completely and rely on sustainable farming using rescued animals,” she says. The temporary hybrid model has bolstered her mood. “It feels as if Cloud Nine is my permanent address.”
Hosachiguru, a farmland management company, claims the number of inquiries after the first wave of the pandemic has jumped by over 300 percent. “We get over 100 inquiries every day and at least 20 percent of them are for building their primary or secondary home on a farm in less than a year,” says Srinath Shetty, Director, Business Development and Finance. Lalitha Raj, a 35-year-old from an agrarian family in Theni in Tamil Nadu, left her home in 2010 for Chennai to fulfill her dreams of working in a ‘big city.’ “The energy of a big city had always fascinated me. I was in my early 20s when I decided to pack my bags and head to Chennai. I joined a software company as an engineer and worked round the clock for over a decade. I enjoyed the rush, the money and the busy lifestyle my job gave me. But the feeling didn’t last for too long,” she shares. Erratic work timings, a haywire lifestyle, health complications and her disconnect with family while living away from home led Raj to think ‘if this was all worth it’.
“Last year, amid the pandemic, I realised how toxic the hustle-bustle culture was. I didn’t want awards for my productivity anymore. The passing of a close family member in my town further pushed me to opt for a slower lifestyle. During the government rule relaxations, I headed back to Theni. Thanks to the WFH option I can keep my job and enjoy the comforts of home!” reveals Raj over a video call, sitting in the middle of the family coconut farm. The change has opened up new work and financial options as well as strengthened family bonding. For the last seven months, she has been working with her family to make prototypes of coconut-based jewellery and accessories. “After coming here, I started taking life as it came. No rush, waking up to the sounds of birds... it is bliss. One day, when I saw my father working on the farm, I got thinking and decided to jell my artistic side with our generational occupation of farming. We began harvesting, segregating and refining the different parts of a coconut tree—from the shell, the fibre to the copra. For the last few months, we have been experimenting with raw materials and creating sustainable accessories, including bags. The larger goal is to set up a professional unit here and provide jobs for locals and create a self-sustained work model,” she says. Another creative type is Raja Chidambaram, a photojournalist-turned-farmer from Coimbatore, with a heartwarming story.
Thirteen years after working in the city, he decided to call it quits and take up organic farming during the pandemic. However, the decision wasn’t exclusively Covid-induced impulsive, he says. “For generations, my family has been farmers. Though I grew up amid lush fields, I never considered farming a career option,” adds the national award-winning photographer. “My aspirations were different. I wanted to document the issues happening in Kashmir, and the state of Rohingya refugees. But around 2011-2012, when I was introduced to the works of green crusader Nammazhvar, my life took a different turn. Eventually, I started learning and understanding more about the importance of agriculture,” shares Chidambaram, whose farm is situated in Telungu Palayam, 16 km from Coimbatore. The idea had been simmering. He became aware of the unhealthy lifestyle he was leading in the city.
During the lockdown, he finally took the leap. “Gone are the days when I had to frantically run from assignment to assignment. Now, I have learned to savour life. I work on the farm, I sleep on time, I eat healthy, my screen time is less than three hours, I turn off the wifi after 6 pm. But most importantly, I am self-sufficient,” he shares. Chidambaram wants to chalk an ideal plan to turn his harvests into profitable commodities. “Imagine if more such ventures came up in smaller towns and villages, youngsters would not go jobless. They can create employment opportunities, migration will not become a social evil and as a ripple effect, there will be equitable distribution of resources even in remote parts of the country. Going back to the roots will help not just the individual but the entire economy,” he says.
Farming seems to be the preferred option for many reverse migrants probably because most of India is rural. In Odisha’s Ganjam district, Bibhuti Mohanty, a laid-off engineer in Dubai, is eagerly waiting to harvest pearls from the 3,000 freshwater mussels cultivated in his ancestral pond at Nimigaon village.
The coronavirus outbreak, a lockdown and being let go increased his sense of Covid-induced alienation, forcing him to return to India in March last year. But 26-year-old Mohanty did not lose hope. He began to experiment with pearl farming in his village after coming across a few videos. With the help of Central Institute of Freshwater Aquaculture (CIFA), he underwent training in pearl farming and started a new initiative in his ancestral pond. With hopes of high returns from this year, the engineer-turned-farmer has decided to settle down in Nimigaon and employ people from his village. “When I can happily make a decent living here, why do I have to look for jobs outside?” says Mohanty. Lay-offs and subsequent financial distress have prodded many professionals to enter farming especially on neglected family land.
“Those who moved to villages and have taken up farming may sustain if they have some land. Though not assured of good returns initially, farming on one’s own land gives them the satisfaction of being on their own. Having more than eight acres of land with good irrigation facilities may earn some income. Further, farming exposes them to the real problems our farmers have been facing all these years—labour, input costs, pests, yields, marketing, corruption etc. Exposure to these issues also makes them feel grounded and some of them, if they have more land, may take up farming on a long-term basis,” says Prof. Chigurupati Ramachandraiah, social scientist and former faculty member, Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad.
Ranjan Sahu, 40-year-old former Kolkata resident, lost his job as a production manager in a garment factory after the pandemic hit. After returning home to Kendrapara in Odisha, Sahu decided to go solo. Being experienced in the garment business, he took bank loans and established a manufacturing unit, Royal Green Garment Company, in his village Gunthi this January. It is the first factory in the area and employs 70 women from nearby areas.
“I am a school dropout and began working in the garment sector at an early age. From manufacturing to production, I had my share of struggles in different places across the country. But this pandemic has taught me a lot. I decided to start my own venture after my company shut down. Fortunately, things have worked out,” admits Sahu, who has plans to expand his factory. Even well-known personalities like Uday Krishna, called the Tree Man of India by the media, have abandoned the temptations of the big city. He is the force behind Vata Foundation that translocates trees. He took his passion for trees and animals to the next level last year. Krishna had chucked everything to set up a full-fledged eco-resort in Tipeshwar, 350 km from Hyderabad.
“Trees have always been close to my heart. While looking to adopt jungles during my foundation work, I came across Tipeshwar Wildlife Sanctuary and started my work here. It became home for him. I am from Hyderabad, but now I belong here.” Krishna currently employs 18 locals directly and supports over 50 locals indirectly. He says, “My current manager who left Bengaluru a year ago also loves tigers and trees. He says he feels at home here and doesn’t miss the city at all.” Dr Navodita Kumar, Clinical Psychologist, Apollo Hospital, Hyderabad, says uncertainty was the prevailing sentiment in three out of her 10 patients last year alone. “Covid deaths in the family, job losses, ill health, pay cuts etc suddenly put the focus back on sustaining oneself in a familiar place amidst loved ones. The obsession with owning 2BHKs, an EMI car and visits to malls paled in comparison to the peace of mind that a small town with a good family backup gives. Rural life may not be exciting, but is certainly peaceful. Covid made people choose it, which could be the cause of the sudden spike in people deciding to go back home,” she elucidates.
Dr Kumar wonders whether reverse migration is a temporary trend. She is of the opinion that after five years, higher education and the need for better medical care could compel these youngsters to return to the city. “For now, back to home seems the mantra,” she infers. Home is where the heart is. It is also where the new living is.
With inputs from Ayesha Singh, Smitha Verma, Roshne Balasubramanian and Diana Sahu
EMERGENCY REVERSE MIGRATION ACROSS THE WORLD
In India, over 10 million internal migrant workers were forced to leave urban areas and return home by foot during the March-June 2020 period. The MART report estimates this number to have reached 25 million people.
In Peru, some 2,00,000 workers attempted to make the journey from Lima back to their homes, and were subject to food insecurity
Venezuelans who had fled the country’s political crisis to work in the informal economy in Colombia were also forced to return home, often on foot, leaving them at risk of human trafficking and attacks by armed groups
In China since mid-April 2020, the scale of reverse migration to rural hometowns slowly increased and exceeded 10 million people by May 2020
In South Africa, the lockdown measures prompted between 5 to 6 million people to move home to their villages
“My expenses are five times less than before. There’s no Swiggy, no Dunzo. The closest store is 10 km away. So, we try to be as self-reliant as possible, be it DIY spa sessions or making up our own version of whichever dish we want.”
“Since I work remotely, my move did not affect my productivity in any way. Initially,
I thought I would go home until the lockdown was lifted. But I realised soon that the same arrangement works well. That’s when I seriously considered the move to my hometown.
I can straight away save 50 percent of my pay by moving in here.”
“When I can happily make a decent living here, why do I have to look for jobs outside? Pearl farming is lucrative.”
“While looking to adopt jungles during my foundation work, I came across Tipeshwar Wildlife Sanctuary and started my work here. It became home for him. I am from Hyderabad, but now I belong here.”
“We get better medical attention from local hospitals in Kerala. Land is less expensive in the interior regions of Thiruvananthapuram. My parents are retired and I work
remotely. There’s nothing tying us to Bengaluru.”
“This pandemic has taught me a lot. I decided to start my own venture after my company shut down. Fortunately, things have worked out.”
“Once I’m back home from work, I feel instant relief. The air is cleaner once I’m surrounded by the forest on my farm. This was Step One. Within the next five years, I want to cut off from the city completely and rely on sustainable farming using rescued animals.”