There was a time when
night came early to Marathahalli. That’s no longer true. Nostalgic old-timers
recall the days when it was unspoilt and largely untouched by urbanisation. A
green, sleepy village with its own lake surrounded by trees, it was a
picture-perfect example of the rural idyll. Not so long ago, Bengaluru was something
residents discussed, but they didn’t think of themselves as belonging to the
Now, shops of all sizes and shapes and high-rise apartments have changed its skyline. Unlike the restless farmers of smouldering Singur, Marathahalli’s residents did not resist change. For that matter, was there a choice? Rising real estate prices and the prospect of new jobs and business proved irresistible. As the rural idyll vanished so did the separation from the state capital.
Abythmangala village in Coorg district (though the indigenous name Kodagu has been officially adopted, the former continues to very popular) is just a few hours away. Over the decades it hasn’t changed much. With a population of just over 1,200 it doesn’t even have much potential for commercial activity. And it’s the same story for other villages between Madikeri and Gonikoppal and Kushal Nagar in the plains.
The scenic coffee plantations attract plenty of tourists—mostly domestic and largely youngsters from hot and happening Bengaluru—but the villages seem unchanged by their passage.
At the new and clean satellite bus station on Mysore Road, young people with their backpacks and fancy mobile phones wait for the high-tech luxury bus to Madikeri as 2011 draws to an end. Mukul is one of them. His story is a familiar one. He just wants a break from the stress.
“The humdrum city, the monotonous job, the bumper-to-bumper traffic, it gets on my nerves. I need to get out every once in a while. Either it’s a Sakleshpur trek or a drinking and eating binge in Coorg. I’m addicted to neer dosai and pork—though at times scared of tapeworms,” he smiles. He’s among about 15 lakh tourists, mostly domestic, to the district.
The Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation’s bus and most of its passengers seem to be in a world far removed from the nondescript villages dotting the empty landscape that they pass through. Mukul is fiddling with his mobile. First he plays a video, then listens to some songs.
In the middle of the night he sends and receives a stream of text messages. The staccato, subdued beeps often punctuate the silence in the air-tight interiors. Outside, it’s noisy. Then he flaunts his new Tablet and its brightness draws others’ attention. He’s having fun with technology.
At Abythmangala, the young and handsome Rohith Aswa could be a cousin of Mukul. In his smart blue jeans, pastel T-shirt and grey jacket he looks much like Mukul. But that’s where the similarity ends. Rohit has just a smattering of English and he doesn’t want to speak it, saying he feels awkward. He knows what the Internet is, but doesn’t know how to use a computer. But he displays remarkable skill with his mobile phone.
Rohit dropped out after high school and for a while worked as a semi-skilled instrumentation technician in Pune.
“I didn’t have any formal training,” he says. He just picked up some technical skills on the job. Unexpectedly, family circumstances took a turn for the worse.
He’s reluctant to give details.
“Due to some personal and family problems I had to return.” Since there’s no industry in the region, he can’t work as a technician. “I joined a 120-acre coffee estate as assistant manager”. He’s a supervisor who oversees the labourers and gets paid about Rs 5,000.
You see a number of young people—with different levels of education—in Coorg often whiling away their time. Between Siddapura and Chettali we stop at a couple of tiny towns—each with a few small shops—some not larger than 10 feet by 10 feet.
They mostly cater to the locals and the occasional tourist who stops by. Young people like Rohit’s friends hang out in these towns.
RTI activist Chandan
says most of them can’t find “decent”—read white-collar —jobs in the hills.
“There are few options—work in the coffee plantations as supervisors, or take
bank loans and buy a tourist vehicle, or else join the military or the police.”
As supervisors, they get to ride jeeps and boss plantation labourers, but being a tourist taxi driver gives them an opportunity to interact with city folk. It indeed is more glamorous and perceived to be fun and adventurous.
Rohit’s brother is in a para-military unit. Coorgis are known to be strong and brave. The local chieftains roped in Gowdas from the nearby plains in their armies, while later the British enlisted the locals to strike a balance. Every other Kodava and Gowda family here has someone in the military, para-military or state police.
“That’s because with minimal education and good physique you can get into the army. And you get away from the hills and go far away in search of adventure. There’s a lot of respect for the armed forces. Parents are eager to give their daughters in marriage to a soldier,” says our cab driver, often the most trusted local source of journalists worldwide.
Parents tell you proudly that their son is in the army or police—and rank really doesn’t matter. He could be a jawan or an officer, a constable or an inspector. Anuj, an estate labourer, spent Rs 60,000-70,000 to send his son to the army.
Aboobacker has a small
shop selling cigarettes, cool drinks and groceries. That’s about the scale of
commercial activity here. Like other traders in Coorg, he has migrated from
“Business? Hardly anything. For an old man like me, who really can’t do anything else, it’s okay to run this shop. For anything less than Rs 100 they come to my shop.
“For more than Rs 100, they go to Siddapura. For things that cost less than Rs 1,000 they go to Madikeri. For bigger shopping they go to Mysore or Bengaluru. That’s why the hills are so underdeveloped and can’t provide jobs for locals,” he says scratching his grey beard. Local youths have little choice but to migrate to the city in search of work.
On the face of it, it’s a strange dilemma, because both tourism and coffee should generate big money. But apparently no one knows what happens to the money. That’s one of the main reasons for Coorg’s underdevelopment. The money is not spent locally.
“I don’t know where the plantation and tourism money goes. But there are no jobs for young people here. My son has gone off to Dubai to work as a driver,” says Aboobacker.
Coorg has strong ties with Bengaluru. While the poor and middle classes go to the city to earn money, the patricians from the hills spend their money in the city. It’s a search for better-paid jobs in one case and pursuit of “happiness” in the other.
The city’s young, smart set go to the hills to unwind, so you’d expect that to push the economy further. These are young people who earn big money and spend it, too, most of it in the city. It fuels the growth of retail markets and services, but they also divert a trickle to these bucolic spots. Ironically, even the little they spend in Coorg—as rent for home stay or on food—eventually finds its way back to the city.
“Along with a group of friends, I went to Coorg in 2003. Besides spending on stay in a government tourism lodge, we hardly spent any money, as we would have done in the city in one evening,” recalls Eshwar Sundaresan, author of Bangalored—The Expat Story.
On a bus to Kushal Nagar there’s a group of college students from Kochi. What brings them to Coorg when Kerala itself is so green?
One of them said: “Oh, it’s the cool and pleasant weather and bingeing on liquor and pork. Also, away from our families”. Each spent less than a thousand on sightseeing, local travel by bus and food and beverage.
On the other hand, a coffee estate owner says: “We go to Bengaluru for shopping. Clothes, consumer durables, anything that costs over a thousand”. In the large plains town of Kushal Nagar, the owner of a small eatery has an interesting take on outward migration and inward tourism.
We locals don’t get to make money. So we flee to the cities. But our poverty follows us. We end up in slums and work as better-paid semi-skilled or unskilled workers. The rich remain rich and the poor remain poor.
“The city people make a lot of money, live in high-class apartments. They have all the good things and comforts. When they get bored with city life, they come to the hills. They stay in good resorts and home stays. Here they can enjoy the greenery, fresh air and clear streams. It’s good ‘time pass’ for them.
“We locals don’t get to make money. So we flee to the cities. But our poverty follows us. We end up in slums and work as better-paid semi-skilled or unskilled workers. The rich remain rich and the poor remain poor,” he sighs.
An estate owner put it differently. “We have the best of both worlds. We live in large spacious houses with modern material comforts. We also get the clean and green surrounding.”
Sums up Eshwar Sundaresan: “The poor suffer the most in the city. Even the police decision to curb night life hit the poor—they can’t get a bus in the night to return home from work. Or, after a long and tiring day in sweatshops, they can’t have a bite in one of the cheap roadside eateries. Bangalore shuts early, but that doesn’t stop the hep folks from partying hard in the night”.
If Marathahalli can
change, and change out of recognition, why not Abythmangala and other villages
One reason is obviously Bengaluru, India’s Silicon Valley or “knowledge hub of Asia”. Like the snake in the old classic game its appetite is insatiable. The city has gobbled up “halli-s” (village in Kannada) and “kere-s” (lake), besides “sandra-s”, “pete-s”, “pur-s” and “palya-s”.
Marathahalli, located on the Hosur-Sarjapur road in East Bangalore, was once just such a village on the rim of a sedate Pensioner’s Paradise and a hub of public sector behemoths that employed thousands of middle-class white collar employees.
“Now it represents the new, youthful, fashionable and prosperous Bengaluru,” says Eshwar Sundaresan. Marathahalli is indeed a microcosm of the city’s new fortunes. Glittering new shopping centres seduce customers with irresistible discounts—and are in turn surrounded by high-rise apartment complexes whose residents come from every other part of India. There’s only a sprinkling of Kannadigas.
Most of them arrived in the last decade—some earlier—to work in the software services industry. Young, single and independent professionals with high disposable surplus are swarming the newer parts of the city. Their new-found freedom, the consequent uninhibited swagger, the high adrenalin and the rage of hormones can stump a provincial soul.
It’s these professionals who catalysed the city’s exponential growth. The swanky malls and multiplexes and eclectic eateries came up to cater to their appetites. And these again are job-creating hubs for thousands more from other states. At the bottom of the migration pyramid are the construction workers and domestic helps, poor people from the rural south and even poorer people north of the Vindhyas. Latest of all are people from the north-eastern states, with their distinct looks.
I go to Marathahalli to buy a camera. In the old days, we’d have had to go to the city, MG Road in fact. At Staples, the array of electronic gadgets, stationery and travel accessories is mindboggling; almost infinite choice.
The shop assistant asks me to enter my contact details in a register. But the buying is the least of it. Spend an hour at these shops and you’ll learn a few things. In that hour, at each counter a dozen or so credit cards are swiped. Each bill is anything from a few hundred rupees to several thousand.
One of the first photos I take with my new toy is a nearby building—on the ground floor is a pizzeria, part of a global chain, and a swanky gym on the first floor. “First you eat the fat and then sweat it out to burn it,” says my friend, a senior journalist. They are conveniently adjacent.