‘A Conversation with a Chai-wallah’ – Is development always a positive thing?

This post is also on my human rights/development blog, but I’ve also archived it here in the travel section because it looks at social development through a travel experience.

Manesar, 25, is a ‘chai-wallah’ (tea seller). He has spent the last ten years of his life riding the Taj express train between Agra and Delhi. He spends all of his time on the trains between the not-so-picturesque route, selling sandwiches on commission. The chai-wallahs wear a Government-issued uniform of red shirt-blue trousers, and wander up and down the train selling tea, coffee and snacks. Manesar earns twelve rupees for every hundred rupees-worth he sells. He usually manages to earn a few hundred rupees every day, just enough to live in Agra, famed for The Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. He was born and brought up in Agra and has watched it grow over the last decade or two. The roaring tourist trade which brings people to Agra has never died down, and yet, the Government of India is only now making an effort to build up this sprawling city.

I got to meet Manesar while I was winding my way to the Taj Mahal, during a whistle-stop tour of North India. Being somewhat unaware of the maze you must survive to actually get a decent seat on an Indian train (for future reference – ‘WL’ means wait-listed) meant that I spent my journey standing in the gap between two carriages, next to the toilets, unwilling to sit on the floor because of the myriad of interesting, not to mention alarming, red and brown stains. This was worth it, partly because “train-surfing” is the best way to pass the time on a somewhat boring journey, and partly because the chai-wallahs after looking at us curiously for a while, decided we were worth making friends with.

After the usual questions of ‘where are you from?’, ‘what do you do?’ and ‘are you married?’ (my answer of no always seems to leave people astounded – apparently I am that old), we moved on to something much more serious. Manesar said he loved Agra, it was his home, he wanted to continue to live there. Yet, he felt his options were severely limited.

What is the problem, I asked? He said: “Everything has become so expensive now. With the building of large apartment blocks and improvement of the infrastructure, big companies are starting to move in, and the prices are rising. What used to be affordable for me isn’t now.” So, what can he do about it? “I want to learn English so that I can move to Delhi and get a better job. Once I’ve learnt English, more people will want to employ me. Then, I can earn more money and save and will be able to marry and settle down and have a family.”

This is a rite of passage for most Indians. Marrying and having a family is the norm – as a male, Manesar is automatically cast in the role of breadwinner, and his own family will want him to settle down. Learning English is considered a huge boon, and is said to open every door. But, does it really? Many of the jobs available in India today are considered menial work: domestic workers, rag pickers, street cleaners, labourers etc. They are not well paid, but they are enough to get by. Chalta hai. It’ll do. However, the aspirational ideals that are instilled within people who learn English often backfire in this society. The command of English really achieved in a fast-track six week course is not high enough to do office work, not high enough to get a well-paying job, and often leaves people struggling to get into the educated job market, straddling two classes, two worlds and often two locations.

The advent of cranes, tractors and concrete changing the face (physically and metaphorically) of these cities is not necessarily a positive thing. Jobs are created and for some people, life does improve – they move to a shinier apartment and a better job title. Their lifestyle changes from one of austerity to one of excess.

The problem lies with those of the lowest classes, who do the lowest wage jobs and are forced to stay in that position, slumped with their heads to the ground, spending their lives in servitude to those above. For them, development does not help. For them, job creation will only work if they are trained, taught new skills and given a command of English that actually facilitates work, without the arrogance that comes with it.

I asked Manesar whether he would consider a job as a domestic worker, even a driver or a gardener – someone who isn’t necessarily in “service”, but still gets reasonable pay. He refused outright: “No, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to work in someone’s house.” He complained about the trains: “Sometimes they can be really late, and then you have to stay in a hotel in Delhi. You have to buy food from a restaurant which costs one to two hundred rupees. It becomes really difficult.” The throwaway amounts of money that we often take for granted are a night’s stay or a meal or really, a lifeline with which one finds freedom. And yet, Manesar seemed fairly happy with his job – unwilling or not ready to leave yet. Servants or the more “PC”, domestic workers are treated well, are usually given food and board above their monthly salary. Most employers will educate them or their kids. They are considered well-off in comparison to their families living in rural India.

There is a whole cross-section of society in the same position as Manesar: they cannot jump from uneducated and poor to educated and rich; this dichotomy seems impossible to bridge. The success stories do exist, but what about the thousands of unknowns like Manesar? He has a job, he has a livelihood – it may not be what he wants, but he has one, and so he does not require help. But, where is the help for those people who want to earn a better living and improve the quality of their life?

Aren’t the founts of a capitalist society to do with aspirational rewards? Do we not strive to do better, be better, be the best with everything we do? Why is this option denied to those who are hungry for it? The development of cities may be done with the best intentions, but if it isn’t matched with the development of its people, then it renders billions of pounds in investment and aid moot.

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3 Responses to ‘A Conversation with a Chai-wallah’ – Is development always a positive thing?

  1. PensiveTams says:

    This is what happens when the state gives importance to the Macro environment, at the peril of the micro. Agents of development should not confine themselves to being agents of the World Bank and the IMF. Its time to do a re-thinking on the odes we sang in praise of Globalization.

    • nankichawla says:

      Thank you for commenting 🙂

      Definitely agree. It’s looking at a portion of growth which is an inaccurate representation of the whole – it’s impossible to get an accurance unless you look at the micro environment. It does depend on what form of Globalisation you’re talking about, though. Culturally, a huge fan – economically, in princple it makes sense, but in practice – well, look at the Eurozone.

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