Moving from villages to bigger cities has been the norm since time immemorial. But increasingly, a growing number of people are moving back to their roots or to smaller cities. Call it disillusionment with city life or the availability of better opportunities in smaller areas, ‘reverse migration’ is a trend that is slowly catching on. “The demand for skills in a thriving economy keeps changing, both over time and across geographies. Consequently, mobility of labour—whether rural-to-urban or urban-to-rural—is of key importance,” says Girish Bahal, associate fellow, National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), New Delhi. “Migration of labour from small towns to big cities or vice-versa is important, as it indicates an efficient labour market, where the workforce sorts itself geographically based on skills and human capital.”
With a highly saturated urban market, employers, too, have started looking to the country’s interiors with renewed interest. Also, as technology plays a prime part in connecting India, the boundary between metros, small towns and villages is getting blurred. “The comparatively low cost of business operations and faster transport connectivity are key reasons driving businesses to look at tier II and III cities,” says Priyanka Singh, spokesperson, RuralShores, a rural business process outsourcing (BPO) company, which has 18 centres across nine states, providing employment opportunities to people who wish to stay in small cities. The company, which started in 2008 with just 170 employees, has 3,700 employees today in places such as Ratnagiri (Maharashtra) and Barmer (Rajasthan).
And it’s not just private enterprises that are wooing the rural masses. The Union government, too, is looking at expanding employment opportunities in these areas. It recently approved an ‘India BPO Promotion Scheme’, envisaged under the Digital India Programme, with an outlay of about Rs 493 crore. Under the scheme, around 190 new BPOs—with a combined seating capacity of 1.25 lakh employees (per shift)—are slated to come up in the smaller pockets of the country. Tata Consultancy Services has already opened a centre in Patna and will follow it up with another in Varanasi. Other companies are opening up BPOs in places like Allahabad, Bareilly, Ghazipur, Lucknow and Siliguri. “The advantages of a big city (economies of scope and scale, cultural enrichment, product and service availability, etc) can all be had in peri-urban areas and smaller towns as well if the governance is right and the physical infrastructure is good,” says Shekhar Shah, director-general, NCAER.
Also, the act of people moving out of big cities to their hometowns is by no means an indication of aspiration deficit, say experts. Rather, it means these people are looking at their hometowns with a zeal that was earlier meant only for urban pockets. No wonder then that recruiters are only too happy to open doors for them. “Some industries may reach a saturation point in big cities due to various reasons, but there may still be considerable potential for growth in those industries in smaller cities and towns. This creates entrepreneurship opportunities, which, in turn, generate demand for jobs,” says Bahal.
Start-ups, too, are playing a big role in reverse migration. Take, for instance, RuralNaukri. The online job portal is specifically meant for people looking for jobs in smaller cities. “Places like Coimbatore and Jodhpur can offer young entrepreneurs all the facilities of a big city at a lower cost. So why would one look at Chennai or Delhi?” says Ajay Gupta, who runs RuralNaukri. Even leading job portals like Monster India and Naukri have sections dedicated to smaller cities.
There’s also the fact that small cities make for thriving business centres due to better availability of resources, lower infrastructure costs and a low attrition rate. “It’s economically better for industries to set up units in smaller areas, as it’s more expensive to buy land in big cities. This, in turn, benefits consumers, as the cost of production declines, further boosting the labour market,” says Rachit Jain, founder, Youth4work, an employment website that assesses the skills of rural job seekers.
Consumption patterns, too, have changed over the years, forcing industries to shift focus. “Domestic consumption of various kinds, be it telecom or food, is expanding beyond the 45 big cities in India that have more than a million people. Consequently, the fastest-growing segments as far as jobs are concerned are sales, customer service and logistics,” says Manish Sabharwal, chairman, TeamLease, a Mumbai-based staffing solutions company. “When we started 15 years ago, almost 100% of the demand was clustered in the 50 big cities. About 10 years ago, it spread to 200 cities and now we have employees in more than 4,500 cities,” he adds.
Himalay Verma did his schooling from The Doon School, Dehradun, graduated from IIT-Roorkee and then went on to do his masters in architecture from Cornell University, USA. After that, he worked as an architect and planner from 2000 till 2009. But through it all, Verma kept alive his desire to work for the people of Banka, his native place in rural Bihar. Pursuing his dream , though, wasn’t easy. His friends and family couldn’t understand why he would want to quit his lucrative job (as an architect at Tata Realty & Infrastructure) and plush lifestyle in Mumbai to set up base in a remote town.
But quit he did in 2009 and moved to Siljori in Banka district for good. “My main objective was to generate employment in rural Bihar. Wherever I would go, my mind would keep returning to Bihar with several ideas of how I could contribute to its development,” the 41-year-old says. Verma took some loans and started his company, SKILL Foods, which is based on the ‘farm-to-plate’ concept, the same year he moved to Siljori. The company is involved in every stage of food production—procurement from farmers, storage, primary, secondary and tertiary processing, and sales and marketing—till it reaches a consumer’s plate. What distinguishes his company from other such ventures, Verma says, is the fact that at SKILL Foods, value addition occurs at the place of production itself with the full involvement of growers, thereby benefitting the farmers financially. At present, SKILL Foods employs more than 300 people, mostly locals.
“Banka is the third-most underdeveloped district in the country. I am also working on tie-ups with importers globally to export various commodities and farm produce from Bihar… I am trying to find investors, too, who can help me develop this further,” Verma says, adding, “Today, more than 5,000 families from Banka and Deoghar districts of Bihar and Jharkhand are benefitting in some way or the other from my intervention. Which city job would have given me this kind of satisfaction?”
Verma, who once worked at close quarters with the likes of Ratan Tata and Hafeez Contractor, also runs SKILL Designers and SKILL Developers, ventures set up in partnership with his architect wife. The two Patna-based companies provide architectural and interior design services. Verma says he can wax eloquent about the joys of living in Bihar. “The only days I get frustrated are when things move at a snail’s pace in Siljori. What would happen in a week’s time in, say, Chennai takes about a year here. But all the trouble is worth it when I see a smile on an employee’s face,” he says.
The idea to be an entrepreneur was born out of necessity for Poonam Jain. It was an inherent desire to stay close to his family that made this 28-year-old pack his bags one fine morning in 2014 and say goodbye to Pune. “Pune was my city of dreams, but all it took was three years to feel the burnout. I realised that the distance between me and my parents was growing with each passing year,” says the software engineer. So Jain left his job at Tata Consultancy Services in 2014 in Pune and moved to Mahasamund district, his hometown in Chhattisgarh.
A year later, he opened his software solutions firm, PCJ Technologies, from his own savings in Raipur (a two-hour drive from Mahasamund), where he now lives. Jain hasn’t looked back since. “The geographies have blurred with the coming of the Internet. I have people working for me who have come back after studying in cities like Pune and Delhi. I have international clients as well. One doesn’t have to live in a metropolis to be successful,” says Jain, who meets his parents every weekend now.
“The interaction over phone is never satisfactory. It’s only when you meet your parents that you get to know what’s happening in their lives. During my weekly visits, I meet not just them, but other people too, who are now part of my parents’ lives, like neighbours, etc.” And whenever this single guy misses the glitz of city life, he hops onto a flight and heads to Pune or Bengaluru.
Jain has inspired many among his friends and relatives to migrate from big cities.
“Their biggest concern is whether they will miss the fast-paced life of a big city,” he says, adding, “I tell them that finding your foothold initially may not be as easy as in a big city, as you won’t have easy access to resources, but slowly, you learn to work your way around.” The trend right now, he feels, is to move away from the herd. “So while people from my parents’ generation aspired to settle in a big city, we are looking at coming back to our roots,” he says.
Ambarish Soni is a big believer in fate and destiny. If it wasn’t for fate, he says, he would have been an American citizen today. It all started in 1995, in the middle of his senior residency at the All lndia lnstitute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi, when Soni decided to move to the US. He even cleared all the exams, but fate had other plans for him. “While I was making plans to move to the US, I suffered from tuberculosis and had to drop the idea of emigrating,” says Soni, an opthalmologist, who completed his MBBS from AIIMS-Delhi.
“It completely changed my perspective of life. I realised that the stress of urban living was affecting my health,” the 45-year-old says. “I decided I couldn’t stay in Delhi any more… I wanted a 9-5 job, which wouldn’t have been possible at AIIMS or any other hospital in Delhi. I couldn’t have started my own practice in Delhi too, because of the high rentals, so I decided to move back to my hometown.”
But it was only in 2003, after 13 years of living in Delhi, that he could move to Bokaro where his parents were living. He lived with them initially and started two eye hospitals with some bank loans and money borrowed from relatives. His initial investment was Rs 25 lakh, he says. “I see my friends struggling to set up their units in big cities—not to mention the high levels of stress that comes with city life—and I realise I took the best decision,” says Soni, who is married to a gynaecologist and has two children aged 10 and 15 years. “I may see fewer patients or earn less money than my peers in the city, but that’s a small price to pay for a peaceful eight hours of sleep.”
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It wasn’t with the dream of one day going back to his hometown in Meghalaya that Poirei Sanasam set foot in the national capital in 2000. As an English (Hons) student in Delhi University, he had never worried about which city he will build his career in. “At that time, I was paying attention to my studies. I was even pursuing a distance-learning programme in information technology from the Manipal Academy of Higher Education,” the 36-year-old says today.
After graduation, the lure of the call centre industry pushed him into working with a leading BPO organisation as part of its technical support team. “Soon, I moved into digital content development and the publishing industry, and worked with AptaraCorp and Thomson Digital,” he says. But not long after, he started missing his hometown Shillong. “I had spent six years in Delhi and, by the end of it, I realised I had worked my way to the manager level, but I wasn’t happy,” says Sanasam.
So in 2010, he went back to Shillong and set up Polaris Solutions Enterprise, an educational consultancy, soft skills and vocational training organisation, with financial help from his mother of around `10 lakh. Since then, the company has grown from five employees to 14 (including freelancers) today. “We are doing about five times the business we had in the first year,” he says. During this time, Sanasam also got married and is now the father of a two-year-old.
Ask him if he ever wishes to go back to Delhi and the answer is an emphatic ‘no’. “For me, the grass is greener in Shillon —literally,” he says, adding, “Every person’s basic instinct is to strive for a life of quality. A smaller place allows you to experience it. The only time I would be in a city again would be when I have a branch office.” The only limitation of a small town, he says, is a slow-moving market. Sanasam also has a piece of advice for those who wish to shun the city life: “Take out a year and spend it at your target destination. Learn and then plan your business,” he says.
When Nishant Singh first informed his father about his decision of moving to the hills after quitting his high-paying corporate job, his father was aghast. He thought his son had drifted into a world of romanticism and would never recover. “My last corporate job was with Vodafone in Mumbai as a senior brand manager for its corporate marketing team. I quit in December 2008 to pursue what I had always dreamed about: living in the mountains. When I announced my decision to my family, very few people had heard about reverse migration. My dad thought it was an unwise move,” the 39-year-old recalls. “But soon, they realised that I was happy doing this and supported my decision,” says Singh, who lived for eight years in Mumbai before quitting it
It was years of brewing discontentment with corporate life that made Singh give it all up and run away to Manali in 2009, where he opened a small café the same year. For the project, Singh took a property on lease for around Rs 10 lakh, paying from his own savings. “It made sense for me to get into hospitality because I was always good with people. So I started a small café in Manali and passionately ran it till March this year till the lease got over,” he says. Singh has now bought a piece of land in Mukteshwar, Uttarakhand. “My resort, The Birdcage, opened to visitors last month and it’s almost fully booked,” he says.
Singh cites many examples of people following in his footsteps. “When I made the move, I hadn’t heard of anybody doing so. But now I see many young people working in rural outfits, hills, etc,” he says. The only downside, he says, is the lack of dating options for single people like him. “The chances of meeting a like-minded person are bleak compared to a big city,” he says.
For people looking to shift base from a big city to a smaller one, Singh has some advice: “If you aspire for a materialistic world, chances are you will be disillusioned soon. So be crystal-clear about your choices before taking the plunge,” he says.
Leaving the city for the hills was an easy decision for Shalini Dam who had a buzzing corporate life for over two decades: she wanted to wake up to a garden overlooking the mountains. It was this desire that made the adwoman quit her job as national creative director at advertising agency Grey India in 2010 in Delhi after 18 years in the advertising world.
But before moving to the hills, Dam knew that she had to chalk out a plan. So she took off for the UK. “I wanted to learn something new, so I packed my bags and went to learn pottery,” says the 47-year-old, who developed the famous Hungry kya campaign for Domino’s Pizza. She came back in 2012 with a masters in ceramics from the Cardiff School of Art & Design, UK, and started exhibiting her work.
It was two years later that Dam, along with her husband (also a former advertising professional who left his job in Delhi in 2014), moved to Galihar, a small village in Kullu district, and started work on ‘For A While’, their bed-and-breakfast. The BnB opened its doors to its first guests this year. And it’s here that Dam practises, as well as teaches pottery to guests. “The idea is to have an annual residency for artists,” she says.
Dam even gets invited as master trainer by hospitality groups. “It’s easy to follow your dreams if you have the conviction,” she says. Is there anything she misses? The restaurants in Delhi, she says. “You can’t order in in a village.”
Authored by Smitha Verma