Girls in trousers. Knives & forks. Camera phones. New dreams
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Girls in trousers. Knives & forks. Camera phones. New dreams

Special Economic Zones, the showpiece project of the Manmohan Singh government, are changing people’s lives in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, marking the arrival of a new generation of dreamers. Varghese K George reports.

india Updated: Mar 19, 2009 01:03 IST
Varghese K George
Varghese K George
Hindustan Times

The school teacher is grumpy. New objects are popping up all over the village. Some villagers are learning to eat with knives and forks. And there are new shops that sell fruit.

“Earlier we saw girls in trousers only in films and TVs. Now we see it in our neighbourhood,” C Chandhrasekhar, the teacher, says disapprovingly in the sprawling village of Sular Peta in Andhra Pradesh, on the Chennai-Kolkata stretch of the Golden Quadrilateral highway.

Motorcycles sales have zoomed. The cutlery, the trousers — these are emblems of the rise of the new Indian middle class.

Across Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, industrialisation is shaking up sleepy villages into frenetic activity, drawing a huge number of barely literate young men and women into a life and culture they did not know existed.

Fifty-six SEZs — enclaves where companies are given tax breaks to encourage investment — are being set up in Andhra Pradesh, 42 in Tamil Nadu.

In Sular Peta, sweeping changes in social attitudes and consumer patterns began two years ago, after the Appache Special Economic Zone (SEZ) began manufacturing shoes nearby for Adidas.

Of Appache’s 4,500 employees, 3,800 are local residents.

“Most workers are from poor backgrounds, with a little or no landholding,” Chandrasekhar says. “Middle class people avoid working in factories.”

Some 2.4 lakh Indians have joined the SEZ workforce over the last four years. Another 3.5 lakh are expected to join them as most of the 500-plus SEZs in India begin operations in the next three years.

“For every job created inside the SEZ there are two created outside,” says Commerce Secretary GK Pillai, who championed India’s SEZ policy.

The main difference from the earlier spurt in the services industry, particularly information technology, is that manufacturing employs Dalits and people from backward castes in large numbers.

Venkatamma, a Dalit who sell flowers in the local market, has also taken a step towards the middle class kingdom, thanks to her two children who work in Appache.

In about 18 months, her sons’ earnings helped the family go from a thatched hut to a house with a roof, and the family has a colour TV and cable.

But not everyone loves the discipline of the clock and uniform. Only 41 per cent of people are satisfied with their jobs and salaries at Appache, according to an unpublished study on SEZs commissioned by the government of India.

“But the fact remains that we have a monthly salary to look forward to,” says Kishore Babu, an electrician at the SEZ.

Women’s lives are changing as well. Across the border in Tamil Nadu, the Nokia SEZ at Sriperumbudur has 70 per cent female employees.

‘Chinna chinna asai,’ hums the music system, as workers at the manufacturing facility gather for lunch at a multi-cuisine canteen where Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra smiles at them from huge posters.

When AR Rahman composed this song in 1992 — about little ambitions flapping their wings — most of them were toddlers, like 20 year-old Pheeby Dorthy, who joined work in December 2005.

That was weeks before work began at the Nokia facility, 50 km north west of Chennai.

India didn’t produce a single handset until that year. Nokia’s original plan was to invest US $150 millions over four years, but it has already invested $285 million.

Pheeby’s life is changing. “I bought a TV, grinder and even a bed at our home for the first time,” she says. “The company gifted me a camera phone and I gave my old one to amma.”

Her colleague K Kavita was able to surprise her sister recently by gifting her a pair of gold earrings. “Earning money has helped me stand on my own feet,” she says. And marriage can wait. “I want to earn a Master’s degree first,” she says.

First Published: Mar 18, 2009 22:53 IST