Professionals who ditch India's cities due to Covid-19 happy to be back in home towns

Ms Smita Sundararaman, who wound up her business in Gurgaon, and moved to her home town of Lucknow. PHOTO: KARAN SUNDARARAMAN

NEW DELHI - Last month, software engineer Nabendu Biswas moved out of India's tech capital, Bengaluru, and returned to his hometown, Bhopal, which is among the cleanest cities in the country.

He took his seven-year-old son out of school and his wife quit her teaching job for the move at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country.

"My job (right now) requires working remotely. So I decided to move back to my home town, Now even if I have to go back to the office, my wife and kid will stay here only. I realised the child was developing breathing problems because of the pollution," he said.

The Covid-19 situation, he added, led to deep introspection, about where he wanted his child to grow up and how he wanted to save money.

"The cost of living (in Bengaluru) is so high. And I used to spend six hours travelling. Three hours each way. I don't think anywhere in the world anyone spends three hours commuting one way."

As work from home is an option now, many professionals have moved out of the big cities, forgoing the high rents and other living costs for a relatively cheaper and simple life back home.

Some are moving temporarily, others for longer.

In March, India instituted one of the most stringent lockdowns, which shut down the economy.

It immediately triggered a reverse migration of hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers who had lost their jobs and were desperately seeking to reach home, many of them walking.

While the return of migrants and the hardships caused by the sudden lockdown in March have been widely documented, the movement of professionals has not got as much attention, probably because it has so far not been on the scale of the poorer workers.

"How much of it (professionals moving out of cities) will happen we don't know. High skilled migration (for those with the option of working from home) is basically for them to save money. This is something that is happening globally, not just Chennai, Mumbai or Bangaluru. It is leading to huge savings and a lot of investment will happen in villages and towns," said Professor S. Irudaya Rajan at the Centre for Development Studies, an autonomous research centre.

A study by Anarock Property Consultants said that India's top cities account for almost 70 per cent of the country's residential market, with the the next rung of smaller cities accounting for the remainder. This ratio, the study said, could change with cities like Coimbatore, Jaipur and Ahmedabad being the main beneficiaries of the reverse migration of professionals.

"The work-from-home culture has settled in, with many companies now allowing protracted or even permanent WFH options to their employees. This has kick-started a movement towards the less cluttered and cheaper suburbs, or even sort of reverse migration wherein many people choose to move to smaller cities, often their hometowns as properties are cheaper there," said Mr Anuj Puri, chairman of Anarock.

"This enables them to buy larger homes with home offices. Smaller cities are also considered safer than the metros from a pandemic point of view."

But professionals have also been the victim of job cuts. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a business information company, has said that 6.6 million white-collar workers lost their jobs between May to August.

Among them is Mr Chintham Venu, who lost his job as a field investigator for a government statistical office at Warangal in Telangana.

He returned to his home village in a nearby district some 30km away, where his father is a farmer, and is now planning a trip next month to Hyderabad, the state capital, to look for a job.

"Right now, I am sitting at home. I don't know if I will get a job."

Some are also discovering that returning to their home towns is a good way to recharge.

In March, Ms Smita Sundararaman, 43, wound up the naturopathy clinic she operated for eight years in the city of Gurgaon. By mid-August, she was back in Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh state.

"I knew it (Covid) was going to hurt the business. We do physical treatments in our centre and can't do it 3m apart. People were paranoid and there was so much uncertainty in the environment. It was a difficult call (to shut down the business and return to her home town)."

Ms Sundararaman, who also took her two children out of school, is now reassessing the family's future as she adjusts to life just 15 minutes away from her mother in her home town.

"This is a good time to be introspective," she said.

But she cannot marvel enough at the help she is getting even from neighbours. Her next-door neighbour is walking her two dogs every morning after she fractured her foot.

"Who does that anywhere else?" said Ms Sundararaman, obviously referring to the city where she lived previously.

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