HYDERABAD, INDIA – The road to Hyderabad winds through a landscape of ancient boulders – some three or four stories high. The earth-colored stones fill wide gaps between the sleek, high-rise towers that push the city’s skyline and suburbs to new limits.
Hyderabad is a tech boom town that could be a sister city to Seattle, and its rapid growth has sparked tensions between old and new, rich and poor.
“As you see this road that goes snaking down through the valley of the rocks and the building there, this was not here five years ago,” says Juhee Ahmed, a marketing manager at Microsoft. Inside her office, the view looks out at new development, with construction cranes in every direction.
“It’s amazing, the spurt of growth in this corridor that’s occurred in the last eight or nine years,” Ahmed says. And it’s not all accounted for by Microsoft.
“Certainly in Hyderabad, we’re seen as one of the thought leaders in terms of setting the bar, both in terms of quality of life and the experience we offer employees,” she says.
Microsoft was one of the early pioneers that put Hyderabad on the global tech map. The company expanded here in 1998. Many others followed, including Amazon, Google –
“Deloitte, Tata Consultancy, Wipro –” Ahmed ticks off names of other tech companies. “It just goes on and on and on.”
It’s a boom town. And a city full of workers, from software engineers to brick layers, have flocked here to be a part of it.
This new growth is concentrated just a few miles from the old, traditional part of Hyderabad, in a new suburb called Cyberabad, where developers are literally carving away an ancient landscape.
Aparna Rayaprol is a sociologist at the nearby University of Hyderabad. Part of her work examines the transformation of this city where she grew up. She offers to take me on a walk near a lake surrounded by huge, billion-year-old boulder fields.
Up close, the size of the rocks are stunning.
“That’s why I brought you here,” Rayaprol says. “They used to call it the Mushroom Rock. Anything they build in Hyderabad, they have to blast the rocks. That’s the expression that’s generally used – lot of blasting. This entire HITEC City is built because of this blasting.”
HITEC City is the name of the technology township built on 151 acres in Cyberabad.
On our walk, you can clearly see where new meets old; where glass towers butt up against formations of balancing rocks. Some are protected as natural heritage sites.
Looking out at Cyberabad, Rayaprol recalls how it was mostly just a vision in the 1990s. Local politicians wanted to create an international tech hub here, to bring jobs, investment and growth. It arrived like a monsoon.
Later, as our taxi crawls through traffic, motorcycles and three-wheeled auto rickshaws weave past us. It makes Seattle rush hour traffic look like a cake walk. Eight years ago, this sluggish commute took Rayaprol just 10 minutes.
Granted, many of these people are commuting to jobs that didn’t exist here until recently. But Rayaprol questions if the city is “doing things the right way.”
We drive by flimsy, tarp-covered shacks where construction workers live while jobs are underway.
Pedestrians walk in the street, because sidewalks and public transit are both scarce.
Like any boom town, Hyderabad has growing pains. And in the race to build, Rayaprol faults officials for shortsighted urban planning that focuses too much on the business class.
“They will say, we created jobs, development, this is what Hyderabad is about,” she says. “Yeah, it’s good, but is it really trickling down? I don’t think it is completely, you know?”
Recent World Bank data supports Rayaprol’s observations. Last year, in India’s urban areas, the gap between rich and poor reached an all-time high.
About an hour outside of Hyderabad, huge pyramids of red bricks border the road. Workers toss them into trucks, with scarves tied around their faces to block the dust.
These workers, and those who make the bricks, are a lynchpin of Hyderabad’s construction boom. If you were to peel back the shiny, high tech facades on many buildings, you’d find a layer of brick and mortar underneath.
Aeshalla Krishna, a labor organizer with the human rights group Prayas, led me into one of the worker’s huts on a property where bricks are made.
“This is the kitchen, this is bedroom inside – ”
Most of the brick workers are migrant laborers from the lowest caste of India’s society, called Scheduled Caste, or Dalits. Krishna works with a nonprofit that tries to improve their wages and conditions.
Krishna introduces me to Pujpha Bania, 33, who travelled several days from her home in Odissa state to work here at the brick kiln. We sit on a small bed, next to the campfire where they cook. Bania’s 8-year-old daughter, Manisha, hangs laundry outside in bare feet, next to a muddy walkway littered with trash. The girl is not in school because she doesn’t speak the local Telugu language.
They’re one of the only migrant families on the property since our visit is during the monsoon season, which typically halts work at the outdoor brick kilns across the country.
“She wants to stay here her entire life,” Krishna says. “But it depends on the owner, if the owner will allow.”
Bania says she wants to stay because even though living conditions here are meager, it’s better than her home village.
Bania says her wages fall far below the government-set minimum, which is roughly US $7 for a day’s work making 1,000 bricks. And sure, she’d like more money, but she offered few other complaints about the job.
That could truly be the case, or she may just holding back – a foreman is milling around outside her hut as we talk.
At many local brick kilns, Krishna says he often witnesses problems with exploitation, child workers and bonded labor. And these red bricks they make – he calls them blood bricks.
“They work like goats," Krishna said. “They live like forest people. You can see there, the open factory. It’s a very dangerous place.”
Krishna says the smoke and ash from the outdoor brick kilns causes respiratory and skin problems.
International guidelines, backed by the United Nations, require multinational companies working in India to ensure no human rights abuses exist in their supply chain.
As we leave the hut, a group of six men in slacks and white shirts approach. One is the kiln owner. We ask for an interview.
“He’s walking away. It looks like he doesn’t want to talk with us,” I tell Krishna.
After some tense back and forth, the owner relaxes and tells me about business, as Krishna translates from Hindi.
“Lot of boom is there in Hyderabad. Lots of American companies and British companies: Amazon, Google, HP, Microsoft. Every big, big companies are there,” he says.
When I ask if he pays his workers minimum wage, he says that he does, although with a caveat.
“It’s depending on the season and it’s depending on boom of outside city,” he says. “It depends on the boom, ma’am.”
If development is booming in Hyderabad, he says, then workers can make more money.
This owner is banking on the boom, too. Due to draught, he switched gears from rice and tobacco farming to the brick kiln. Rain is scarce, he says. But there’s a downpour of tech.