the lede Labour

Flush with Cash

Inside the unofficial plumbing capital of India

By NAMRATA SAHOO | 1 March 2016

On 11 September 2014, as the Kashmir Valley suffered floods caused by torrential rainfall, the newspaper DNA carried an article headlined “Over 100 Odisha plumbers stranded in Jammu and Kashmir.” All these plumbers belonged to Odisha’s Kendrapara district, the story said. In 2011, a “band of migrant plumbers from Kendrapara” was similarly stuck in the middle of an armed conflict in Libya, according to the news website Rediff. Another 2011 report, in The Hindu, talked about Oriya plumbers in Libya who were duped by a fake placement agency that had promised them jobs in the United Kingdom. I knew it wasn’t a coincidence that the plumbers of Kendrapara cropped up again and again in stories about Oriya migrants. It is a running joke in Odisha—where I grew up—that if the state wasn’t a part of India, the country’s plumbing system would collapse.

Kendrapara is the plumbing capital of Odisha, perhaps even of all India. But Kendrapara’s plumbing capital is a small village, Pattamundai, where practically every man is employed as a plumber, or is related to someone who is. The village is home to the State Institute of Plumbing Technology, or SIPT, the only institute in the country dedicated to plumbing. Pattamundai’s plumbers have migrated not only to most parts of India, but also to many different corners of the world, especially the Gulf countries and West Asia.

I visited Pattamundai in late November. As I talked to several people across the village, one name that kept coming up was Choudhry Pradhan. Many villagers remembered him as the first man to venture outside the village to become a plumber, but the historical details were, at best, sketchy. This was until I met 72-year-old Purushottam Behera, Choudhry’s nephew, who approached me after overhearing a conversation I was having with a villager in the street. With Behera, it all fell into place. I found the first plumbing family of Pattamundai.

Choudhry’s journey started in late-1920s Calcutta at Gammon India Limited—a construction company founded, in 1922, by a British businessman, John C Gammon. He would go on to work for several other companies in the city. Choudhry, who was born in Pattamundai on an unknown date, may have been in his twenties at this point, according to Behera. He trained and worked as a plumber at Gammon India, and moved to Delhi in the early 1930s. Taking up small plumbing jobs at first, he saved up and eventually started his own company.

“My uncle was a very affectionate man,” Behera told me.“I remember how he used to ensure that I was well fed when I visited him. He would only eat after we had eaten.”

Once he became a plumbing contractor, Choudhry began hiring people from Pattamundai and training them on the job. The village, located on the banks of the Tons River, was prone to floods, and never had good agricultural prospects. Having witnessed Choudhry’s rise, the villagers flocked to plumbing, either to work for him or to learn the trade elsewhere. Those I spoke to unanimously denied caste-based segregation, stating that all sections of the village were involved in the profession. Patriarchy, however, kept women out of the profession, as it still does—and as a result, Choudhry, who had two daughters, was left without a successor. When he died, sometime in the mid 1970s, his company shut down.

Duryodhan Pradhan, another of Choudhry’s nephews, succeeded his uncle as the plumbing patron of the village. He learned plumbing in Pattamundai, and moved to Delhi in the 1960s. In 1965, he founded DD Pradhan & Co Pvt Ltd, now a Rs 25-crore company employing numerous plumbers from Kendrapara. Better known in Pattamundai by the nickname Dhani—meaning wealthy—the 83-year-old is now a household name in the village. His two sons, Ramakanta and Hemakanta, now run the firm, which has its office in Sarvapriya Vihar, an upscale neighbourhood in Delhi. Besides providing plumbing services throughout India, Dhani’s company is also a part of an industry of agents who supply plumbers to overseas employers.

Back in Pattamundai, Samar Sahoo, a travel agent, told me that in 2015 alone he had sold more than 25,000 tickets in the region. “In Bhubaneswar, if a travel agent sells 90 percent domestic tickets and 10 percent international tickets, the ratios are reversed in Kendrapara,” he said. “Almost all of them are for plumbers, who need to travel outside for their job.” The predominant destinations for these men include Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Many have returned from Libya and Syria due to the crises there.

Though plumbing contractors value experience over education, SIPT, founded in 2005, has contributed to bringing a greater expertise to the profession in the region. In a phone conversation, Baijayant Panda, a member of parliament from Kendrapara, told me, “There is an urgent need for change in the people’s mindset. They need to understand the importance of an educational degree. How long can one ride on the back of reputation in the current competitive scenario?” Panda said it would be impossible to tell how many plumbers had migrated from the village. “Enumeration could not be done due to two reasons,” he said. “First, a requirement for enumeration was never felt. Secondly, people have been migrating outside the country for more than 50 years and keeping track was not practically possible.”

Pattamundai, a sleepy village with a population of 32,000, has mostly kuchcha roads lined with massive coconut and banyan trees. Many migrant plumbers leave their families behind and only visit their homes a few times a year. They often use their earnings to build homes in the village, which can be large and extravagant. Ashish Senapati, a senior lawyer from Kendrapara, said that in a majority of the villages in the district, every house has a proper toilet, with adequate plumbing facilities—something that is unheard of in many parts of rural India. Real-estate prices in Pattamundai village, Senapati said, are on par with those in the state’s capital, Bhubaneswar, and occasionally higher.

On my trip, I met a young man who works as a plumber in Dubai. He had come home to spend Diwali with his family, and was overseeing the construction of his new house. He told me of an Oriya saying that sums up the reach of the district’s plumbers. “Go to any five-star hotel in and around India,” he said, “throw a stone anywhere, a plumber from Kendrapara will catch it.”

Namrata Sahoo is a journalist based in Bhubaneshwar.

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