The other face of India’s growing coffee culture

Six years ago, Dinesh Dobri of Billekh, a remote village in Uttarakhand, took a bus to New Delhi. He was 21, excited, even a little giddy. When he stepped off the bus at the inter-state bus terminus in east Delhi, he froze. “I had never seen so many cars, trucks and buses. I was wondering where I had come. I was scared to cross the road. I even told the bus conductor that I wanted to go back,” recalls Dobri.

It’s just as well the bus driver wasn’t persuaded.

The last six years have brought a sea change in Dobri’s life—from becoming a store manager at Costa Coffee to getting married to pursuing higher studies to learning English while on the job, he’s been a busy man.

“When I came to Delhi, I used to think that inter (or 10+2) is enough—ab bahut padh liya, ab kuch job kar lo (Enough of studies, it’s time to get a job). After I started working at Costa Coffee, I realised that graduation is a must. If you have to get ahead in life, education is most important. This is something I realised after coming to Delhi,” says Dobri, speaking in Hindi.

Dobri finished his class 12 in 2008 and is now studying for graduate degree in BA history from Chaudhary Charan Singh University in Meerut.

At age 27, Dobri has become one of hundreds of thousands of Indians whose aspirations—both personal and professional—are today linked inextricably with migrating to a metropolitan city like Delhi or Mumbai. “If I’d stayed in my village, no one would have given me their daughter’s hand in marriage. After I had been promoted twice, I thought it was the right time to get married,” he said.

Of course, none of this may have happened without coffee.

India allowed foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail in 1997. Since then, retail has emerged as one of the fastest growing sectors in the country.

Costa Coffee, a British multi-national coffee chain entered India in 2005.

The mushrooming of coffee houses across the country in the past 15 years has familiarized Indians with the global experience of enjoying a non-alcoholic beverage that wasn’t tea.

Coffee consumption in India has jumped 50% since 2000 to 1.2 million bags of 60kg each, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Coffee shops needed workers —managers, servers, cleaners—young men and women from the rural hinterland.

According to the 2001 census, 307 million people migrated internally within India. Out of this, the majority of 268 million were intra-state migrants.

Dobri grew up far away from all of this commercialisation surrounded by the hills and temples of Uttarakhand. His father was a poor farmer who made around Rs.8,000-9,000 a year. Obviously, that meant even basic necessities like television, telephone, electricity were not part of his childhood.

“I remember till class 7 we did not have electricity in our house. After that my father applied for a connection for electricity but our turn came after waiting for two-and-a-half years. We never felt the need to have a fridge or an air conditioner thanks to the perfect weather conditions in Uttarakhand,” says Dobri.

“I bought a Samsung LED television set for my house this year,” he said.

And he sends Rs.2,000 home every month from his salary.

While things at his home seem to be improving, the village itself still lacks basic facilities like banks, private schools etc. “Till 2011, we did not even have road connectivity. We had to walk 3-4 km to catch a bus. The landline phone came in 2008, but only 5-6 families have fully working connections. I still send money to the local post office for my mother. The nearest bank is in Ranikhet,” he says.

Dobri doesn’t know anything about figures, economic reforms or FDI. He says he had no means of acquiring such information but instinctively acknowledges the changes he sees around him.

The biggest change Dobri has seen is in himself.

The fear of cars, roads and crowds has disappeared. He can hold a conversation with any of his customers at Costa Coffee, even though his English fails him at times. There’s that Italian sauce—but he admits he can’t pronounce Pesto correctly.

As far as Delhi is concerned, Dobri has been to all the shopping malls to help with new store openings for Costa Coffee. He moves around freely from one popular joint in the city like Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi to another and embraces the challenges that the city throws his way.

“Don ban ke ghoomte hain ab to,” says Dobri. “I move around like I’m the boss.”