On an unusually rainy afternoon in Kota, a man hurried to take shelter in a tea stall next to an educational centre in the heart of the town, India’s undisputed coaching capital.
After standing for nearly 15 minutes at the stall, waiting for the rain to stop, the man ordered a cup of tea. He then spotted cigarettes at the stall and asked for one.
“You can’t smoke here, you can buy cigarettes if you want but smoke somewhere else,” the tea vendor said.
The man was surprised and he asked the vendor the reason. The vendor, Anil Suman, replied patiently: “It’s almost 1 pm. It is time for students to go back to their hostels from this road. We don’t allow people to smoke in front of them, it acts as a bad influence. They have come here to study and not to get influenced by these things.”
Suman, 53, said he had been running the tea stall for 15 years and never allowed anyone to smoke after 10 am at his stall.
Small outlets like Suman’s and large businesses have powered Kota’s growth into India’s "shiksha nagari", or education hub, where tens of thousands of students from around the country flock every year to join coaching classes to prepare for various competitive entrance tests.
To be sure, many of these businesses crumbled two years ago in 2020, when the government announced a lockdown to curb the spread of COVID but have come back stronger.
These small business owners have a rare sense of empathy for the students.
“I see all these young kids every day wearing uniforms, walking with umbrellas in this scorching heat to attend classes and I feel like all these kids are my own kids because they are in my town,” Suman said.
“They are here to study, they have come here with an aim and I am sure they will be toppers one day. I don’t want things like cigarettes and all to come in their way in any manner. So, this is just a small contribution from my side. You see all the businesses here, you won’t find anybody who is solely behind money, we are here to help students and, in return, we earn what we do,” Suman added.
Kota is today a $500-million education hub. The businesses that have come up over the past three decades to help it maintain that status provide a direct and indirect livelihood to over 200,000 people.
Moneycontrol spoke to a number of people in Kota across businesses and has identified five sectors that are core to Kota’s education centres: accommodation providers, food retailers, libraries, local transport and the gig economy.
For any education hub, student accommodation is an obvious add-on, but here in Kota, it didn’t start as a business. Back in the early 1990s, as students from across the country started thronging Kota to study, local people used to let students stay in their houses. Many used to charge students only for electricity and food.
Akash Singh, a local, still lets about two to three students as paying guests at his house in Talwandi, an area close to Rajiv Gandhi Nagar, where most companies have set up their centres.
Singh works as an engineer in one of Kota’s factories and said that the PG accommodation he offers was not his mainstay. He recalled how other families also used to allow students to stay at their houses.
“We have never looked at it as a business. For us, it was about making parents feel safe that their kids are not alone, they are with some family,” said Singh, 56.
“But I feel so happy looking at other PG accommodation centres and hostels that have come up over the years. It has provided a livelihood to a number of people here in Kota. This has now become a proper business for many people also. But having said that, these hostel owners are still like parents to all these kids,” Singh added.
Today, Kota has close to 4,000 hostels and over 24,000 paying guest accommodation centres where students stay, according to the local people Moneycontrol spoke to. Moreover, after two years of lockdown, hostel owners are seeing unprecedented demand in 2022 as life returns to normal.
According to hostel owners, the average rent for single-occupancy rooms has gone up from Rs 11,000-13,000 a month to Rs 18,000-19,000 a month.
“For the first time, we are seeing that a hostel owner, who runs a hostel that has about 100 rooms, is telling parents and students that there are no rooms available. Earlier this used to be a technique of hyping up rates, but this year it’s the reality,” said Vinay Suman, who runs Himgiri Boys Hostel in Rajiv Gandhi Nagar.
Food outlets and messes
Just as hostels and PG accommodation centres have scaled over the years with tens of thousands of students coming to Kota every year, food outlets, restaurants and messes, too, have mushroomed.
Initially, there were only messes, or simple eateries, and mid-sized restaurants, according to locals.
“There used to be like one mess in every lane and very few restaurants. I think only parents used to visit restaurants whenever they used to come to drop off their kids,” said Deepesh Raman, a mess-owner.
“The messes, in fact, used to be crowded in the afternoons and at nights as there were very few. Today, you will not see anything like that and today, what has also changed is that these messes have merged with hostels, or classes, which works well for both—students save time as they get everything downstairs, and the mess owners save rent,” Raman added.
Over the years, the situation has changed. Today, every lane and bylane in Kota is lined with small eateries. Locals have set up food and tea stalls in lanes leading to coaching classes and hostels. Many local vendors claim that people from neighbouring towns have come to Kota to start such stalls.
Kota, being a small town, had never had a fast-food culture as such. But, today, a number of cafes have opened in the town, serving momos to pizzas and burgers.
“Especially after the pandemic, I think students have gotten more used to eating fast food and so you will see so many new cafes opening here. Many of these have only opened over the last one year or so,” said Raman.
Most of these stalls also sell stationery items like pens, pencils, folders, notebooks, outline maps, and compass boxes, among other items.
“There used to be quite a few stationery stores, which used to sell books and notebooks along with other things here in the town. But as the content had started becoming more digital, they were seeing their businesses struggling,” said Pramod Misra, a small food-joint owner.
“Now you will find very few standalone stationery shops. Most books are available online and then for notebooks and other stationery items, students prefer buying on the go. So, all these food stalls have started keeping stationery items on their shelves,” Misra added.
Kota is India’s coaching capital, and one would expect libraries to be a common sight in an education hub but libraries have become a common sight only in the last six years.
“I think the culture of libraries as such was never there because you won’t find colleges as such here in the town. All the colleges have tied up with coaching centres, so for a student, it was always about studying in classes or in their hostel rooms,” said Ashish Kumar Meena, who runs a library called Open Book in Kota.
“Over the last six years or so, when more and more students started coming to the town, hostels started getting bigger and crowded and so students felt the need for going to a library where they can sit quietly and study,” Meena added.
Today Kota has about 50 to 60 large libraries, each of which can seat 100-200 students. Meena said many people, including former educators, have opened libraries and it has become a full-time business for most.
Most libraries are open 24 hours and typically have three shifts—morning to afternoon, afternoon to evening and evening to night. These libraries have coolers and air conditioners installed and charge about Rs 600 to Rs 800 a month. Night charges differ and are slightly higher.
“I was a teacher of botany at one of the classes here till 2020 and during the pandemic, I lost my job. A lot of my peers shifted online but I wasn’t able to do that because of some personal reasons,” said an educator, who now runs a library in Kota, requesting anonymity.
“I didn’t have any financial problems as such because of the pandemic to be honest but I wanted to do something for kids, wanted to contribute in their success stories. I was missing that a lot and also I wasn’t able to get a job after the classes reopened. Then late last year, as students were coming back to the town, I decided to open a library. This (the library) is our old house, which we converted into a library and I am so glad that I am seeing all these students coming here to study. I feel like I am back as a contributor,” the teacher added.
Over the years as education companies in Kota opened more branches, the city has expanded. Consequently, the distance between classes and hostels has increased, making a case for autorickshaw drivers to strike agreements with coaching classes and hostels and help students commute daily.
“No one usually used to prefer students for a simple reason—they can’t demand more money from them. Regular rides used to be from the station to the town and very few internally,” said Anmol Kumar, an autorickshaw driver.
“But I know the same drivers, who used to refuse taking students first, have tied up with hostels and coaching classes to pick up and drop kids. They charge them monthly, depending on the distance and these drivers have some assurance from either hostels or coaching centres,” Kumar added.
An autorickshaw in Kota is slightly bigger than the standard in most cities and can seat about six to seven students at a time. Kumar said the monthly charges per student vary from Rs 1,200 to Rs 3,000. He claimed that on average, a rickshaw driver used to earn nearly Rs 35,000 a month and this has gone up manifold over the last few years.
“But more than the rickshaws these days, a new mode of transport has emerged—private mini-vans, which either have a deal with hostels and coaching classes or belong to these hostels or coaching classes,” Ratnesh Yadav, another autorickshaw driver, said.
Yadav was talking about mini-vans like Tata Magic or Maruti Omni. These vans have become a common sight in Kota, especially this year. Some of these mini-vans charge as much as Rs 10,000 per student.
“The money is paid in advance to the hostel or the coaching class and they have details of drivers. So parents feel much safer sending their kids,” said Hemant Lal, a driver of one of these mini-vans, which has tied up with a hostel.
These mini-vans are not commercially registered vehicles and rickshaw drivers like Yadav and Kumar said that they raised this with the local transport office many times.
“But they all these are big people, all have deals with classes and hostels. The government is not going to do anything on this. We will continue to suffer,” said Yadav.
All the small businesses that have mushroomed in Kota over the years have one thing in common—these are all labour-intensive businesses. Hostels, food joints and libraries require cleaning staff and other helpers and local transporters need drivers.
The number of daily-wage workers in the town has gone up sharply over these years, so much so that nearly every lane in Kota has a small informal association of these workers.
These workers among themselves have an understanding about their wages, their working hours and the kind of work they do.
To be sure, the last two years of COVID-19 have been difficult for gig workers and many had gone back to their villages. But with everything opening up again, most gig workers have come back. Hostel owners, in fact, claimed that many workers were waiting eagerly to come back.
“Whoever used to work here in Kota with us had gone back to their village during the pandemic and when the pandemic was receding last year and hostels were reopening, I was worried thinking there might be a shortage of workers,” said Rajnish Dhar, a hostel owner.
“But when I called a few of them, they were waiting to come back here. Most of these people stay in Rajasthan and I guess what they earn here is much more than what they do in their villages,” Dhar added.
The gig economy has, in fact, become one of the town’s biggest employers as food aggregators like Zomato and Swiggy became more active, especially this year, with new restaurants and cafes opening.
And there are other jobs to do.
“Most hostels here usually have a common washing machine and the hostel owners give a schedule to kids to wash their clothes,” said Suman of Himgiri Boys Hostel.
“But now students want everything quickly. So we have two-three laundry guys coming almost every day. They charge some Rs 10 per clothing and students are ok with it. So this laundry has become a business for many,” Suman added.
As the pandemic eased, Kota’s streets are bustling again with young engineering and medical college aspirants, and these businesses have come back to life after two difficult years of COVID-19.