Mahatmaji wrote that India lives in villages. Today he would have said, yes she does but barely so. The situation in a large number of Indian villages is depressing in many respects. It is often shown as pretty and charming in some forms of media and extremely depraved in other. The reality is that Indian villages today are attractive only to the politician who seeks their votes and to the shady businessman who wishes to palm off his sub-standard products there. To what extent and on what parameters are villages less attractive or more depressing? “Development parameters” could be diverse and hence comparison of villages across states, within states and with proximate towns may show differing outcomes. We compare typical rural with typical urban. The aim is offer a broad brush characterization rather than statistically precise comparison. We choose four sets of parameters: infrastructure; amenities; social conditions and finally incomes.
States differ in this respect rather widely. Tamilnadu, Kerala, Gujarat and Maharashtra score well on most of these fronts as do Punjab, Haryana. Bihar perhaps ranks among the worst with Jharkhand. In general; villages are darker than their urban counterparts. Barring some “developed states” in the West and the South; electricity supply is either non-existent or sporadic, unreliable and of poor quality. If one were to draw a vertical line through Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh, villages to the East of that line have worse darkness than those to the west of that line. With rising costs of creating production and distribution network, a large number perhaps will always remain off-grid. Solar power is their only hope. Secondly very few villages have provision of tapped water in all households: it is almost as if an overhead tank and standposts within 50 meters of the household is as good as it can get for villagers. Thirdly despite the famous PMGSY, road connectivity to villages, particularly in the tribal and the flood prone regions is quite bad. Large number of villages remain connected with earthen roads without bridges over numerous streams they must cross. So that is the story of the BIPASA.
Amenities, for even a simple and basic family life, do not exist in most villages and often when they exist, they are of very indifferent quality. Elementary schools exist basically as providers of mid-day meals eaten by children in the plate they carry from home, sitting in un-swept corridors in the schools with hoards of flies hovering around them. The schools are often without enough rooms and children of different grades are all huddled in one small room. The nation has had to declare a national program to build toilets for schools. The number of teachers is usually inadequate given the school strength and more often than not the quality of teaching is pathetic. Health and hygiene facilities in rural India are almost uniformly bad often rendering village stay an ordeal for those who are not initiated. The way villages in dry parts of Central India welcome you with roadsides littered with human waste is not funny. Ribaldry about having to go “out in the field” in the morning apart, the awful condition in which our sisters in rural areas find themselves due to absence of toilets needs to be recognized. The situation becomes more awkward in regions which are bereft of any tree cover. Open field defecation eliminates all possibility of safe drinking water or of preventive health measures. And of course the story of curative health is of much pathos. Doctors are not available either in villages and most often not even in the Government run health Centres. The ANMs are too overworked and under-provided to be able to look after thousands of people in their territory. And yet the medical profession in general and almost uniformly is obstinately stuck in just not allowing short course graduates to save lives and cure people.
Sports and recreation facilities in rural India are certainly comparable to most urban centres principally because there is less of a premium on land in villages. Schools may have no buildings and sports materials; but most have courtyards and quite a few have play grounds. One does see as one travels evidence of existing or would have been football goal posts or volleyball nets. Libraries are of course utterly missing while entertainment forums tend to be rather basic and in open grounds. What has become available in rural India is telecommunication-thanks to change of rural telephony policy of TRAI and the electronic media.
The evidence of social inequity and oppression is all too stark in most “mainland villages” while the tribal villages seem to be more egalitarian within. Social segregation is distinctly visible and so is subjugation tantamount to bondage. The iron grip of caste-class and power is not difficult to experience or discern when one visits villages. And finally incomes? Suffice it to say that the most “established and respected” farm families in most villages would be as well as off as a peon in a Bank and the richest of the villagers perhaps no richer than a just graduated “management” student. Poor infrastructure, poor amenities, oppressive social conditions and low income all combine to force people out and we thus have a very unregulated and large flow of people from rural areas into cities. The estimates of number of “seasonal migrants” run up to 12-13 crores each year, and the cities perhaps should thank their stars that only a small proportion among these stay back permanently in cities.
So what ails rural India? To my mind three central issues. The first is a general consensus that “naturally rural India ia bound to have less amenities than urban counterpart”. We never ask whether a road between two cities is economically viable, but I have heard quite sensible people seriously debating if rural roads make economic sense. The same about other amenities. We tend to assume that it is perfectly ok to give inferior or no facilities to rural people. The second issue is that every who can has abandoned rural areas. Most of us would trace their origin to villages, yet virtually none of us seriously contemplates retiring in them. Even if we did, children and our peers would ridicule us out of the idea. So we the urban elites have abandoned rural India. Our brothers, the rural elite in turn have copied us and their children too have come to stay in nearby towns and cities so that their children can learn English, their wives need not go out in the field and their daughters need not fill water from the hand pump. finally, the third issue is that the rural people themselves appear to have resigned to their situation and rather than wanting to change it, want to escape from it either through seasonal or permanent migration. It is only at election times that we remember that India lives in villages. As I wrote in the beginning, just barely so.