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Rural Myth, Urban Reality

By Chandan Mitra

The Bengali intellectual (and almost every second person in Kolkata regards himself in this category) has always entertained a healthy disregard for Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Gandhism. He views the Mahatma's admittedly whacko theories as a measure of his eccentricitywearing khadi and drinking goat's milk, for example. The Bengali disregard also has something to do with Gandhiji's transparent dislike of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose who's been worshipped in Bengal since the 1940s. Perhaps Gandhiji did not quite make it to the top of the pecking order of Bengal's demonology, a position firmly occupied by cricket coach Greg Chappell at present, but the Mahatma was often the target of gentle humour.
Given his iconic status in the rest of India, it is inconceivable that people would ever mock Gandhiji; ideological criticism may still be permitted, but making fun remains a no-no. Long years ago, I recall reading a children's book by humourist Sibram Chakraborti, which took a few digs at the man Bengalis loved to rile. It revolved around an animated discussion mohalla elders apparently had to dissect the true meaning of the Mahatma's exhortation, "Back to village". Sibram made one of his irreverent characters in the short story insist that Gandhiji wanted people to show their backs to villagers! Another, more sedate, character vehemently disputed this interpretation arguing that Gandhiji wanted people to go back to villages, abandoning big cities. In the story, the argument could never be resolved but the balance was tipped in favour of the person who argued that Gandhiji wanted residents to abandon villages (Gram chhadiya palayan karo
flee villages, show your back to the countryside). This was a typical, urbanite response to the Gandhian notion of the idyllic Indian village.
This episode from the children's short story has been knocking at my memory, probably prompted by the copious lip service that is often paid to villages and their residents by MPs cutting across party lines. It is a sacrilege in Indian politics not to genuflect before the God called rural population, variously estimated to range between 60 and 80 per cent of India's total. But very often, I find the concern hypocritical, with politicians shouting themselves hoarse on the plight of the garib kisan and grameen janata, gaon ka berozgar yuvak (poor farmer, rural masses, unemployed youth of villages) as if rural India were an undifferentiated mass and as if India's overflowing cities do not have counterparts of these segments.
Till Gandhiji transformed India's political discourse by drawing rural India into the vortex of politics, urban, rather metropolitan, concerns and lifestyles dominated the political agenda. It is well known that the pre-Gandhi generation of Congress leaders such as Motilal Nehru, Chittaranjan Das were fine examples of westernised oriental gentlemen, pejoratively referred to as WOGs by Europeans.
Gandhiji changed the ground rules, took politics out of sedate debating chambers and Town Halls, but the involvement with the countryside was still pretty much token. On his insistence, the annual AICC sessions started getting held in villages, except that the venues chosen were almost invariably located within walking distance of some big city. Frankly, there was no electoral need to cultivate the indigent farmer. Even the Government of India Act of 1935 extended the franchise from a minuscule two per cent to a rather modest 10 per cent. Till Jawaharlal Nehru pushed ahead with universal adult franchise and that got enshrined in the 1950 Constitution, rural India existed only on the peripheries of India's political mind.
The mindset did not really change subsequently. If anything, the emphasis on industrialisation under Nehru's "socialistic pattern of society" accentuated the urban-rural divide. But it suited politicians to talk volubly about the self-sufficient rural economy, yet another unreal notion propounded by successive Congress regimes. In sum, the myth of the ideal, idyllic Indian village where Gandhiji's Ram Rajya prevailed, got embedded in the urban mind frame. It was a perfect way of skirting the responsibility to do something to help improve conditions in India's vast rural hinterland. As a result of the widening chasm coupled with the decline of agricultural productivity in many parts of the country and ongoing sub-division of already unviable landholdings, migration to cities increased manifold. That brings me to the central point of this article. Sixty one years after Independence and midway through the 11th Five-Year Plan, a sudden concern to improve conditions in the countryside appears to have gripped the political class. While the UPA Government embarked upon the colossal National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme to assure 100 days' of jobs to people in villages (starting with 200 districts), it has also talked of the omnibus Bharat Nirman Programme as well as PURA (Provision of Urban facilities in Rural Areas).
All these ideas are, however, based on the theory of the imagined village where social harmony prevails, mutual interdependence ensures cohesion, peace and tranquility reigns. Sadly, none of this is true. The average Indian village bristles with social injustice; consequently violence is the norm rather than exception for settling disputes. Interestingly, however, during the last decade the Indian village has undergone an economic transformation. Those who travel beyond the metros know that abject poverty and economic squalor are largely sights of the past. Arguably, such pockets do exist, but they are becoming less visible. If you just count the number of pucca houses you see as you drive along roads in the interior, you would testify to this change.
In principle, the idea of providing "urban facilities" to rural areas appears sound. But what exactly would these facilities consist of? Those who are busy drafting such schemes at Yojana Bhawan might do well to go on a guided tour of Mumbai's inner city to examine the "facilities".
I wonder if they have driven down P D'Mello Road that runs past the dockyards. When I first went down this road, I was horrified to see the double-decker slums that line the route, with men bathing on the open street and women washing clothes and utensils at hydrants. The kholis are no more than pigpens. It is no surprise that children growing up in such conditions readily turn to crime or prostitution. Kolkata's bustees are no different. In Delhi, a sustained media campaign has led to people equating all unauthorised colonies with the verdant green lung, Sainik Farms.
But if anybody deigned to visit one of the less affluent of the 1,423 colonies on the unauthorised list, they would realise that living conditions there are hellish beyond description. The point, therefore, is: Could we please start by providing urban facilities to urban areas before embarking on a spendthrift programme to introduce these in rural areas?
My sense, having traveled across the country more than the average babu or policy maker, is that rural India is progressively taking care of itself; living conditions are steadily improving in the interiors. But, practitioners of vote bank politics want to emphasise the rural poor for more votes lie there and the scope of swindling funds in their name is greater.
I believe India's cities, big and small, are fast becoming classic instances of urban collapse. Without decongesting them and planning their future growth, we are helping ignite a time bomb that will cause a gigantic social explosion. Do we want to act when we hear the device ticking or should we begin thinking about it only when the first explosion goes off?