The village is still relevant-THE HINDU-24-04-2020


The upheaval caused by the novel coronavirus should inspire a review of past choices and policies. When several States decided to stop giving permanent appointment letters to doctors and teachers in the mid-1990s, they were guided by an ideological shift at the national level towards allowing health and education to be opened up for private enterprise.

Taking a back seat:

The new buzz was public-private partnership. Soon enough, cost-effective measures became the priority in both health and education.

A generalised logic had surfaced to justify and thereby encourage emigration from rural areas to cities. According to this logic, providing basic amenities such as running water, electricity and jobs to rural people becomes easier if they move to a city. Modernisation was a dominant paradigm of social theory that saw nothing wrong in the growth of vast slums in mega-cities and depletion of working-age people in villages. Some social scientists did not mind declaring that the village as we had known it in Indian history was on its way to extinction.

They argued that agriculture, the main resource of livelihood in the countryside, was no longer profitable enough to attract the young. It was something ‘natural’ that happens in the course of economic development in countries like ours. Students were taught that shrinking of rural livelihoods was a universal phenomenon and it was, therefore, inevitable in India. As they faced the decimation of the rural people’s economy, safety nets could be thrown at them to provide subsistence-level provision of food, literacy and disease control.

Special measures were designed to select the ‘best’ among rural children and make them competitive enough to survive in the urban world that was treated as mainstream.

Imbalance and invisibility:

No serious public investment could be made in villages. Even as medical education and teacher training became increasingly privatised, the availability of qualified doctors and teachers willing to work in villages dwindled. Ideologically-inspired pursuit of economic reforms swept State after State, leaving little room for dissent or longer term thinking. It allowed the expansion of essential facilities of a rudimentary kind in villages.

Stuck between state minimalism and commercial entrepreneurship, villages lost what capacity they had for regenerating their economy or intellectual resources. These are pictures of urban workers marching with their families to their native villages hundreds of miles away. The photographs captured by the media show men, women and children walking on highways designed to provide high-speed connectivity to cities. In the city where they had lived for years, they were part of the informal economy which offers no protection against exigencies.

Obsolete debates:

In this vision, the village has no future other than becoming a pale copy of the urban and eventually dissolving into it. Similarly, while the problem of defining a village in an academic sense has ceased to matter, its existential reality has asserted itself, and we need to recognise this assertion. If we do, we might agree to notice a problem in policies that do not acknowledge the right of villages to flourish as human habitations with their own distinctive future. Initiatives in this direction will make both cities and villages more sustainable and capable of coping with the kind of crisis we are currently facing.

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