Thriving villages are key to India’s success

The viability of Indian villages such as Purushwadi will determine India’s prosperity in the future. Harry Dillon

In October 2011, the birth of an unidentified baby marked the seven billionth human. With more than 1.2 billion people and a world-leading national birth rate of about 50 per minute, India is more likely than any other country to have gestated Baby 7B. And given that about 70% of Indians – roughly one-tenth of humanity – live in the countryside, there’s a good chance 7B is among the new offspring in one of India’s 600,000-plus villages.

Rural India is a focal point for issues of global concern: the impacts of high population and development on natural resources; water pollution from raw sewage and pesticide runoff; soil loss and desertification due to erosion, overgrazing and deforestation.

India’s resilient rural villages are seeking to adapt to change and remain relevant without losing their valued traditions and skills. The ongoing viability of these villages is germinal to India’s current assumption of great power status.

With China, India is acquiring the prominent international position implied by its size, while contending with consequences such as the flow of poor peasants into already crowded urban centres. India’s burgeoning cities and towns will struggle to cope with the influx. There seems little prospect the incoming masses will acquire the jobs and financial security they seek. Already the cities have endemic shortages of employment, transport, housing, schooling, water, sewerage and health care.

The ability of India’s villages to offer fulfilling lives to their inhabitants will be a crucial safety valve on volatile social tensions in the future.

Harry Dillon

Australians must take a more concerted interest in learning about the rising nations and peoples with whom we share our part of the globe. China and India have been pillars of wealth and power from ancient times, when they dominated international trade and together accounted for five times as many people as Europe. From a long-term perspective, India has been much closer to civilisation’s centre of gravity than the West, which means the current trend of events marks a return to global normality.

Of course, the vision of mainland Asia’s global prominence as “natural” is hard to swallow for Westerners accustomed to thinking quite the opposite. In Australia, the difficulty is heightened by fears about restive hordes to our north that have long haunted our national consciousness.

The genuine, but seldom acknowledged, global importance of India’s villages impressed itself upon me during a recent trip to India organised through the Mumbai-based India Study Abroad Centre (ISAC) and Grassroutes. Their joint, three-week program immerses participants in the everyday activities of Purushwadi, an Indian village. The aim is to foster global citizenship through understanding of diverse lifestyles.

During the stay, our group of CSU students had close daily access to Purushwadi’s internal life. We lived just a few minutes’ walk from the centre of the village. Mealtimes brought us into the tiny domestic spaces: commonly just one or two small, low-ceilinged rooms with a little non-flued fireplace against a wall, where families store and prepare food, eat, sleep, dress and socialise.

Accustomed to images of India’s crowded poverty, I was unprepared for this attractive, undulating landscape dominated by rocky, treed hillocks and steep-sided river valleys. While walking on any quiet trail through the trees you are never far from productive activity and regularly meet low-key traffic: a man leading a cow, a woman picking berries, a group of people gathering firewood or carrying produce.

My time in Purushwadi yielded insights into why villages remain integral to Indian society, with their age-old ability to sustain most of the nation’s people peacefully and productively in inclusive, integrated communities.

More so than its cities, India’s villages are living repositories of ancient, diverse traditions that have survived down the ages through a combination of constancy and adaptation to changing circumstances. This resilience has enabled myriad village lifestyles to flourish in environments ranging from fecund, irrigated agricultural plains in India’s north and southeast to the vast, arid plains in its centre and the temperate mountain ranges of the east and west coasts.

As Stephen P. Huyler states in Village India, the financial poverty of village existence is offset by a wealth of communal customs, rituals and attitudes.

“Their faith and the interdependence of their societies provide a unity and sense of purpose rarely experienced in the contemporary West … Modernisation is essential but its most healthy expression would be a blending of traditional forms (and the wisdom gained through centuries of subtle adaptations to the environment) with innovative technologies.”

Respect for village life has a proud history. Gandhi decreed that the nation’s heart and soul was in its villages and that “If the villages perish, India will perish too”. Gandhi championed village life for its virtues of self-sufficiency, honesty, peacefulness and spirituality. Claiming the cities and towns were bleeding the life out of villages, he advocated an independent India comprised of ideal small communities with healthy living standards and access to the benefits of modern civilisation without the alienation inherent to industrial capitalism.

Gandhi’s vision of national, spiritual and social transformation based in the villages proved overly idealistic and was never implemented to any large extent by governments. No doubt the prospect of any such scheme coming to fruition is no more likely in today’s glossy new India, preoccupied with software start-ups, call centres, Bollywood starlets and consumer glitz.

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However, Gandhi’s warning that India’s survival depends on the wellbeing of its villages seems even more pertinent today. India has no valid option but to protect the interests of its villages because they will remain important and highly populated for a long time to come.

India will almost certainly continue its march to the front rank of geopolitically significant nations while the majority of its swelling populace remains relatively poor. This scenario adds weight to the challenge of maintaining village viability in order to discourage the sons and daughters of India’s soil from abandoning the countryside in pursuit of urban-based, middle-class affluence.

The IT firms of Bangalore and similar businesses elsewhere in the country can absorb only small numbers of capable recruits. Other outlets will need to be found to accommodate a rising generation of village Indians who will be much better educated, ambitious and upwardly mobile than most of their parents. A squalid hand-to-mouth existence in the sprawling slums of Mumbai or Calcutta seems a dismal alternative to life in the countryside, but it’s an option already taken up by many escapees from rural poverty.

To the challenges facing India’s villages, no single response can suffice. When we asked the youngsters in Purushwadi about career goals, none mentioned subsistence farming; they wanted to become teachers, doctors, nurses, aid workers or similar. Most thought they would leave their village to gain qualifications, but return at some stage to help the community.

Most likely, the rising generation of India’s villages will seek to migrate to cities in unprecedented numbers to seek better lives. In some ways, this is a positive development in terms of the global environment: city dwellers can be supplied with housing, power, transport, food and water more efficiently than their country counterparts. As Mark Lynas argues in The God Species, urban sites occupy just 2.8% of the earth’s land, enabling about 3.3 billion people to live in an area less than half the size of Australia. Increased urbanisation is also linked with lower birth rates.

Even so, the cities of India and other developing countries are already struggling to cope with huge current populations. Unchecked mass migration from the countryside would trigger disaster. While India works towards better-managed cities, villages made as economically and culturally viable as possible will be a mainstay for future sustainability.

Assuming the world’s seven billionth living person is among the new crop of offspring in village India, where and how will he or she live? As a conventional village toiler, among the expanding middle classes in the city, or with a foot in both camps? Will his or her village solve or ignore problems, adapt to or resist changes, flourish or wither away? It’s certain that interesting times are ahead for 7B and village India overall, and that what happens there will affect us in an interconnected world facing a host of monumental challenges. We in the West must acknowledge that no place is truly remote in the 21st century global village.

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