I had the opportunity to visit several projects in rural Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala during 2002-2005. My upbringing was typical urban middle class and exposure to rural India prior to that was mostly either theoretical or through the eyes of others (through books, newspaper articles and reports of visits by other volunteers). I used to visit my grand parents’ places (which could be classified as semi-rural) as a kid, but over the years those had tapered down and the recollections were not as vivid anymore. So this was a period of discovery for me.
The first thing that struck me during visits to villages were the sheer number of men who were sitting around in groups in the middle of the day – presumably doing nothing. Casual observer could be excused if they assumed that these men were just idling away their time, but if you scratched the surface, you came to know what lay at the heart of this phenomenon. Most of these men were unskilled, agricultural laborers. and the strong seasonal nature of agricultural work meant that they went through long stretches of time without work.
It was not as if the land owners were doing a whole lot better. Over the years, agriculture itself had become more and more unremunerative..The costs of inputs in terms of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides had soared while the price that small and marginal farmers could command for their produce failed to keep pace. The shrinking forest cover, depletion of ground water resources and village tanks, erratic or inadequate irrigation facilities didnt help matters. Some tried alternate avenues like converting their fields to shrimp farms, which promised much to begin with, but left the land fallow and useless once infections started taking a toll on the shrimp. Many were either selling off lands they own or finding themselves unable to provide employment to others. The more desperate among them (and there were many) took the drastic steps of taking their lives.
The influx of manufactured goods from the towns and cities was steadily eroding the demand for locally produced goods and crafts, and with that, dried up the livelihood opportunities that were previously available in those areas.
For all the idle men folk who stayed behind in the villages, there were many more who had migrated to nearby towns and cities where they joined the swelling ranks of construction workers for the building boom that urban India was going through. Sometimes, the women and children also joined them in this migration. For the children, especially, getting uprooted from their homes, and going to an alien place represents a tremendous change which many struggle to cope with. How many of them will have a chance to go to school in the new locales, and how well their learning will their be? How do all the children who are left behind in the villages in the care of their grand parents, as their parents migrated to cities in search of work, cope?
Visiting the schools, another thing that struck me was the sheer difference in physiques between the kids there, and middle class kids in the cities. Most children in class X seemed closer in physique to class VII middle class urban kids. The malnutrition that these kids (and their parents too, for that matter) are subject to is staggering. It has a direct effect on how well they do in their studies. Speaking to them, their marked lack of self-esteem also came through. The crippling poverty on the one hand, and an education system which fails to recognize and value any of the unique aspects of their rural upbringing, contributes to this.
Under the circumstances, schemes like the Mid Day Meal program are an absolute must in ensuring students have a reason to come to school, and also in ensuring that they get at least one meal a day. The effectiveness of this program hasnt been great in many places, unfortunately.
The National Rural Employment Guarantee program, which has been implemented in many districts of the country now, also ensures that the devastating crisis that our rural areas are going through is, atleast, contained to some extent. It guarantees 100 days of manual “unskilled” work to a rural family (the word “unskilled” is an insult in some sense to the dignity of labor. The work is backbreaking and tough enough that most of the educated folks like myself would either run away from after a few days or will not be able to do half as well ad these people).
The Panchayati Raj act, which devolved more financial and implementation power to the grassroots, is another initiative that holds out much promise, though the implementation again falls short often times.
Amidst much despondency, the innocence the children still retained, in the face of such odds, was the silver lining during these visits. When asked, many still talk about their dreams of doing better in life and becoming teachers, doctors or engineers. A democracy is supposed to provide equality of opportunity to each of its citizens to realize their dreams. But many of them get to the starting line of life’s race at a severe disadvantage compared to the others, and in the blink of an eye, life passes them by.
Efforts by organizations such as Asha makes sure that atleast some of these kids get their due in life. This recognition is what keeps me going as a volunteer.