For the most part, myths about an idyllic country life of pastoral contentment are just that – myths. Bucolic scenes, pastoral settings and rustic tranquillity; poetic descriptions of tranquil village life, its simplicity and innocence, have a powerful hold on our imaginations. To some extent this remains true today, but recent decades have also seen a marked change in our collective perceptions about the Southasian ruralscape.
For instance, let us trace this change in literary depiction of village life. At the turn of the century, Rabindranath Tagore’s acerbic comments on the inequities of gender and caste, against a backdrop of colonialism in rural Bengal, are immortalised in stories such as Shasti (Punishment). In the classic stories of Premchand, the pioneer of modern Hindi literature, the village is seen through a more realistic lens, in all its beauty and ugliness. Writing in the 1930s, Premchand was unsparing in portraying the darker underside of village life: the ubiquity of caste, condemning those of lower status to a life of degradation and penury; oppressive feudalism; chronic indebtedness; bonded labour, et al. But he also saw the positives, celebrating the natural rhythms of rural life, its closeness to nature, and the honesty and simplicity of the common villager. This tradition continued in later decades, through the writings of Phanishwarnath Renu in Hindi and others in all the languages of the Subcontinent.
But there was a discernible literary shift during the 1960s, as the tensions between the city and the village, their conflicting pulls and pressures, came to the fore. For instance, in Bhalchandra Nemade’s novel Kosla (The Cocoon), the protagonist Pandurang Sangvikar is a young man from a fairly prosperous rural background who comes to the city for his college education. Unable to find meaning for his life there, he eventually returns to the village – where he is no longer able to fit either. Pandurang ends up as an alienated good-for-nothing, idling away his time with the village loafers. From the other side of the divide, Ranganath, the city-bred, college-educated protagonist of Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari (1968), takes a break from the city and moves to a village, where his uncle is the sarpanch. From there, he flees back to the city, unable to cope with the feudalism, ignorance, political chicanery, oppression and injustice of rural life.
Continuing on its path, the pendulum has now swung to the other extreme. In Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008), the village is a repository of evil, and all relationships, including the closest family ties, are exploitative in nature. Feudalism, married to modern democracy, reigns supreme; those who continue in the village are condemned to lives of unending misery. While such a characterisation can be dismissed as a grotesque caricature of B R Ambedkar’s trenchant criticism of the village as ‘a cesspool, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism’, it potentially underscores the shift over time in the worldview about the village in the Subcontinent.
This transition in literature echoes changes in the Subcontinent’s polity and economy. From the 1920s to the mid-1960s, the Gandhian concept of the ruralscape – made up of idyllic, self-sufficient village republics – was the dominant view. But as the city began to be seen as the locus of modernity and economic development, rural Southasia was increasingly neglected by policymakers. The lack of attention to the issues of the village heartland led to increasing migration to the cities. Mechanisation of agriculture meant that there was less employment available. While the Green Revolution brought a huge increase in yields, the benefits were reaped by the cities and by the dominant rural landowning classes. This model of agriculture has proved to be ecologically disastrous. Farmer suicides are but a symptom of the overall problem; far less discussed today is the fact that life in rural Southasia is becoming increasingly unsustainable, and that the flight to the cities will continue to accelerate.
Are we, as our elected policymakers seem to be doing, to see such a flight to urban areas as inevitable – or worse, desirable? Are we to move in the same direction as many Western countries, with much of the population resident in cities and the rural areas functioning as highly mechanised food-producing entities? This is neither possible nor ecologically sustainable. Such a large population shift cannot be borne by Southasia’s cities, already bulging at the seams and on the verge of breakdown. Modern methods of agriculture have already been shown to be unsustainable, and what of issues such as providing employment to the growing urban masses?
Clearly something needs to be done to revitalise our villages, but what? Fortunately, one does not have to go far for a positive vision. For the global among Southasians, the image of a lean, stooping, dhoti-clad Mohandas K Gandhi might now be a social embarrassment, constantly reminding them of the ways in which more than two-thirds of the region’s population is still condemned to live. However, Gandhi did have a coherent vision of what is needed in order to live in peace and harmony in Southasia, which continues to dwell largely in its villages. He called it Gram Swaraj.
Like most of Gandhi’s ideas, his definition of Gram Swaraj was disarmingly simple. He wanted every village to function as a small republic, ‘independent of its neighbours for its own vital wants and yet interdependent for many others in which dependence is necessary.’ In this view, synergies between wetlands, farmlands, animal husbandry, forestry, horticulture, sustainable energy and management of rural commons are desirable and possible at the village level. Basic education, primary health care and welfare of the disadvantaged are tasks most appropriate for local initiatives.Already, it is not as if there has been no recognition of the problem and the need to address it. There have been efforts to provide guaranteed employment to the rural masses; efforts are afoot to offer cheap institutional credit to farmers; and while neo-liberalisation has punched holes in agricultural prices and cooperative marketing mechanisms, the basic structure still exists. These and other efforts need to be stepped up to reach out to the rural masses. Of course, the systematic inequalities of gender and caste that Gandhi glossed over will also need to be addressed, and ‘self-sufficiency’ in a globalised world begs redefinition. But Gandhi’s vision provides a basic template for rural regeneration – one that can redefine the growth of our own region, even as it offers a new model to the rest of the world.