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Woebegone villages

 | October 14, 2011

India’s villages and towns are woefully bereft of decent schools, let alone colleges, and, more importantly, health care.

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Almost two decades ago, I went to Madikeri in Karnataka. In the heart of coffee country, the town is the district headquarters of Kodagu. Despite a booming trade in the beverage, Madikeri was sleepy and shabby.

Two weeks ago, I was back at Madikeri, and to my utter shock and dismay, I found the town caught in a time warp. It was as dirty as ever with no visible signs of growth, despite the prospering coffee business.  The government seems to have forgotten Madikeri.

In fact, the story of Madikeri may well be the story of any other small town or village in India.

The rural picture is bleak, to say the least. It is such a distressing scenario that pushes millions, in the first place, to leave their home and hearth, even their traditional livelihoods, and travel to urban areas, big cities in particular.

It is no secret that agriculture for small holders or those without any land at all hardly pays enough to lead a hunger-free life. It is also no secret that farmers, suffocated by mounting debts, have committed suicide in their thousands across the country over the past decade or so.

Apart from this, India’s villages and towns are woefully bereft of decent schools, let alone colleges, and, more importantly, health care.

There really is no hospital or even a medical centre worth the name in Madikeri, and the nearest reasonably good one is two hours away at Mysore.

So, it comes as little surprise that the last census maintains that for the first time since 1921, the nation’s urban population has gone up more than it’s rural.

At 8.33 million, the number of people outside cities and towns is 90 million more than what it was 10 years ago. But the population in the cities and towns is 91 million higher than it was in 2001.

Although, the census says that this rise can be attributed to migration, natural increase in the population and the expanding urban conglomerations, these factors have always prevailed. They are not new.

Obviously, the most pertinent cause of the sharp rise in the number of people in the cities and towns is the virtual end to millions of jobs in farming and related activities. This despair has been driving huge numbers out of the countryside.

Migration to metros

Rickshaw pullers in Kolkata are from Bihar villages, so are taxi drivers. The labourers in Chennai invariably seem to be from rural Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The menial workers in Mumbai include a considerable number of landless labourers and even small agriculture-plot holders.

All these men and women have migrated to big metros in the hope of finding employment — their own native places in India’s interiors failing to offer a decent existence. Scanty rains, water shortage, falling crop output, debt-traps, hunger and poor medical/educational facilities have turned the village into pocket of misery.

While these rural inhabitants travel from one urban centre to another in search of jobs with little idea of what their final destination will be, an unimaginable state of flux pervades their lives.

Do these men and women (with their very young children in tow) have a choice at all in a nation where the administration is not only callous to rural India’s plight, but also blatantly partial to urban dwellers, because that is where all the attention is focussed, media’s included ?

New telecom policy

It is in a scenario such as this that Minister Kapil Sibal announced the other day a new telecom policy proposing to do away with roaming charges within the country for mobile telephones.

Many newspapers and television channels led with this news.

There are reportedly over 800 million mobile telephone users in India. Now how many of them actually roam? More importantly, how many of them really need a mobile phone. Finally, are there really 800-odd million mobile subscribers?

A seeming government ploy to divert the nation’s attention from the huge 2G mobile telephone scam (that has seen some politicians and bureaucrats in jail and a humungous loss to the state exchequer) and gladden the hearts of a few (who do not realise that they would save but an insignificant amount in a year), Sibal’s dramatic statement merely proves how indifferent the Manmohan Singh government is to real issues.

When millions are being pushed out of their homes by poverty and hunger, when India’s food inflation is alarmingly close to double digits (with basic vegetables and grains selling at abnormally high prices), the government dangles the carrot of cheap mobile rates. A classic instance of asking the hungry masses to eat cake!

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.


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