Edit & Opinion

Rural-Urban Divide: Pandemic shall bridge gap?

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

The pandemic has put the rural-urban divide into sharper focus, sending out a clear message to the Government, both the Centre and States that the urban bias in Indian planning must undergo a drastic change and most new projects have to be rural centred. The migrant crisis and rising joblessness, among others, makes a logical case for major segment of the expenditure be from now on be utilised for promoting rural development.

Unfortunately, over successive years the nation’s leadership allowed the urban-rural gap to widen. Even the recent Atmanirbhar Bharat, whose success is under doubt and demands more clarity can only be successful if the right opportunities are created in rural locations for aspiring and existing entrepreneurs. Not just the political leadership but the civil service, bureaucrats and even technocrats need to understand, rather be empathetic to the existing conditions in the villages, specially in backward districts of the country. But for the media, it would be difficult for those sitting in plush offices in cosmopolitan Delhi or Mumbai or Bangalore to understand the sordid situation in rural and even adjoining small cities. Whether it be poor physical and social infrastructure, awareness and education levels, state of economy, environmental concerns etc, the system needs more than an overhaul.

In this context, a study has found poor levels of overall awareness as reflected in the fact that India had the highest count of rumours and misleading information about corona pandemic. The study by health researchers in Bangladesh identified India as also China, Indonesia and Brazil as the top among 87 countries where rumours circulated regarding the disease. However, what is unique about our country that even a religious turn has been taken to tackling this pandemic.

With religion finding its way into politics, half educated politicians have been at the forefront of spreading unsubstantiated rumours. Not to be left behind are some traders who have joined hands to promote their business interests. All of this has been possible due to very low levels of education as most people in the country, even in big cities do not judge this pandemic from the scientific standpoint but from a religious angle and, as such, cannot understand the unsubstantiated claims before using products etc.

As per the study, scientists in India tracked 29 hoaxes and rumours shared through social media. Some misleadingly touted tea, vitamins, garlic, kalomji seeds, steam inhalation, nasal rinses as remedies while some claiming air conditioners, house flies and mosquitoes spread the infection.  Politicians of the ruling dispensation even talked of clapping hands or banging utensils to create high levels of sound as such vibrations could eliminate the virus. One or two even said that after bhoomi puja in Ayodhya, the corona pandemic would show a declining trend.

Though even in the education sector, we talk of technology spreading without realising the levels actually achieved and even whether internet and mobile facilities are available to a major section of the population. It appears from speeches that those in the corridor of power are not quite aware of the conditions of the poor and economically weaker sections and how they struggle for mere existence. 

Even those who are literate are not aware of the changing times as their levels of understanding are very poor. Our politicians take advantage of thus as when they talk about plans and schemes they themselves realize that the targets cannot be accomplished due to various reasons – high corruption levels, resource constraints, poor governance – but the general mass can be fooled.

Taking the case of technology which politicians and technocrats talk quite frequently, it is time to examine which segment of the population has benefitted from its advance. There is also need to examine what exactly has been the benefit of the much-talked about lab-to-land approach to small and marginal farmers who constitute about 60-70 per cent of the farming community. Even in case of education, online classes are no doubt useful but what percentage of students can benefit from this. Do our planners forget that we are still in a developing phase with the maximum population struggling for mere existence?

A transformation can only be effective if the standards of lower segments of population improve, if true education and health reaches the grass-root levels and the conditions of say migrants do not upset the economic situation of the country. For bringing in such transformation, the focus has to be in the rural sector where apart from improvement in infrastructure facilities, there has to be a sustained plan for improving the livelihoods of the rural mass.  

In this connection, one may refer to a recent observation of the road transport and MSME minister, Gadkari who regretted that there is seldom any focus on rural, tribal and remote areas focus for industries who prefer locations in and around big cities. Assuring all possible help to industry for making rural and tribal areas their hub, with improved highways railways and waterways, he urged them to shift focus. According to the minister: “There is an urgent need  to create employment and focusing on rural, agriculture, tribal and village areas, including 115 aspirational districts, could be beneficial”. Gadkari visualized shifting around 708 per cent population from big cities to village areas.

It is not known whether the M.Ps successfully adopted one village each as announced but nothing is known about the extent of development. The very fact that India still languishes at 102 out of 117 countries in the Global Hunger Index, below Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh calls for serious introspection. Gadkari rightly understood that the focus of attention has to be rural and adjoining semi-urban areas where all-round improvement is imperative to bring down the disparity with cities. The disparity is not just in incomes but congestion is also a big problem as has been manifest in the corona pandemic affecting metropolises like Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmadabad, Pune, Bangalore, Kolkata etc. This obviously calls for decongestion so that slums and slummish settlements are saved from further encroachment. The need for rural transformation coupled with decentralisation and more powers to grass-root level bodies is nothing new. Mahatma Gandhi, later Jayaprakash Narayan and recently our late President, Dr, A P. J Abdul Kalam, had voiced the need for rural revitalisation. But unfortunately their plans and dreams were not fulfilled. Can we now expect that the focus would now change towards the rural sector – at least a significant part – so that real transformation can be seen in the coming years? The present leadership says it has done a lot more in these past few years for the rural folk—more than the Congress regime since Independence. Be that as it may, do facts suggest so? Will the migration from villages to cities stop—time will tell

 

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