2 Young Graduates Share How Working In Villages Smashed Their Notions About Rural India

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By Maithreyi Kamalanathan and Tushar Garg: 

About 70% of Indians live in rural areas, coming from different cultures, histories and territories. But when we think about development and change, and discuss it at the meal table, how often do we really know of the ground reality? Our ideas about village life are often idyllic, based out of books and movies that we have read or seen.

But the truth is miles away from these ideas. A short conversation with our domestic workers, or migrant construction workers is enough to reveal how different and difficult life in rural areas can be. And to understand what needs changing for a brighter, more prosperous tomorrow for our nation, we need to understand its differences from closer quarters.

For the same, two young, passionate graduates, who were selected into the India Fellow programme, were given the opportunity to visit a village in Rajasthan and find out if their ideas of rural India hold true. It is not an exaggeration to say that the experiences transformed the way they perceive things, permanently.

For Maithreyi Kamalanathan, a graduate in journalism, it was an experience that brought her face to face with her own biases and misconceptions about how people in villages live. She shares:

“As the urban elite of the nation, we are often more aware of Trump’s political manifesto and Brexit’s impacts on Great Britain than about the country and the cities we live in. How often do we read stories from rural Rajasthan, unless it is a sensational report on dowry torture or rape? How well do we know the urban slums that lie around the corner from us?

Even in this age of 24/7 media, when we are continuously bombarded with so much information over the internet, television, and newspapers, we tend to live in our own cocoons, wrapped up in our own contexts and identities. We remain blissfully unaware of the world outside our immediate environs, and secure in the knowledge that only we – urban, English speaking, privileged – know about all else in the world, and its wonders. This is what makes it difficult for us to deal with the shock of being rudely jerked into a reality we aren’t familiar with.

Maithreyi with folks in Tur village, South Rajasthan

And why we grapple with our mental image of a woman like Divya Sharma. Divya lives in Katara, a quaint little village on the outskirts of Udaipur, in Rajasthan; one of those villages to which no public transport is available; where water scarcity is a way of life; where economic necessity has driven people to migrate as far as Bangalore to ply their trades. But amidst all this, there’s also Divya, who is an artist. And she’s a hardcore Instagrammer.

To be honest, it was a bit of a shock to me when I found out about Divya’s Instagram account – and when I saw Bob Marley on her wall, alongside images of Radha and Krishna. Why? It just didn’t gel with my idea of a rural village in Rajasthan.

I realised with a guilty start that I had suddenly been confronted by my own biases. And that’s the rub: My having an Instagram account isn’t as shocking as Divya having one. And that needs to change. I was trapped by my ignorance of Divya’s context: what I expected was what I knew. And I only knew rural Rajasthan as a place where Rajasthani women walk with pots on their heads, as depicted in some Rajasthan’s tourism ads. The smartphones that the women here use with so much ease as I watch them are not part of the mental picture I had of them. And seeing the reality of Divya made me realise that this kind of generalising and stereotyping need to change.”

On the other hand, for Tushar Garg, a medical graduate, the experience was a wake-up call that forced him to recognise the privilege of urban healthcare in India. His experience took him to a Primary Health Centre in Nichli Badi, run by a health worker named Nagma:

“‘Dabaav bohot hai. Hum toh koshish kar rahe hain. (There’s a lot of pressure. We are trying.),’ Nagma said. Nagma is a middle-aged health worker in the primary health centre (PHC) of Nichli Badi. She has been overseeing the PHC functions in absence of a doctor for the past one and a half months. A soft-spoken woman, she was reluctant to share her opinions about health care system.

The PHC has technically been upgraded by Rajasthan government during the last year, but development has been limited to paper. In truth, there has been no infrastructural progress. Rather, the only doctor appointed for the two stipulated positions has also been transferred. The water has to be carried from a hand-pump nearby, since there is no budget for a water connection. The health workers have to run the clinic themselves. The budget allocated to the PHC is not enough to cover the overhead costs; even office stationery is bought personally by the staff. The only positive thing about the centre is regular supply of drugs under the government’s free drug scheme. Only moral responsibility for the community’s health motivates the auxiliary staff to keep the centre running day after day.

Tushar (right), with kids from Prayog NGO’s initiative in Gopalgunj, Bihar

At such basic levels, the misogyny of government policy is evident. In a classic top-down approach, one sees that the staff is under a constant pressure to fulfil sterilisation targets throughout the year. But last year, only two-thirds of the targets for sterilisation of women was achieved, and not a single male was sterilised. Yet this year, without taking into consideration the limitations that field workers faced, the target numbers have been increased. Deeply unsettling as it is, this disconnect between healthcare policy and practice is clearly not uncommon. But without being here and speaking to Nagma and seeing her plight, one wonders if this is something they might have realised. After all, it is easy to argue over a cup of steaming coffee. But, how does it feel when that coffee spills in one’s lap?

The two experiences might be starkly different from one another but bring to light how ignorant we, in urban setups really are about the harsh truths of living in India’s villages today. Maithreyi and Tushar took the chance to step out of their comfort zones and see the reality for themselves. After all, only when we experience things ourselves, can we change the way things are currently. Agree or disagree?

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