I recently had the opportunity to visit four villages located near the India-Pakistan border, situated in the States of Gujarat and Rajasthan. The status of development in these villages alarmed me and served as reminders for the commitments we have made in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that we are aiming to achieve by 2030.
India’s path to achieving the SDGs is always being monitored via numbers and statistics by various surveys and evaluation reports, but every field experience that keeps in mind the development perspective really matters when we are working towards common goals.
So here are some narratives and observations I had come across that will serve as a ‘reality check’ for us as to where we stand on our commitment to achieving the SDGs:
Dhana (Name changed) is a 14-year-old boy living in a village that is at a 10-kilometer distance from the border. He wants to study further and aspires to become an engineer. His village has a school only till the eighth standard. He along with two of his friends have chosen to continue their education in a nearby town. His father works as a labourer in a medium-sized farm and they both wish for a school inside their village.
The rainy season brings with it a lot of difficulties to commute to school, with salt-mixed, sandy kachha (dirt) roads that constantly flood. Dhana ends up missing school a lot during the monsoons. Dhana also shared that many girls in his village, who used to be his classmates till the eighth standard have (had to) stop their education after the ninth standard because the town school is far away. He said that most of his female former classmates now are helping their parents on their farms.
“We need to talk to some men and some women. We can have a meeting in the Gram Panchayat building only,” I said as I was trying to schedule a meeting with the village people.
“Sir, how can women come here? They don’t come to Gram Panchayat meetings,” the village leader explained.
“I am Talathi (village accountant) for this particular village and in my native village, my wife is the Sarpanch (village head). But you can ask me whatever you need information about both villages too. I am the one who overlooks the governance for both the villages. My wife is not so educated, she doesn’t understand these things,” he laughed, trying to show his capabilities. And his ‘namesake‘ Sarpanch didn’t (or couldn’t) turn up, even after the Gram Panchayat meeting ended.
“The document says that there are 3 Sakhi Mandals (self-help groups) in this village. Can someone tell me how many members are there in each Mandal and how much money saving happens annually?,” I asked.
All the (only male) villagers in the meeting, including the old and new Gram Panchayat members, were uncertain and just looked at each other. Some were just sharing their guesses as to what the estimates could be!
One can see the image of Goga Maharaj (their ‘Snake God’, as a local lad explained) everywhere in the villages. The images of Goga Maharaj were on the front gates of villages, on state transport buses, vehicles, and shops. According to folklore, he is considered as a god or saint or ‘Pir’ (among Muslim communities) who protects people from snakes and snake-bites. That’s evident in the image itself, which also has a snake in it behind him.
The Rabari and other agricultural communities who worship him, often face high instances of snake-bites and are considered to have a fear of snakes.
However, the contrast in the ‘development situation’ is evident when one can find temples dedicated to Goga Maharaj everywhere, but on the other side, one of the most common demands by the villagers includes basic healthcare facilities, doctors, and equipment which can cure snake-bites!
A villager who engages in farming spoke to me about the effects that climate change has been having on the environment and on their livelihoods.
He said, “The pattern of rain is changing. Every two years we could see a pattern of intense rainfall in our region, but nowadays one cannot guarantee anything about the temperament of the nature god. The salty desert (semi-arid) land cannot hold the water and so the water runs off. There is no groundwater and our agriculture, our animals are completely dependent on rainwater.”
He went on to lament that, “On the other side, summers are unbearable and heat is rising. We can’t even plant trees because they are not held by water and don’t survive. So, the heat increases even more. If the rain is delayed, our crops are gone. Many villagers move to nearby towns from the month of November till almost the month of June. They work either on farms where irrigation facility is available and labour is needed or on construction sites.”
The villager who wished to remain unnamed also said how, “One of our leaders has taken a separate house in the city and he moves there every summer because here, is no drop of water even to drink. Many households have toilets built today but unless our water problem is solved, the toilets are of no use.”
There are positive as well as negative remarks about India’s roadmap towards achieving the SDGs. For example, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), in his review, highlighted several concerns regarding the country’ s preparedness to fulfill the SDGs. The SDG India Index 2018: A Baseline Report, on the other hand, ranks the states based on their performance and strongly recommends strengthening data systems to create better evidence.
Through this article, I want to highlight how the grassroots realities and checks, beyond numbers and statistics, are also important in order to keep the integrity within the ‘sustainable’ dimension of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.