Disclaimer: Some of the comments made here are strongly opinionated and I urge you to read with an open mind. If you find anything factually incorrect, or just want to share a difference of opinion, or any other constructive feedback, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As I begin to write my first ever Medium post, I wonder not about the actual content of the post, not the twenty charts I have to my left, not the growing number of empty Mountain Dews on my right, but first and foremost, how my high school English teacher would rate this post for my clarity and conciseness. So dear reader, I plead you to go easy on me just for my first one. I’m a quick learner, I promise.
Over the past month at the Deshpande Foundation, I got to continue my path towards working on rural development in India. While I have done my own teeny research over past years and just began work in organizations like Asha for Education, I never got to sit down and understand the nitty gritties of the rural system in India in depth. In the summer of 2018, I visited multiple towns and villages around Andhra Pradesh, specifically Tanuku, Dangeru, Yanam, and Pamaru. Tanuku was a thriving town with small cafes, huge supermarkets and most importantly, working toilets. As we ventured on to smaller villages like Pamaru, the landscape changed from multi-storey buildings to rice fields for miles and tiny huts. The primary demographic of these villages were small and medium landholding farmers, as well as senior citizens whose kids lived in the cities, or abroad. I was staying in this mansion that belonged to a member of my extended family. The place could comfortably house 30–40 people. Yet, 2 people stayed there with the rest of the family residing in “exotic” places like London and the US. As I continued to explore the nooks and corners of this tiny area, I found many houses deserted, many shops shut on a regular Tuesday afternoon and of course, many inquisitive eyes on this 17-year-old girl wandering the streets of a random village alone. As I asked around, it turns out that many people who occupied a majority of the houses in the area had left to move to urban areas in search of “better” employment opportunities. Thus, my first burning question popped up — What are these elusive employment opportunities that villagers are seeking? Is it just more pay, a stable source of income or simply a lack of any jobs in the village? In other words, considering it is easy to live simple in villages, do villagers migrate simply because the grass is greener on the other side, or is there more to the picture? Here’s a couple of [unedited] pictures from Pamaru during the monsoon when I visited.
Before you know it, we’re on the road again to another village 50 kilometers out called Dangeru. Going in a car was impossible so me, my cousin and uncle hopped onto two motorcycles and sped away on a narrow, muddy road surrounded by palm trees and a gloomy sky indicative of an impending downpour. We dropped our minimal luggage off at a house as I ran into the paddy fields insistent on getting my feet dirty with some paddy sowing. Post that, I wanted to jump into the local lake and wash the cow. I wanted to climb the coconut tree all the way to the top and pull some coconuts down. I wanted to use the bathroom. While the first two desires were met with laughs about how these aren’t “appropriate” for a city girl to be doing, the last one was a dead, flat-out serious no. Upon investigating why, I understood the abysmal conditions that the bathrooms were in. For a house that had a plasma TV, the investment made into regular sanitation for the three grandmothers staying there was honestly blasphemous. The bathroom was a regular Indian style toilet. Now, that alone is extremely hard for an elderly person to use given that they have to squat to the floor. However, in addition to that, the toilet’s plumbing hadn’t been fixed in forever so there was a layer of urine and water that made it a breeding ground for local flies and a strong reek. Thus, almost all men in the area resort to open defecation while the women fend for themselves in the stinky toilets or defecate openly as well. Thus there’s been an unconscious consequence in the growth of diseases and most surprising of all was the number of girls I met in that very same local village who dropped out because their school didn’t have a toilet then. Let’s not even talk about how women manage their periods safely and hygienically. Thus, we come to my second burning question — Why is something as basic and universal as clean toilets not at the forefront of every Panchayat? And that got me thinking, are Panchayats even legitimate? Or are they just a local government on paper? For my beloved reader who may not be well-versed in what exactly a Panchayat means, it is a formalized local self-governance system in India at the village or small-town level.
Engrossed in these thoughts, we traveled half an hour east to Yanam. Fun fact — Yanam is under Pondicherry territory although it is located in East Godavari, Andhra Pradesh. Yanam has a small business that runs some water activities during season but nothing compared to what it’s capable of. Upon interacting with the owner later, I understood that it’s been hard for him to even keep his business afloat with the minimal revenue he’s been getting from the few months in season as his main customers are local residents and people who make a pitstop while traveling to a nearby town called Kakinada. Later in the year over winter break, I got to see the other end to village tourism as my mother finally gave in to my desires as my family and I made an overnight trip to Papikondalu, Andhra Pradesh. Picture this — You are on your boat surrounded by mountains. It’s the perfect weather hovering at 25 degrees. You’ve got your best playlist set out for the entire day. It’s serene and peaceful. Now I personally would easily down Rs. 50k — 1L(730 to 1450 USD) for a trip like this because it’s so hard to find a boat surrounded by the most beautiful mountains anywhere. But this is what our trip cost us: 5000 rupees for 4 people for an overnight stay with all meals provided. That’s 70 bucks there. 70 bucks. That’s it. With the extremely low cost, right now, the target audience for this trip is the lower middle class. And with cheapness comes chaos with the constant hustle and bustle of others trying to find their respective boats implying 9 am departures become post-noon. We took the mass boat so there were about 30 people on it. We had a couple of music and dance performances on the mini stage on the boat. A couple of hours after being immersed in these beautiful hills, our boat made a quick pitstop at a temple before heading to our site for the night. Our stay for the night was extremely simple with a mattress being given to each person in a two-person shed. There were about 300–500 people in that campsite. The next morning we trekked up the nearby hill and went to this mini waterfall nearby. The experience and scenery as a whole was unparalleled. However, that brings us, dear reader, to our third burning question — When the numbers and revenue are thriving, why are there no thoughts for expansion beyond the current demographic? Why are there no thoughts to make the bathrooms cleaner? Why is village tourism in India still seen as a niche that can’t expand beyond a lower class, dirty experience when we have employable people and a stunning landscape? Mind you, the scenery was amazing and I thoroughly enjoyed it but most people I know would not be down for a rustic rural experience if it’s not clean. From the start of the trip, we were delayed by a couple of hours, had to wait in an area by the shore that was filled with years of garbage, had to use common bathrooms that could’ve been much cleaner, had to sit on plastic chairs that made the whole boat look ugly, had to weave our way through every second that made it analogous to a city railway station.
Now, dear reader, I’ve been traveling actively across India from the age of eight. I’ve been to Delhi, Mumbai, Vasind, Indore, Bhopal, Kakinada, Nizamabad, Karimnagar, Warangal, Hyderabad, Chennai, Salem, Yercaud, Mussorie, Guntur, Kolkata, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Pune, Vijayawada, Vizag, Gurgaon, Rajkot, Bengaluru, Hubli, Noida, Munnar, Coorg, Ooty, Srinagar, Goa, Trivandrum, and all the teeny villages along the way. But I’ll tell you this. The list above are all cities and towns that your typical Indian would have heard of. I’m sure all these places have things in common with extravagant malls, Audi’s turning the fruit seller’s head, some cities cleaner than others. The reason I say this is because most of these places also have a common thread of overpopulation. These places are way in over their heads with trying to solve the growing slum problems in India. Now, of course, there isn’t anything wrong about wanting to experience a different life in the city. But it shouldn’t be under the pretext of not being able to receive a legitimate education and a stable source of income in one’s village. And thus, we’ve come to maybe the most burning question of them all and my not-so-hot take for the day — If the government redistributed their funds to allocate more money into village development over trying to ameliorate the conditions of the millions living in city slums, wouldn’t we reach a better state in this country much faster? I’ll give you my prime example — Dharavi. Over the course of the last month, I got to visit Dharavi multiple times. Now, for those of you who weren’t fortunate enough to watch one of my all-time favorites, Slumdog Millionaire, Dharavi is one of the world’s biggest slums with an estimated 700,000 calling it their home. Cab drivers refuse to drive you there, the sewage problem during the monsoon makes suffocation the least of all your problems, there’s one [non-functional] toilet for every 1440 people living there. In other words, traveling there in the monsoon, the sewage system, or lack thereof, was appalling with dirt, garbage, cow dung, and water all being mixed into one. Political parties leverage the residents of these slums into becoming “members” of the party and regularly incentivize them and in return, they buy their voter share in one section of Mumbai. Now, the amount of money going in every year to keep these slums organized isn’t small and organizing slums isn’t solving the problem it is simply putting a pretty icing on a burnt cake. Every year, this place generates a revenue of more than $650 million dollars to $1 billion dollars as it is home to 5,000–6,000 businesses — couldn’t these same businesses exist from their respective villages, create a supply chain that would minimally impact revenue without being mired in diseases, pollution, and discrimination?
Therefore, I shall leverage this chance to reiterate my take — If we invest money into village development, wouldn’t we be reversing the alarming rates of migration to urban areas and thus, two birds one stone. Two big birds. One small stone.
Now, dear reader, is that time of the article where you can choose to do one of three things:
- Venture on to Part II of this article that shall be live on October 5. Part II is more factually driven where it details my work with the Deshpande Foundation and how I found answers to the questions in this article and of course, MORE questions to venture further into
- Email Amita about what you think about this topic, her horrendous grammar or simply, a fun fact that she should know because she is an absolute die-hard for the weirdest things
- Go back to watching Sacred Games because it is one of the most amazing TV series to bless Netflix
All my love,