Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala
Nostalgia for the Gandhian self-sufficient village erupts again and again. Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh has called for increased allocation for the construction of rural roads. Idea is that we need to enliven and provide modern amenities to the more than one-half of our population living in the villages. This resolve defies economic logic and is, therefore, destined to fail. The technological scenario has changed dramatically since Gandhiji’s times. The villages are too deeply integrated with the urban economy nowadays. They get electricity, diesel, chemical fertilizers, higher education, TVs, mobile phones and a host of other inputs of production and items of consumption. Self-sufficiency is passé. There is need to revisit the idea fundamentally.
Modern technology has changed the complexion of Indian agriculture. A large number of villages were formed in the past because cultivation was undertaken by draught animals. Villages were located at distances that were convenient for the animals. Villages are located at a distance of about 2 kilometers in the plains of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The bullock would have to walk about one kilometer each way to the field. Walking longer distances would reduce the energies available for ploughing the field. Villages are located at a distance of about 4-5 kilometers in the desert areas of Rajasthan. The camel can cover longer distances easily thus villages were located greater distances. On the other hand, people live in the middle of their fields in the hilly tribal areas throughout the country. The animals would waste too much of their energies in climbing the hills to reach the fields. It would be clear that the location and size of the village depends upon the nature of power used for cultivation of the fields.
Tractor has changed the scenario beyond belief. It is now possible for a farmer to travel up to ten or fifteen kilometers from his home, do the cultivation and return home. The necessity of making small villages at short distances has therefore been removed at the very root. My estimate is that only about ten per cent of all agricultural cultivation is being done by draught animals now. There is no reason now for the people to live in small villages located at short distances. They can easily live in small towns located ten or fifteen kilometers apart and undertake cultivation of their fields from there.
The question before us is whether to continue to sustain the small villages in this changed circumstances? There are many advantages of living in small towns. The supply of piped drinking water is possible only in towns. My village in Rajasthan has a population of 15,000. The people in my village are having no difficulty in getting drinking water despite a severe drought. The government has established a tube well which continues to draw water from the ground and supply to the homes. But people in small surrounding villages are suffering. Such water supply schemes have not been installed there. It frequently does not work where it has been installed. These people have to transport drinking water through water tankers. The government is not able to supply piped drinking water to these small villages. Long pipes have to be laid for reaching a small population. There is greater leakage. More power is consumed in pumping the water. The maintenance cost of long pipe lines is higher. The government has no alternative but to use its limited resources in first supplying water to towns and cities.
Electricity supply is more regular. Long lines of power supply are prone to faults. It is simply not possible to establish an oil expeller or a mini rice mill or even an atta chakki in a village for this reason. The studies of the students are also affected. The hardship on women is greater. They have to clean the lanterns every day. Entertainment facilities like cable TV and video parlours or cinema are unavailable. It is not possible to watch a movie in the night show if one lives in a village.
The simple fact is that it is much cheaper to provide all these civic facilities if the people are living in towns than in the villages. One government engineer estimated that the cost of supplying drinking water to the village is about ten times that of the city. The same would hold true for the roads, power, hospitals and other services. It is simply more efficient and convenient to live in the towns. It has always been so. But previously it was not possible to live in the towns because the animals had to walk to the fields. Small villages were, therefore, an unpleasant compulsion. This limitation has now been broken asunder by the tractor.
The choice before the country is to spend its scarce public money in reaching these services to distant villages or to improve quality of these services in the towns? Our resources will be spread thin between towns and villages if we provide these services to all our villages. The result will be all round poor facilities. Good facilities will only be available in the big cities. Our effort to save the village will lead to the killing of the village as well as the town. The industries that could have opened in the towns will actually move to the city. The pro-village unreal stance of the government is actually leading to the growth of the city.
The alternative is to abandon the villages and provide good quality services to the towns. The people may migrate from the village to the towns but they would not have to go any further. They would get roads, power and entertainment in the towns. We would have sacrificed the village but saved the towns.
The concern for the people living in the villages is welcome. A distinction should be made, however, between the provision of ‘productive’ services like electricity and roads and ‘residential’ services like schools, buses and hospitals. We must invest much more in electricity and roads in villages because these are essential for agriculture. It may be better to concentrate on schools, buses and hospitals in the towns and encourage farmers to live here so that they get the best of both worlds—schools in the town and road to the field.