Monday, November 13, 2006

India: Urban vs. Rural

The contrasts of India continue to strike me. People crowded like sardines into cities. Rickshaws, bikes, cars, trucks, camel and oxcarts, cows and people taking up every bit of open space so that as a pedestrian I feel like I have to hold my breath to make my way on the street. And then all you have to do is get on a train or drive from place to place and look out the window to see endless farmland with only an occasional burst of color from a sari or turban.

The reality is that India is farm country. One of their proudest accomplishments of the past 30 years is their "Green Revolution". Which because of good political stewardship and the introduction of new varieties of crops, fertilizers and soil maintenance, India has raised its output of wheat by leaps and bounds. Now the lands are producing much more and famine is only a historical memory. It went from a beggar nation depending on America’s excess wheat, left over from farm subsidies, to a donor nation which was able to give to Ethiopia and Vietnam during their famines in the 80’s. One reads that during this time of growth farmers were actually seen as rich. Something that is hard to imagine as an American. Land is a great resource in a growing country that needed to be fed.

The majority of India's 1.2 billion people are rural, but the scales are tipping as more and more people are moving to the cities where jobs are being created. The population of Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta are exploding. With no housing, people are forced to live out on the sidewalks and sleep there too. You see people asleep on any flat surface including the mediums of main roads. Delhi’s population grew by a staggering 46% between 1991 and 2001 to almost 14 million.

The rural versus urban contrasts show themselves in many ways. I have basically driven across India and been able to see the differences first hand. Cities are filled with billboards advertising cell phones, clothes and stores and traversed by many people dressed in western dress yet only a few kilometers outside of town things totally change. One drives from the land where cars and smog are taking over the roads. The rich are even beginning to drive SUVs and taking them up ancient alleyways that were built for pedestrians and only have room for them too.

I have witnessed major traffic snarls as those SUVs try to make their way. Right of way in India is basically given to the vehicle or person who moves first and so those snarls get to be a real mess with no logical thought about how to clear the path. Bikes, people and motorcycles keep pushing through any open space while beeping their horns the whole way. (India is not a place for the faint hearted!)

In the countryside, people live in mud huts in very modest circumstances. Their only vehicles are their feet or perhaps a camel cart or oxcart. Their heads are their best carrier of freight which means women with multiple brass jugs balanced on top of their heads are seen in every direction. (As a girl I can only think of all the books I tried to balance on my head in the effort to be like a model and watch in pure awe at their grace and beauty.)

One day on our way out into the desert for a camel trek we stopped in a few rural villages. I thought it was going to be a touristy walk through well trodden villages as often happens in the third world. Instead just 20 kilometers outside of the main town of Jaisalmer and just off the paved road we reached villages populated by subsistence farmers where the people were genuinely shy and a bit afraid of us. In fact they would come and watch us from behind doors and walls and then pose for photos only to run away when we tried to show them the LCD. They didn’t speak Hindi, the local official language of that state and only spoke their local dialect. Even some of the teenagers were brought to tears by our presence (I’m getting used to bringing babies to tears), while others were very curious to just watch us and follow us through the town.

While the Green Revolution brought wealth to the rural lands, the new IT boom is mostly only affecting the urban centers. It’s a boom of the educated and the rural areas are worried that they are being left behind. The hope is that the money from the IT boom will be spent to help the rural people. They need electricity, education, healthcare and roads and there is some evidence that these things are coming. According to books, India is rapidly reducing its poverty levels but according to my eyes it’s very hard to believe. The only signs of modern progress I see are new wells that seem to be newly placed along the roads. According to the New Yorker there were two million wells in India thirty years ago; today, there are twenty-three million. If other progress is being made at those numbers, the forecasts I have seen may be true. Predictions are that India will end extreme poverty by 2010 or 2015 (less than a dollar a day), which means lift one third of their society (350 million people) onto a new playing field. While it is hard to believe, change is definitely in the air and everything here is in flux so maybe real progress is even being made in the countryside.

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