An Anganwadi centre in Bihar has been running in a dilapidated state for 7 years. Everyday, children sit besides crumbling walls and under a makeshift roof. The parents’ appeals to the Child Development Program Officer – that the school urgently be rebuilt — have been ignored consistently. These children are the human face of our rural infrastructure crisis. When we see what it is like to try to study in a building where you fear the roof will collapse on your head, we understand that the country’s infrastructure crisis is not just about highways and electricity poles; it’s about children and education and healthcare. The most urgent infrastructure need is, in fact, rebuilding schools, anganwadis and medical facilities in the countryside. This is just as urgent – if not more so – than building new highways and smart cities, but it is massively under-prioritised by the government. While more money has been allocated to sectors like transport and energy, the overall spending on rural development has dropped from 8 per cent to 1 per cent of the Central plan. What further implications will the soon-to-be-released budget have on rural communities?
Politicians continue to pay lip service to Gandhian principles, but Mahatma Gandhi’s focus on creating self-sufficient village economies has been conveniently forgotten. “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 million (now 1.3 billion) took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts,” he had warned. Nothing makes the shift from Gandhian ideas of rural prosperity more clear than the Central Government’s development plan. One of the ideas of infrastructural development floated by the new government is the creation of 100 Smart Cities (a.k.a, 100 ‘little Singapores’) as satellite towns of larger cities and by modernising the existing mid-sized cities. Though very little detail is given, it is certain this is a plan designed for urban India — which consists of less than one-third of India’s population.
A dedicated website to the smart cities project states that the 31% of the population currently living in urban areas is responsible for 60% of the GDP. It is expected that by 2051, 50% of the population will still be living in rural areas, but the vast majority of GDP – 75 to 80% — is expected to come from the cities. These numbers suggest that the plan is to make rural areas increasingly less important to the economy as time goes on. This surely means that the people themselves living in rural areas will become increasingly less important; increasingly marginalized. (And we won’t even get into the question here of whether India’s and the world’s environment can sustain this plan.) Whether one has to cross a river to reach the main road or someone is living in an area where it is difficult to distinguish between roads and fields, it won’t matter.
Community Correspondent Nitu Chakiya has shown how the absence of a proper road has left people disillusioned with the democratic process and angry at all politicians in Orissa no matter what party they come from. Though many complaints about this particularly bad road were ignored, CC Nitu mobilised the community and got the authorities to take action. “When people see that someone is trying to work for them, they help in all possible ways,” she told us later. Adding further, she said, “Most of the people don’t even file complaints anymore because they don’t think it will lead anywhere.” Nitu, here, in this small victory, has managed to restore some faith that the government can be made to work. She will soon be making another video about the successful completion of the road, and her work in trying to restore people’s faith in the democratic process.
Like Nitu, the CCs at Video Volunteers are not far-flung reporters trying to understand the problem like an outsider; they are living the problems they are trying to highlight. Every single one of the 170 Community Correspondents is someone who lives in the same areas they are trying to report on. It is of their immediate interest to change the prevalence of mis-governance.
Even though there have been schemes and policies that have tried to develop rural India — building roads, providing electricity and water, and creating opportunities for employment — a lot still needs to be done to bridge the widening gap. To try and tackle malnutrition, maternal health centres are needed. Literacy rates will not rise without school buildings with proper facilities. There is no point of having metros running in smart cities if the villages aren’t even connected by roads.
In the last financial year, the Smart Cities project was allocated INR 7060 crores (USD 1.7 billion), while the Central Government’s scheme responsible for building rural roads, Pradhanmantri Gram Sadak Yojana, got double of that amount. It seems here that the program, which is connecting the villages with roads, has been rightly given the priority. But what one has to consider is that the former is for 100 cities and the latter for 600,000 villages.
The vast difference between what the communities need and what is being built is appalling. Policies that aren’t inclusive will not change anything for the vast majority of Indians. The satellite cities can create job opportunities for migrant labourers but they will truly smart only when they can provide affordable housing so that people don’t have to squat on pavements. And for that to happen, it is important to include communities in this debate. Without that, we can only pretend to be developing towards a brighter tomorrow.