There are some moments and perhaps days in our lives that change us so irrevocably that we can never quite see the world the same way again henceforth. Our worldviews, opinions and thoughts, all undergo a sudden, perhaps drastic, change due to an experience we hadn’t the faintest idea would impact our lives to that degree. To me, one such experience, or rather series of experiences that changed my life to that extent is my two-week journey into the rural interiors of Karnataka: a journey I undertook with 5 other college-mates - once strangers and now close friends - as a part of our masters degree programme at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. I could, if prompted, tell you hundreds of stories, happy and sad, puzzling and straightforward, sober and humorous, of these fortnight. I will however, endeavour to curtail my enthusiasm and narrate only the most necessary ones for now.
As a part of our programme, we spent two weeks in the small village of Mudumadugu, in South-Eastern Karnataka, learning what it means to live in a rural area, observing (not advising or providing any kind of non-existent expertise) the village as the people there went on with their daily life. Twenty-two years of growing up in the city found me but ill-suited for this momentous journey.
One of my constant surprises, something that struck me over and over again is how different rural India and the people who inhabit it, are from my preconceived notions of rural life and what it means to live in a village. What I realised is that our ideas about village life are often idyllic, based out of books and movies that we have read or seen. Reality proved to be very different. The village was a place of challenges; a place where water scarcity was an everyday experience; a place where the electricity and phone connection was dubious at best. However, it was also a place which had a bakery and even a hotel of sorts. The houses were not all little huts, but a collection of big and small houses, ranging from huge, well-proportioned, pretty houses to small one-room houses with no furniture. I realised that a village which had big houses as well, a village which had businesses like the bakery and the small hotel, a village where people even used WhatsApp, did not exactly match my prior ideas of what a village would be like. Less than half of the notions that city-dwellers have about rural life have no basis in reality. This was my first lesson.
Another great lesson village life taught me was that the changes we want in a village may not necessarily be the changes its residents want to see. What we consider hardships aren’t what they consider hardships. For instance, houses in the village did not have individual, interior tap connections. Women and children queued up in front of common taps to get water every day. This water was then filled into large tub-like structures made of stone, typically found in the bathrooms. For us, used to on-demand tap connections, this seemed a large problem. The water would make its appearance everyday only at one specific time in the morning. All water use after that needs to be strictly regulated so that we don’t run out of water by the end of the day and there is enough water for everyone’s use. To the villagers, however, this was just the way things were. They were genuinely baffled by our need to have indoor plumbing. To them, these times were good, there was no scarcity and they could get water every day. Having indoor plumbing was needless; why is it even necessary to have taps inside? Filling water at specified timings was daily routine to them, and not a source of inconvenience or hardship. This incident also taught me another lesson: our perceptions about the village, its inhabitants, and their hardships are coloured by our own experiences and the surroundings we grew up in. After all, it was my upbringing and surroundings that made me consider it inconvenient to have no indoor plumbing.
Another important lesson I learnt during this trip is that policies as well as interventions sometimes fail at the implementation stage, when these are tried out in the local communities for which they are typically intended. The main reasons for this failure are twofold. Firstly, there is a failure to understand grassroots realities at the level of policy planning level. Take, for instance, the scheme under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. The scheme allots Rs. 12,000 for building toilets. Beyond the obvious problems of the insufficiency of this amount, villagers also complain that acute water scarcity during 4-5 months of the year make it impossible to use these toilets. The government, if it wishes to stop open defecation, should first ensure the use of these toilets through measures to prevent better water scarcity. Mandatory toilet-building, in this case seem to have done nothing concrete other than provide extra storage space to the villagers (since most of the toilets get used as store-rooms). Secondly, some interventions fail because of their inability to plug in all the leaks, so to speak, and make sure small details are attended to as well. For instance, there was a school not too far away from the village, run by an NGO, that caters to both orphaned children from Bangalore as well as children who live in the surrounding villages. The education and accommodation (if necessary) are all free from any fees/charges. However, some parents in the villages whose children had gained admissions to this school could still not afford to send their students there, since they could not afford the bus fees.
I was also surprised at the extremely slow pace of life at Mudumadugu. This was perhaps because of the extremely low level of access to technology of any kind. That brought us all closer together as a group, in a way which constant use of phones, internet and social media would perhaps not have made possible. To while away time, we had long discussions about anything under the sun. No question was too silly, and no topic was ever taboo. We were thrown together by circumstance, with no prior knowledge about the other group members, and we departed as firm friends, friends who would prove to be my support system through the next 2 years. All of us returned from that trip more observant of my surroundings, with more than an inkling of how policy changes affected the grassroots, to perhaps become a better student and a better employee.