With Delhi’s air being declared the most polluted in the world and one of the causes of that pollution being massive migration from the countryside, should we really agree with Ambedkar when, in reply to Gandhi’s assertion that India lives in its villages, he asked, “But must it continue to do so?” Most economists are on the side of Ambedkar because in their view urbanisation is essential for development.
But surely that can’t mean India should just accept as inevitable what I might call forced urbanisation.
Millions of people move to cities, where they work for a pittance and contribute to the pollution through no fault of their own. I am not saying villagers don’t have the right to live in cities. But I do believe that many of the migrants would stay at home if, as Gandhi had suggested, development was bottom-up, not top-down.
But the present situation in villages is far from idyllic. Surveys suggest 50% of a community known for their deep bond with their land want to give up farming. P Sainath, one of the very few journalists who takes rural India seriously, has calculated that 270,940 farmers committed suicide between 1995 and 2013.
The failure of the Khadi movement and the continuing decline of Indian agriculture have led many to believe that village economies can’t be revived. But earlier this month I visited someone who firmly believes they can be revived and is indeed reviving them — Bunker Roy, the founder of the Barefoot College at Tilonia, in a Rajasthan village.
He is a firm believer in Gandhi’s view of development. His aim is to get villagers themselves to provide the skills needed by their community. So he brings doctors, architects, educators and many other professionals together with villagers to discuss how they can learn from each other and evolve ways in which the villagers, with little or no formal education, can practise skills urgently needed in rural India.
I was amazed to see a barefoot dentist at work. The patient seemed to have complete faith in her. Then there was a barefoot teacher conducting a night class for children.
I saw educational toys designed by barefoot educators and made by barefoot crafts women and men. Tilonia encourages the revival of rural crafts too. A team of Tilonia puppeteers and musicians were part of a two-month-long festival at the world-renowned Eden Centre gardens in Cornwall. There they taught the Rajasthani art of puppet making and learnt how to make the larger puppets the Centre is known for.
Bunker delights in telling visitors that Tilonia’s glove puppets are made from recycled paper.
Barefoot solar engineers from Tilonia are involved in the battle against pollution. After six months’ training in manufacturing and maintaining solar panels they go out into the villages and install panels on house roofs. One trained engineer told me she had installed 140 in one month.
Tilonia’s barefoot solar engineers have become so famous that women from all over the world come to Tilonia to learn how to maintain panels. I saw a class of 39 women from 12 countries stretching from Vietnam via Africa to the Dominican Republic.
Bunker sees Tilonia as a disseminator of technology. But it’s not just run-of-the mill technology. He said there were four qualifications before a technology was accepted — it should not do away with jobs, it should install equipment repairable by villagers, it should deliver what was essential, and it should not require the import of any skills from outside the villages.
When I asked whether he believed that Tilonia technologies could stem urbanisation, he said without any hesitation, “Yes.”
The government has just announced that it will build solar energy capacity capable of generating 100,000 MW. Shouldn’t there also be a place for village-level solar-energy generation with barefoot engineers? This would do much more for reviving villages than large plants made and maintained by sophisticated technicians.
If villages are not revived they will wither away and Delhi may suffer the fate of Fatehpur Sikri. It was deserted because of a shortage of water. Delhi may be deserted because its growth is out of control and the air isn’t fit to breathe.
The views expressed by the author are personal