"YOU'LL KNOW INDIA THROUGH ITS VILLAGES," GANDHI SAID LONG AGO.
SO WHEN ARE INDIA AND ITS VILLAGES GOING TO UNITE?
I am writing from Manali in Himachal Pradesh, India. This is a land where many Bollywood films have had their dance scenes filmed. With the Himalayas, the fruit orchards, 50-meter tall trees, gardens and villages as their singing backdrops, there is little doubt that there is eye candy galore to film or view here. As a matter of fact, one local TV station runs non-stop musicals set in the hills and villages in the immediate area.
This isn't all kitsch either. There are some great showcases in some Bollywood films for local traditional clothing and lifestyle to be witnessed in observing over-and-over again such footage. As a matter of fact, the connection between the rural traditions and modern India can be witnessed all around. (This was definitely not quite the case a decade ago before the advent of great internet and telecommunication networks coming to the Himalayan towns of northern India.)
At the same time, one can feel transported to a basic way of life not experienced in Europe for several centuries. Just five to fifteen minutes outside of the tourist centers in the region, you can be on your own in the trees or walking in hillside villages that have no motorized vehicles used on the farms, gardens, and orchards. This is the way of life is in this part of India--up into the highland peaks reaching to more than 6000 meters all the way to Nepal and Tibet.In short, ideal alpine life meets tourism (crash commercialism) at the edges of India's villages. However, India has many different faces, and the distinction between life in the rural areas and life in the cities in this land (of one-billion-plus citizens) is as astounding in its contrasts and contradictions as can be found anywhere else on Planet Earth.
INDIA-IT'S IN ITS VILLAGES
Over a century ago, Gandhi began to tell the British and the Europeanized Indian citizenry of that era that real India should be encountered in the towns and villages of the subcontinent. Interestingly, this situation remains a surprisingly accurate description for India in the third millennium.
Recently, on my short stopover in Mumbai (on my way north through India, I met with one of the head managers of the HIV/AIDS project for the Society of Service to Voluntary Agencies (SOSVA) in India. According to its website:
In other words, SOSVA is an umbrella non-governmental organization (NGO). It tries to link the needs of rural and urban communities. It tries to trouble shoot and build bridges between caregivers and the needy throughout the state of Maharashetra. It fills in the gaps that the state and NGO networks have been unable to attend to over the past decades. It is also consistently working to get more and more local communities involved in their own empowerment.
"SOSVA works with field NGOs to implement projects, ensure that funds are used effectively, monitor performance; and assure transparency. SOSVA is one of the main implementing partners of Family Health International (FHI) to initiate, guide and monitor interventions with marginalized groups in Mumbai and Thane as part of the HIV/AIDS prevention project of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation."
HEALTH NEEDS AND HEALTH CARE
HIV/AIDs long ago made the crossover from being a cosmopolitan problem in India. It is a problem in rural communities, too. However, underdevelopment of the infrastructure (in rural areas of India over the last 60 years of Indian history) has made diseases like HIV, TB/respiratory and dysentery-related illnesses all-to prevalent. This is partially due to the Nehru-style centralized development practices implemented for far too many decades, i.e. this soviet-style centralization had left the local communities of India fairly underdeveloped by the end of the 20th Century. These underdevelopments include healthcare, education, and physical infrastructure, like roadway improvements and the creation of better train services and regional metro networks in states like Maharashetra, where Mumbai is located.
The long-term centralization of India, after the British left in 1947, also hurts local autonomy and growth of local political counterweights to demand better rural development.
For example, to this very day (i.e. July 2008), according to residents of local towns throughout Himachal Pradesh, townships receive "only enough funding" from the central governments to provide for "the bare maintenance of roadways-and this is a major tourist destination. They have little-to-no say in making intermediate and long-term plans. That is, local communities cannot make long term development plans with centralized parties in the statehouse or in Delhi always controlling their purse strings. Local communities in India need to get permission to cut through red tape and create their own sources of income and development-without having to bow to the regional and national elite who control both the parties and the civil services in India.According to the most recent Indian census, over 70% of the nation's 1.1 billion people live in rural areas. There are over 638,000 villages in the land. (This is all in a territory in which makes up only 2.45% of the total world surface area.) In short, 2.45% of the world's land surface is holding 16.7 % of the total world population.
These facts are all part of the story of India in the 21st century.
On the other hand, India suffers already with the planet's third largest number of HIV/AIDS--It will have 3 million or more cases by the end of this decade. Conversely, this bodes some good news, too, because nearly 99% of the people in India do not have AIDS currently.
The bad news is that India has a large and growing population of under-educated peoples, including those from Kashmir and Jammu that have seen more violence than normal the past two decades. Further, many people are creating rumors about condoms and safe sex that are just not true. I read such bizarre editorials in Goan newspapers just last month. Safe sex is not usually practiced in most parts of India, further exposing the potential for AIDS to spread. There are huge populations of sex workers. India also has a high number of at-risk persons, such as homosexuals, prison inmates, long-distance truckers, migrant workers (including refugees from neighboring lands, like Bangladesh), and street children.
NOTE: Many street children, of course, come from families who are migrating from rural areas to the city. However, I have seen children begging in the street in small villages as well.