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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 26, New Delhi, June 13, 2020

The Marching Millions to Nowhere Villages | Manish Thakur

Saturday 13 June 2020

by Manish Thakur

The never-ending movement of the migrant labourers in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic has suddenly brought into focus the continuing significance of the Indian village as the last refuge for the poor and the vulnerable. Some observers have woken up to the idea of the permanence of the village amidst this crisis of extraordinary proportions. Seemingly, the village has turned out to be the ultimate anchor for the millions who were hitherto condemned to be the part of the urban underbelly. Given the widespread disruption of urban-industrial livelihoods, particularly in the economically precarious informal sector, it is assumed that these returnees would permanently settle in their villages and thereby contribute to the vibrancy of the community life there.

Anecdotal media evidence too highlight the migrants’ firm determination of not returning to the city for all the ordeal that they have been subjected to. Social media are inundated with the visuals of a re-invigorated Arcadian village life – bountiful in the lap of nature, and far from the madding crowd. The dramatic scenes of migrants touching the soil of their desa or watan (fatherland) after their return lend romantic gloss to this apparently permanent move back to the village. Arguably, the village appears to have acquired a new lease of life if one goes by the contemporary narratives. But, is it really so? Or, is it time we wrote an obituary to very idea of the village?

For quite some time now, we have been hearing of the agrarian distress in the Indian countryside. Farmers’ suicides because of the growing web of indebtedness, the declining agricultural productivity as a consequence of declining public investment in agriculture, the increasing fragmentation of land leading to economically unviable land holdings, the ecological degradation in the wake of green revolution, and the like, have been symptomatic of this distress. Very often, the migration itself has been looked at as the most potent marker of the all-pervasive agrarian distress. Quite frequently, migration itself has been celebrated as the great embodiment of the undying spirit of survival of the rural poor. We have been told as to how the poor resorts to a portfolio of livelihood strategies to optimise their life chances against all odds: working for few months in a garment factory in Surat, going to Punjab during the Rabi season to work as an agricultural hand, laying bricks in a brick kiln in a neigbouring town in the lean season, and if all these do not add up a meagre existence, running a teashop on a road nearer home. This occupational dexterity has been taken note of as the migrants try all their available labour resources – women and children included – to bring in a modicum of livelihood security in an otherwise uncertain and insecure future. An unstated assumption, though, informs all these portrayals, that is, migrants have a place to go back to, or more importantly, wish to go back to; a home somewhere in an idyllic village from where they have come out of compulsion, and to that much cherished place (village) they would like to return to if only they got economically better off.

We need to interrogate this long-persisting village view of Indian society howsoever counter-intuitive it may sound amidst the present march of the millions to their villages far and wide. We wish to argue that the idea of an Indian village as a ritual-communitarian self-contained organic space does not hold any longer. True, villages are there. But, they are there as mere governmentalized localities, as handy spatial expressions of official census definitions, the politico-administrative demographic markers of the rural. Sooner we realise it the better, even from the point of view of policy making. Villages are no longer the ideational blueprints of an alternative way of life or a distinctive sociability. They are not the ideal ideological pegs on which you can hang your utopias on – something that was done just a century back in our own country by none other than Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Villages are out there as concrete empirical settings to help some of us, nay, most of us if you go by their numerical preponderance, organise our lives and livelihoods. But then, to look for a grand civilizational design in the very idea of an Indian village is to go against the grain of contemporary processes of sociocultural change. It is colonial Indian sociology that has ingrained in us the idea of the village as a microscopic ritual-cosmic universe in its own right. It is only appropriate to examine its continuing possibility in relation to an array of changes that sociologists themselves have documented over the past few decades or so.

Put simply, the village life does not attract an increasing number of villagers any more. They simply happen to be there for want of better access to towns and cities. They are not there out of any deep adherence to the so-called village way of life. Apart from occasional nostalgic invocation of shudhh hawa (pure air), pure ghee, and the supposedly dutiful and caring bahus (daughters-in-law), as the anthropologist Jonathan Parry has noted in his ethnography of Bhillai steel workers, the villages are generally seen as dull places lacking any promise of a better future. Surveys after surveys have revealed the villagers’ desperate urge to leave the village and agriculture if only they got a chance to do so. To say it blandly, if the villagers are seen clinging to their villages, it is not because of their deep-seated love for a sacred banyan tree there marking the ritual boundaries, or a pond containing the innumerable memories of a childhood well-spent, or the spiritually elevating experience of participating in the annual worship of the local deities, or the inevitable pull of the alluring village substance that the anthropologist E. Valentine Daniel spins a narrative of. They are there because they have nowhere else to go to. And, this is true for all the villagers, the rich and the poor alike.

We tend to forget that the villagers have not been untouched by the aspirational upsurge we are so fond of reiterating in this country. The villagers want to have precisely all those things that a well-off urbanite has, or aspires for. They want pucca houses with electricity and running tap water. They want refrigerators and wall-mounted colour televisions. They want faster means of transport, and have no desire to push their bullock carts on muddy kuccha roads. Sartorially too, they wear, and like to wear branded Jeans and T-shirts, and not the formulaic dhoti and angochha. It is a different matter altogether if their Wrangler and Benetton look less original than ours; this being more a question of affordability than lack of desire. They want good food, and good drinks too. They are not averse to Pizza and Pasta, popcorns and ice-creams, and the intermittent partying with friends over Chicken Tandoori and Chinese Chowmein. Go to any village feast and the menu starts with a Coke and a Pepsi, not to mention Indian Made Foreign Liqour. They seek to groom themselves the way we do. Cosmetics with their self-proclaimed anti-aging benefits attract them in the same manner as they attract us. So what if they have less money, and our brands differ. A village woman buys a Fair and Lovely sachet with the same earnestness as a Mumbai socialite buys a Shehnaz cream. A village girl has the same urge to visit the neighbourhood ramshackle beauty parlour as a well-heeled Delhite has to visit Madonna’s at Vasant Vihar for manicure and pedicure. The villagers enjoy going to shopping malls as much as we do. In short, they have the same gusto for all the good things of life as we have. Let us not make a fetish of the frugal, need-driven anti-consumption ethos of the village way of life which Gandhi eulogised so much that he ended up making a philosophy out of it.

Moreover, the villagers seek white-collar jobs for their children. Not jobs alone though. Daringly enough, if you like, they want their children to have style, finesse and sophistication – all the ingredients of cultural capital that sociologists keep mentioning with reference to the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu. So they send their children to far-off coaching centres and boarding schools when they can afford it. Those who cannot, at least, symbolically participate in this common aspirational universe, by admitting their children in the local English medium schools – a James Baldwin Academy here or a The Little Roses there or a Saint Peters somewhere else. It is little wonder that Indian villages are dotted with signboards of such English sounding schools and academies.

Even when you look at the physical landscape of a village, you will see rows of cement houses in different stages of completion. The obvious cause of this perpetual work-in-progress (lack of enough money) should not detain us. What is interesting is almost the modern uniform design of these houses as if they had simply been lifted from a glossy brochure of a middle-class real estate agency – a drawing room, bedrooms, kitchen, washrooms, balconies and the like. If you had to look for the provision of a small granary, or simply a row of storerooms even for a cultivating household, you will be disappointed. Admittedly, the villagers want to live (and not simply mimic) what they think of as the dominant image of a middle-class urban life –from the design of the house through the consumer durables to the care of the body and self. In no way, are they aliens from a different planet professing a totally different orientation to life and the world around us. We should stop spurring a unique rurality simply because they have less of those resources that make good things of life affordable to us, and unattainable to them.

The key point is that the villagers wish to desert their villages not merely as an automatic knee-jerk response to the prevailing agrarian distress. They simultaneously, and in a fundamental way, wish to escape from the dead weight of an agrarian utopia, rather vote it out with their feet, which has found such powerful expressions in a variety of social thinkers and political leaders, from Leo Tolstoy to Mahatma Gandhi. They simply do not wish to lend any existential credence to this long persevering utopia which keeps itself alive by its unproblematic association with such virtues as authenticity, simplicity, purity, originality, frugality, spirituality, religiosity, innocence, proximity to nature, ecological wisdom, craftsmanship and the like. There is nothing authentic about the village that is a priori. It gets constructed by the ideologues of different hues, and more recently, by the ethnic marketers. You see this happening in ‘villages’ like Hauz Khas in Delhi which gets aesthetically appropriated by contemporary forms of capitalism for its pristine (market-mediated ethnic) ethos and gets converted into the global hub of arts, crafts, cuisine and culture for the incessantly mobile metropolitan consumers. You see this in reconstructed village like culinary experiences that restaurants like Chowki Dhani offer you. This market-driven effervescence of respect for the village and the rural should not turn us away from the plain fact of an agrarian dystopia being the defining feature of the Indian countryside.

Of necessity, we need to make this conceptual and discursive transition from an agrarian distress to an agrarian dystopia to make a robust sense of what villagers want to do, aspire for, and achieve (or do not achieve). A village life is nothing more than the sum total of all the infirmities and deprivations it imposes on its inhabitants. There is not much glory in the crippling sense of lack or absence that ultimately marks a place as village as against some town or city. A villager lacks access to quality education, quality healthcare, good roads, and swanky shops. A village is characterised by the absence of all those amenities and facilities which possibly impart people a set of civic entitlements and enable them as citizens – public parks, public libraries, theatres, conference halls, coffee shops and salons. Metaphorically speaking, the villagers have every desire to have all those amenities and facilities. One’s glorifying of a village teashop under a banyan tree with broken makeshift benches made of stones and bricks not only essentialises the villagers but also misreads their aspirations.

So the idea of an Indian village is in disarray not simply because rural non-farm employment is turning out to be a relatively bigger contributor to the rural economy than agriculture, as the sociologist Dipankar Gupta has argued. Or, because a growing number of villagers are migrating elsewhere in search of livelihood, or returning now during the pandemic. Indeed, these are noticeable empirical phenomena of great sociological significance. But these varied phenomena are animated by an overwhelming aspirational urge of the very people who live in a village, the villagers. And this urge is to transgress the very idea of a village and the village way of life, the long-held foundation of an agrarian utopia. To be sure, as a foundational idea, as a template of living, the village has lost its ability to act as a pivot around which the ideals of a good and desirable life can be woven. Of course, the village will continue to exist in the foreseeable future; but more as an incidental habitat of the societal leftovers, the laggards and the vanquished. For the rest, the village will remain, to invoke Jonathan Parry once again, a perpetual waiting room. The villagers will continue taking the next available train towards a future howsoever uncertain and fragile. If they are seen marching back to the villages today, it is not because they have turned their back away from that future. It is more by way of gathering their strength, having a short respite, resting a little, finding their moorings for a while so that they can embark on another arduous journey, once again, towards places that will keep their aspirations alive and aflame, if not realised in any substantial measure. Viewed thus, the places the marching millions are returning to are nowhere places for they hardly communicate any vision of a future. In the ultimate analysis, this march need not be read as a panegyric to the lofty idea of an Indian village but, rather, its elegy!

Manish Thakur is Professor of Sociology at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta.

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