I began with a naïve assumption that people who had a connection with rural India would migrate from the city and move back home if they were given the means to a stable livelihood, one that possibly generates the income they earn in the city (INR 25,000 to 30,000/ USD 345 to 414 a month, for a family of five).
Many in India’s marginalised urban communities live in over-crowded spaces in conditions of much distress, from exposure to extreme weather to lack of proper water and sanitation. Yet these conditions are not significant enough for them to choose a return to more sparsely populated villages, where they can live in natural surroundings alongside relatives.
A friend who works in the social sector had alerted me to this possibility: ‘People who have been living in the city are so used to city-life that it’s likely they will not migrate back to the villages,’ she said.
However, I wanted to reconfirm, because the need to depopulate cities is obvious, the need to repopulate villages is also obvious, and the need to redevelop our relationship with the earth and with nature is imperative: both for our moral and physical wellbeing, and for the wellbeing of the planet and all its inhabitants.
Therefore, I requested a friend who lives in a slum settlement at Ambedkar Nagar in Cuffe Parade, Mumbai (India) to gather relevant information about the background of a few families and ask whether they would return to the village if economic opportunity existed.
My precise, 13-question interview was held with four families. Three from Ambedkar Nagar and one from a different locality. I understand that this is a small group, but I wonder if people who share constrained physical space and everyday uncertainties develop a common sentiment or a shared way of thinking? The responses to my interview confirmed what my friend had intuitively known through her years of experience working with similar communities.
Most of the families at Ambedkar Nagar have lived in Mumbai for a decade or two, or even three since the inception of this slum settlement in the 1990s. The people we spoke with still have family back in the villages, but the land they have is negligible in size and the families depending on it are large. That’s one reason why living in the village is not plausible. And the other reasons include lack of access to healthcare and education, and a more narrow outlook on social issues, which the respondents condensed into a phrase (lack of) open-thinking. I began contemplating : If access is what defines city-life and keeps people linked to the city, can we not improve access to some of these facilities and ideas so that eventually villages witness reverse migration and become dwellings of choice for more people, even those who are city-bred? Or can we at least bring the current rural-to-urban migration to a halt with improved exchange and access?
While such efforts are typically the mandate of public policy that has been conspicuously inactive at village development, can we not create useful activity? What happens if we start exchange and inter-dependency programs between cities and villages? Cultural exchange and trade agreements are common in foreign policy, can we not attempt the same through a people’s initiative?
I am starting a consumer circle to increase trade with village enterprises and farmer groups. I have identified two non-profit institutions near Mumbai that can help supply us with some requirements to start with. There will be soap nut (reetha) for laundry and all-purpose bio cleaners to start the exchange. We can grow from there and take this initiative beyond products to developing the education infrastructure through teacher-mentoring programs for village school teachers: Sharing methods and ideas is as important as purchasing made in the village products—Since so much of what we consume is about where it’s made, (rightfully so if it comes from the culture or specialty of a region) then made in the village is how I think we need to brand these products to develop in the minds of people the idea that villages too can be creative and economic centres, of the kind that balance existing inequalities.
There are similar initiatives that are underway already, and one more will likely add to the positive momentum. I invite you to join the consumer circle by filling this simple form (Consumer Circle, Mumbai) with your details. I will start sharing information on products and other exchange programs through email.
Our attempt will be to increase trade to help make villages economic centers, and to increase the exchange of methods and ideas to encourage the progressive development of villages. We will restrict ourselves to villages that are at a 300-kilometer or 186-mile distance from the city, so that we can take weekend road trips to facilitate exchange, and transport products easily using limited fossil fuel and packaging, and also create a way to send back and reuse packaging.
Perhaps you are encouraged to start a similar circle in your city. Please connect with me if you do. Who knows we may become a network and force of good someday. I can be reached on email@example.com
‘Let the villages of the future live in our imagination, so that we might one day come to live in them.’ – Mahatma Gandhi
A very special thanks to Ashok Rathod and Sunita Rathod, and to Neesha Noronha.