The second wave of coronavirus has penetrated rural India. The villages close to cities and townships, from where people travel for work, seem to have been badly affected by COVID-19. What compounds the problem is lack of testing and healthcare facilities in rural districts. The sobs of men and women who have lost their loved ones, the cries of children who have been orphaned will haunt us for a long time.
This is where one must remember what Mahatma Gandhi said about making Indian villages self-sufficient. “If the village perishes, India will perish too,” Gandhi had said. Writing to Jawaharlal Nehru in 1945, he said: “My ideal village still exists only in my imagination… In this village of my dreams the villager will not be dull—he will be all awareness. He will not live like an animal in filth and darkness. Men and women will live in freedom, prepared to face the whole world. There will be no plague, no cholera and no smallpox. Nobody will be allowed to be idle or to wallow in luxury.”
Gandhi imagined Indian villages as units that are self-sustaining and self-reliant and not dependent on cities. “My idea of Village Swaraj is that is a complete republic, independent of its neighbours for its own vital wants, and yet interdependent for many others, which dependence is a necessity,” he said. Produce as per need, consume as per need and share your produce with each other—this was Gandhi’s philosophy.
He suggested developing a holistic rural economy not only based on agriculture but also supported by a strong rural industry so that villagers need not migrate to cities in search of work. “We should produce all the other necessities in the village itself. Then we should also find out what other industries we can set up here. We ought to press oil and make shoes locally. Similarly we can think of other industries also…,” he said during a prayer meeting at Sevagram in October 1941.
Gandhi had his own vision of industrialization. He once said that there is no better way than the spinning wheel to industrialize the villages in India. His vision included revival of rural water resources and strengthening rural ecology. While critiquing the West, Gandhi believed that surplus should be shared with local people, rather than getting concentrated in a few hands.
Gandhians in thought, like reformer Vinoba Bhave, economist J.C. Kumarappa, politician Jayaprakash Narayan and many other social activists, had furthered Gandhi’s mission. Even today, many Gandhian social activists are working to strengthen the village system in India, but the pulls of urban-centric development are often too strong. The second wave of coronavirus entered Indian villages possibly through migrants who returned from cities due to lockdowns or loss of employment. A villager who lives along the UP-Bihar border recently told me: “This is apocalyptic (pralay).”
Mahatma Gandhi never imagined Indian villages to be in the state they are in today. To empower India, we have to empower our villages.