Debates on rural distress generally take place only or mainly in the context of economic issues. Certainly economic issues, and related issues like those of technological change, are very important for understanding rural distress but at the same time it will not be proper to try to have an understanding based only on economic issues while ignoring important aspects of social disruption and distress. There should be adequate consideration, not to draw attention away from economic problems rooted in injustice and wrong policies, but to provide a more complete picture of the ground-reality.
In several villages I engaged in recent years in group discussions with villagers and activists and we reached a common understanding of the great importance of social issues. Another understanding we reached was that while we often have to struggle against big forces to correct economic wrongs, correction of social ills is much more within the hands of people themselves, at individual, households and above all community levels. People agree that we can start correcting social ills immediately on our own, and apart from providing important relief this will strengthen the community for the economic struggles as well in several ways.
Here I am describing just one such group discussion in a single village of Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. This is not to say that this is in any sense a typical or representative village, but this is just to convey an idea of the issues that need to be considered and the importance of these issues. This discussion also brings out how social and economic issues are related , and hence brings in some economic issues as well.
How many persons consumed liquor in this village 25 years ago?
Not a single person. Ask any elder person.
How many persons in the village consume liquor today?
Today there is not a single family in the village in which liquor is not consumed.
We were sitting under a tree in Kolawal Raipur village in Banda district. Nearly 30 villagers had gathered for a discussion. This included some of the most experienced elderly persons in the village as well as eager young men. A few women were also present here while others were contacted separately in a second group discussion. One very old woman called naani ji by others proved to be surprisingly articulate.
Babulal, an elderly person and former Pradhan said, “ Liquor was brought here by a villager returning from city. It did not pick up rapidly but a few people started tasting it. Then at election time liquor was distributed free and this led to more people getting a taste of this. Then mining mafia came for sand mining and they also spread the liquor habit.”
At the meeting of women some of them simply folded hands and said –Just help us to get rid of this liquor menace somehow. This is what we need most of all.
Naani Ji added-Our times were good and tension-free as there was no liquor.
In addition there has been a big increase in guthka, packaged chewables generally with a strong content of tobacco and other harmful ingredients. There was no guthka 25 years back but now on an average a family may consume 5 to 10 pouches in a day.
Thus with an average daily consumption of one or two pouches of liquor and five to ten small packs of guthka a family may end up spending between Rs. 150 or Rs. 200 in a day on intoxicants. This sum is adequate to end malnutrition and undernutrition if diverted towards providing nutritious food.
The next question we asked related to legal cases or disputes which have reached city based courts. Each such case results in a lot of expenses, apart from tensions.
How many families in this village were involved in legal cases 25 years back?
Not a single family, ask anyone.
How many families are involved in legal cases today?
Today there is not a single family in the village which is not involved in a legal case.
Ironically this has happened at a time when on paper panchayati raj has been strengthened steadily with more or less regular elections. This also reflects the wider reality of the breakdown of strong community ties in the recent past. So many social tasks could be accomplished at a low cost with ease and happiness because of this while today these involve huge cash expenses and the accompanying tensions.
Raja Bhaiya, a leading social activist who spent the younger days of his life in this village said, “I remember at the time of a marriage a letter would be written that so and so person having a palanquin is expected to send this, the other person having big size utensils is expected to send these, and in this way all essential things would become available without incurring any cost. Depending upon individual skills, someone volunteered to bring flowers and leaves from forested area, someone offered to be part of the group making pattals or leaf-plates, someone became a member of the cooking team and someone took up the decoration work. But all these forms of social cooperation have vanished to a large extent and huge cash expenses are needed just for marriage ceremonies, not to talk of dowries and related demands.”
Naani Ji says with a sigh, Oh do not remind me of those days. I get so overwhelmed with emotion when I remember and compare with these days.
Social cooperation was also very useful in maintenance of pastures, looking after animals and composting manure. All this helped to promote livelihoods while keeping costs at very low levels.
One aspect of the system was linked to the other and one link broke the others broke too. With the introduction of indiscriminate mechanization of agri-chemicals costs rose rapidly and bank debts increased.
We asked—25 years back how many families were indebted to banks?
Not a single family in the village had any bank debt.
Now how many families are burdened by bank debts?
Today not a single family is free from bank debts.
What is more bank debts are quite high for several families and the annual payment of interest itself is quite a burden.
Thus social disruption not only causes social distress but also increases economic problems and tensions. The annual outgo from the village due to expenses on liquor, all other intoxicants, legal cases, bribes and interest on debt is huge.
These aspects of rural change need to be emphasized as this often gets neglected in the discussion based only on narrow economic issues. Social disruption also increases ecological problems and makes it more difficult for villagers to respond to emerging ecological crisis. Hence it is important to plan remedial actions by giving adequate attention to social aspects.
At the end of our long discussion in Kolawal Raipur village one youth Baidyanath stood up and said, “Today here and now I take an oath to give up liquor consumption.”
Others greeted this announcement loudly and decided to take up this and related issues in follow-up meetings.
So we departed from the village on a note of hope.
While returning from this village I stopped by to speak to a gathering of landless workers. They said they will soon be migrating to look for work ( this was before Covid struck). I asked about the possibility of work within their own or neighboring c village, and they said they will not be considering this. A little further down the road I came across a group of farmers. They said that they have problems in getting adequate workers for the looming busy season. Hence this growing alienation between various sections is another social factor that is important. This did not emerge so much in the village where I had my detailed group discussion as almost the entire village is of one caste and community of small and medium farmers, but this growing alienation of various sections is certainly very important n other villages, as became evident from conversations on return journey.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author who has reported widely from remote villages. Several of these reports have received prestigious awards.