“India is not Calcutta and Bombay; India lives in her seven hundred thousand villages.” Mahatma Gandhi made this statement many decades ago. After 76 years of India’s independence from British colonial rule, does the statement still holds true or the things changed completely? From the late 19th century through the early 20th century, under British rule, poverty in India aggravated, peaking somewhere in the 1920s. Let’s try to find out. In his "Tryst with Destiny" speech, the first Prime Minister of independent India Jawaharlal Nehru, voiced the aspirations for the newly born nation on the night of August 14, 1947. In his view, to begin with, the tasks to focus on were "to bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman." We need to re-examine the current status of all these aspects.
Today, India is the second most populous country after China with above 139 Crore (1390 million) people. As per the last Census (done in the year 2011), nearly 70% of the country’s population still resides in rural areas. This Census also showed that the number of villages in India is more than 6 lakh (0.6 million). The next Census was due in 2021 but it was postponed due to the Covid pandemic.
India is a land of diversity. Here, many different languages are spoken, typically by the people living in different villages. As the villages in India are the major agricultural hubs of the country, thus, their cuisine depends largely on the crops that are grown there. Also, the dressing style of people differs widely from State to State. Women in India wear saree and salwar-kameez which though traditional, are still in. Men in most Indian villages wear dhoti and a loose kameez on top. They also generally wear a turban on their head.
After 76 years of Independence, India now has clearly two different streams of development, in the urban and rural parts; and an ever-growing number of villagers migrating to urban parts (cities) with the hope of a better lifestyle post-finding suitable employment. More than 16% of India’s population still lives in poverty and the richest top 1% control more than 40% of the nation’s wealth. There is one section of society (including both the rich and middle class) that enjoys the most modern fruits of technological development and the other for whom machines and automation are a threat to their survival. This dichotomy is reflected in all areas of human life - education, health care, etc. India is home to the largest number of illiterate people in the world with over 25% of the population can’t read or writing.
The agricultural sector is the largest livelihood provider in India. But the Indian agriculture is heavily dependent upon the monsoon. Bad monsoon means poor crop production which further causes poverty and inflation. Farmers seem to be the most economically undervalued people in society. They work hard but don't even get paid half of what they deserve. Most farmers work without any modern machines. They work for long hours every day, starting even before sunrise and ending their days after dusk. They toil in the scorching heat and even in the rain. A farmer's life is mostly dependent on climatic conditions, as the yield is affected accordingly. One other way of earning a living in the villages is by housing cows, sheep, goats, and poultry.
Many people who migrate from villages to cities looking for work end up living in slums and by railway stations. The slum is a kind of residential area wherein the dwellings are unfit for human habitation for reasons like insufficient and unsafe drinking water supply, no garbage disposal, overcrowding, lack of proper ventilation or sanitation facility, and in many cases even without electricity. Poor hygiene conditions are the cause of diseases such as cholera, typhus, and dysentery, in which especially poor children suffer and die. Around 17% of urban Indians live in slums. Here no one wants his/ her son or daughter to live in such conditions or do the same job which they do. Yet, the perpetuation of poverty is carried across generations. Were they better off in their village? Migrant laborers travel thousands of kilometers each year in search of work, many are not able to stay anywhere for more than six months, not even in their own village homes. We observe the migratory birds flying across the borders and over the sea and going back with the season. But we also need to look down on the ground to see people doing the same for their survival. Every time these people are forced to migrate from one place to another we must understand the state of their mental health, their needs, and some basic dreams of “Roti, Kapda, and Makaan”. They wish to send their children to school and their children also see dreams for a little better future. Their story revolves around living on a footpath to being able to find shelter, and provide meals and education to their children. In cities, the posh colonies are surrounded such people who are engaged in various professions essential for the daily life of the main city residents who belong to the rich and middle class. When most of the Government level developmental schemes and projects are being planned to keep in mind the rural people, then why are people migrating to cities to live in such conditions? Is the failure of such developmental schemes the reason that people have been migrating from villages to cities?
And in villages, the scene is different. On the Ghats lining the river, one can see the people bathing, washing clothes, doing puja, offering blessings, selling flowers, and getting a haircut or a shave, like in traditional India. Sadhus are wandering around, normally half-naked, smeared in dust & with hair & beard matted. Similarly, the bazaars in villages are uniquely dynamic. Trading, shopping or just browsing through local markets is an integral part of everyday life for most people. For these common people or the general public, the actual impact of any economy is when the prices of their necessities get affected. For them, when prices become low for the day-to-day goods and services that they consume, the economy is good. On the other hand, when inflation is higher, then the public gets unsatisfied. The rise in commodity prices affects the common man's pockets.
Unlike the cities, mostly the villagers don't live their lives too occupied. A collective, family-like feeling is common among the villagers, unlike city life where everyone prefers to mind their own business. The villagers in India are extremely friendly. They enjoy getting together, live in close-knit families, and try to help each other during adversities. This sense of community and belonging is greatly valued. Even with so many problems related to village life, the Indian culture inhere is very much intact and the celebrations are huge. All festivals are celebrated with a lot of zeal, with folk music, dance, and songs, especially during the harvest season. It feels like that simple and primitive past that these villagers have still maintained. Huge open agricultural land fields and rustic lifestyle makes the villages much more scenic and peaceful in comparison to cities. People living in cities often go on holidays to such scenic countryside villages. These places are free from the heavy traffic of city life. Villages are found to be much more peaceful, calm, open, and full of greenery, where one can breathe fresh air without any pollution problems. The best thing about these villages is that they are very environment-friendly. Villages are also home to the chatter of birds. Villagers treat their guests like a member of their families and try to make sure that their guests don’t face any inconveniences during their stay. If a traveler is here not just to visit places but also to learn about the culture of the country, one should definitely think about exploring and staying in some of the Indian villages. Village people are filled with life, expression, and culture in them. Unlike cities, here life is much slower.
It is true that the villages are the souls of this country, but there also exist typical disadvantages of village life too. Here, people have to deal with scarcity on a regular basis, be it lack of electricity, good connecting roadways, transportation facilities, kucha homes which are unreliable under adverse climatic conditions, lack of proper education and healthcare facilities. The rising cost of living, frequent crop failures due to climate change, ineffective support from the government, and many other factors are contributing to their woes. The houses in most of these villages still have thatched roofs and are made of mud or clay. Transportation facilities into the villages are limited, one has to catch a shared auto-rickshaw from the closest town. For some people, mainly women and children in rural India it means isolation from the rest of the world and probably for most if not the whole life. In today's world, many people from villages leave their homes and move to cities to either study or earn a living. Others, besides being a victim of political apathy and the adverse situations caused by nature from time to time, have tuned themselves to proceed with their rural life. It seems that they have developed a resistance to any adverse situation. It’s like an apt statement by Eugene Levy, “I am the common man. I’m polite, I love my family and I play by the rules. And sometimes I get pushed around. That’s my lifestyle, and that’s what I try to bring to characters.”
India has the largest number of poor people worldwide, about 23 crores (229 million approx). This makes the Indian subcontinent one of the poorest countries in the world and the women and children, the weakest members of Indian society, suffer the most. The challenge before India is to make the process of development inclusive so that the gap between the rich and the poor decreases. Thus poverty is vital issue to discuss, at least as often as Air Quality Index (AQI) of Delhi is discussed. Measuring the quality of life is more complex than measuring air quality using some live sensors. The concept of Life Quality Index (LQI) is a social indicator of human welfare that reflects the expected length of life in good health and enhancement of the quality of life through access to income. Over the last 76 years, after gaining freedom, India has improved itself as a nation uplifting the quality of life. But because of its population, India is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Here despite the increasing research and programs to eradicate poverty, poverty still is a mega issue. The global distribution of poverty is unequal, Asia remains the world’s poorest continent, with more than half of the world’s impoverished people living there. Nowadays, the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) uses health (child mortality in households and nutrition), education (school attendance and years of schooling), and standard of living (electricity, flooring, drinking water, sanitation, cooking fuel and assets) indicators to determine the incidence and intensity of poverty experienced by a population, is being used. As per MPI, a person is called poor if he/she is deprived in one-third or more of the weighted indicators and almost half of the children of the world under the age of 18 also fall in this category. India stands at the 62nd position in this index.
Poverty in India impacts children, in a variety of different ways like high infant mortality, malnutrition, lack of education, child labor, child marriage, etc. India is house to about 30% of extremely poor children living across the world. Close to 10 crores (100 million) of children in India live in poverty. Children are even more susceptible to extreme poverty, and 1.4 million children die every year in India before their fifth birthday. India is one of the countries with the highest child mortality rates. Pneumonia, malaria, and diarrheal diseases as well as chronic malnutrition are the most frequent causes of death. According to UNICEF, about 25% of children in India have no access to education. The number of children excluded from school is higher among girls than boys. Without education, the chance of finding a living wage from employment in India is virtually nil. Still, in some parts of India, there is only one primary school that children from nearby villages attend. Gaining primary education is even more difficult because poor parents are not very keen to send their children, especially the girls to school and want them to join them in their family's line of occupation to earn some extra money for their livelihood. Girls are often held back from attending school as they are required to support their mothers in household chores.
The world acknowledges that gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is a central driver for achieving sustainable development. Women’s empowerment, though closely related to gender equality, goes beyond it to include women’s power to make choices and decisions and to have the ability to use their rights, access to and control over resources, their own bodies and their destiny. In villages, men might travel to nearby towns looking for work in construction, factories or agricultural fields, or to sell and buy products; but most women, do not go any further than the next village throughout their life. Women constitute nearly half of the total population in India. The Indian Constitution provides for the principle of gender equality in its preamble. Thus empowering and mainstreaming rural women's workforce in agriculture and other fields of work can bring a paradigm shift toward economic growth. The social structure in rural India has not changed much over the years, and the age-old concept of male superiority still prevails. There is still a long way to go on this aspect even after more than seventy-five years of independence.
Poverty, though on the decline, is still a major challenge. The challenge before India is to make the development process inclusive so that the gap between the rich and the poor decreases. In 2019, the Indian government stated that 6.7% of its population is below its official poverty limit. The World Poverty Clock (https://worldpoverty.io/) provides real-time estimates until 2030 for almost every country in the world. As per this total number of people living in extreme poverty in India is 44,213,761. This estimation is done using an econometric tool that provides a methodological framework to carry out projections of poverty rates worldwide and aims at assessing absolute poverty changes at the global level under different scenarios (Credit: Crespo Cuaresma, J., Fengler, W., Kharas, H. et al. Will the Sustainable Development Goals be fulfilled? Assessing present and future global poverty. Palgrave Commun 4, 29 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-018-0083-y).
India is a country of the common man whose hopes, aspirations, struggles, and sacrifices, and some have been portrayed through different mediums of art, for example, the film ‘Pather Panchali’ directed by Satyajit Ray or the ‘Common Man’ character of great Indian cartoonist R.K. Laxman. It is far more important to know and understand e ordinary people and be sensitive to their desires, their environment, and their pain points. Through these works, the artist aims to show what daily life in India really is, to evoke some kind of emotions in the viewers, and help viewers make that personal connection with the life of the poor people. This collection surely has attempted to re-reflect the social composition of the country.