Reimagining Ruralscape: Finding success through Rural India
by Ashutosh Agarwal on 21 Apr 2020 19 Comments

India stands at the cusp of a development crossroads: will it be counted among “countries that matter” or will it stand by the tired old “Developed Country” model, governed by the tyranny of per capita power consumption, state of roads, etc. One India lives in cities, another in villages. The urban population is mainly middle and upper middle class and is now much better off than before, as can be seen from several indicators, such as malls, air-travel, turnover of brands, etc. The rural population is still engulfed in misery: we have exploitation at grassroots level by moneylenders, exploitation by caste, lack of opportunities, etc.


Hence, the next phase of progress can only be through the villages. This calls for a model of development intrinsic to locale (geography). All stalwarts from Mahatma Gandhi, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, Nanaji Deshmukh and Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam have said that progress must run through villages. They proposed some models: Gram Swaraj, Antyodaya, zonal independence of village economy and capacity-building of villages, and Provision of Urban Amenities to Rural Areas (PURA). Nanaji Deshmukh combined the ideas of Gandhi ji and Deen Dayal ji at Chitrakoot.


We need a new focus on rural planning to achieve rural progress. As a young architect in 1992-93, I had several discussions with Nanaji Deshmukh while working with him in backward Chitrakoot, on the importance of planning. Inspired by him, a comprehensive development plan for Chitrakoot was prepared and was probably submitted by him to the government, but ran into political headwinds when the government at Madhya Pradesh changed.


It is now time to return to the Indian Ruralscape and Re-imagine it, guided by the psychology (spirit) of the place. Rampant migration towards cities has led to unhealthy and uncontrolled urbanization. Cities have become un-liveable. But the migration continues, because of the psychology that the city offers means of livelihood. The village today is seen as a symbol of failure and poverty; the city is a symbol of success despite challenging living conditions, because the sub-conscious mind feels reassured.


Sarah Williams Goldhagen studied how human minds register the environment around us. In Welcome to your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives (2017), she wrote, “This Paradigm holds that much of what and how people think is a function of our living in the kinds of bodies we do”. Conscious thoughts, non-conscious impressions, feedback from our senses, physical movement, and even split-second mental stimulations of movement, shape how we respond to a place. In turn, the place nudges us to think or behave in certain ways.


Goldhagen were inspired by Metaphors We Live By (George Lakoff and Mark Johns, 1980). Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and Johnson is a philosopher. The book argued that much of how our thought is structured emerges from the fact of our embodiment. And many of the ways thoughts are structured are metaphorical. Goldhagen argues that the built environments we inhabit are drastically more important that we ever thought possible. The chapter, “The Sorry Places We Live,” talks about “beggary” of the built environment and the most flagrant sins that buildings and cities commit against human wellbeing.


Goldhagen’s study is very pertinent to what we think of our Ruralscape, in future. The most common mental block is manifested in reactions of decision makers, such as, “before that, we need to do this.... we need to improve this....” and the Ruralscape remains stagnant, decade after decade, continuing to be associated with poverty and failure. We need to change the popular perception about the village from pessimism, poverty and lack of hygiene to natural beauty, blooming fields, and abundance. After all, we have surplus production in every crop grown in India. The poverty of our farmers and squalor of our villages is a commentary on us.  


Corona schism


The Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted an important fissure in the Indian habitat, in urban-rural planning, and now is the time to identify and plug those gaps. The first fissure was noticed when large numbers of migrant populations started to journey back to their villages after lockdown. This article focuses only on the planning failures that cause such large numbers of people to undergo the ordeal of travelling to and from cities, religiously twice a year, with or without facilities to travel.


This migrant population faces interesting challenges: they are indispensable for urban needs and indispensable for rural needs as well; yet they are seen as a drag on the system, both ways. In cities, they are seen as a major reason for slums and super dense areas, and reason for crimes; in rural setups, they are people without roots and are labour to work in fields. Neither Urban nor Rural planning has a vision for these people.


Planning can make a difference to the success of citizens (a large number are rural and migrant), leading to the success of the country. There is a mistaken belief that if the migrant population is somehow kept wherever they belong, pressure on cities will be eased to a great extent, and rural India will also have some life, because migration leaves the elderly, females and children behind. It is a pathetic situation both ways; the person who migrates to cities lives in pathetic and challenging conditions and his family in the village faces social issues, foremost being children without fathers and women without husbands. These conditions have a deep impact on the psychology of young children (a separate subject for experts).


Can planning a new Ruralscape handle such problems in future and even lead to reverse migration and help rural India to be seen as an important component of a developed and integrated India, an India without the Rural-Urban chasm? The time has come for some aggressive out-of-box thinking to revitalize the Rural India. We need to make ruralscape a place where people:


-        Would love to be

-        Have opportunity to earn

-        Have opportunity for future


We have to make ruralscape a symbol of success, not failure. There is huge potential for planned and sustainable development (not haphazard like most of India) to cater to large numbers of urban people who don’t want to live in cities and are desperate for opportunities to leave. This gives a reason to invest in villages and an opportunity to recover such expenses. Rural planning is an important aspect of national planning/resources.


Some features of a re-designed Ruralscape can be (improvised per local needs):


1)      The newly designed village cluster can be made of prefabricated houses, designed to positively respond to village life, but with modern comforts. It will provide space for daytime sitting (verandah at individual unit level, chaupal at cluster level), space for storing fodder, kitchen connected to aangan where children can play under the mother’s eyes.


2)    The clusters must be integrated to the market place, storage and distribution of produce, by specially designed structures for the same. These must have adequate space for loading, unloading and other commercial requirements. To this day, India has only 5 per cent of storage capacity at the points of produce. This huge gap needs to be bridged, and will bring better prices to farmers. It will empower farmers to take decisions guided by demand and supply. This will trigger new investments in rural areas.


3)     The village will generate employment for local people to maintain the storage facilities, labour for loading and unloading, follow market prices via internet, maintain stocks, etc.


4)    The villages will become fully sustainable, with rain water harvesting for agriculture and other needs, toilets, disposal of waste system, collection of human and organic waste and conversion to bio-gas and fertilizer, etc.


5)     The village will have potential for migration of urban people. Many young and middle age professionals are keen to live in village surroundings. If the planning allows them to move to villages, these professional will bring not only monetary investments but will be catalysts for the capacity building of village youth in many ways. Opportunities of education and training may undergo a paradigm shift. IT professionals could shift from cities like Gurgaon, Pune, Bangalore to villages of the region ... some day.


6)    The modern villages would lift the morale of villages and the national image.


7)     This would help tremendously in checking migration of villagers towards cities and solve the problem of overpopulation in urban areas and over-pressure on urban services.


8)    Natural ponds and water bodies will be revived.


These are some suggestions only, many more can be added or refined, based on collective brain-storming. We need a new approach to holistic development of rural India instead of pumping money in cosmetic changes.


A real incident reveals the mental block against rural upliftment. Some years ago, a village near Delhi needed to be relocated as a large thermal power plant was causing several respiratory diseases. This writer procured the plan prepared by a government department and saw with dismay that the plan of the new village was just like any other sector developed by the urban planning body, with plots of various sizes, like an urban colony. There was no study of rural needs, family sizes, number of cattle and needs of animal husbandry, etc. There was no provision for storage facilities of village produce, rural mandi, there was no digital survey of the ground, and still the plan was prepared.


I tried to explain to the concerned officials that the village would not function as a village unless it was planned as a village. (This was voluntarily, without any fee). I explained that a village is all about community living, means cluster living. Roads should facilitate movement across clusters as well as serve as a thread to link various clusters together. There must be opportunity of community spaces as islands connected through these roads, etc. The same was demonstrated through design options.


The concept faced resistance as the officers said the file had already been sent to the shasaan (administration) for approval and any changes would result in a delay of 7-8 years... and compensation had to be distributed. Fortunately, a new District Collector saw it as an opportunity to develop the new village as a model village, suited to the aspirations of a resurgent India, and gave the nod for alternative proposals. He even sounded the then Principal Secretary for support to the project.


We asked for digital survey of land, population profile, animal census, etc. and prepared three options. Without getting into the merits of design and how the planning would have brought back much-needed virility to the community, served as a catalyst of growth, and would have created a positive and confident space to live in, what happened was that the Principal Secretary changed and immediately the whole process came to grinding halt...


This is still baffling. Why did one person on a particular post find an idea viable and worth doing, and why did the idea become meaningless when another person occupied the same post? Reluctantly, one had to let go, but surely the day will come when villages of India will be seen as an opportunity and not a drag on the system. 


I am sure that if we reimagine our Ruralscape as vibrant places, it can do wonders, from solving migration to cities, to launching reverse migration, to strengthening our rural economy, to capacity building of youth, etc. The benefits will be exponential.


For that, we will have to shed the illusion that we can improve villages with cosmetic changes. We need a new paradigm for the Village of the 21st Century. Indian villages should be at par, or even superior, to villages of developed countries. The transformation of villages is doable. Just as Ayurveda is the answer to many ailments for which allopathy doesn’t have remedies, we need to understand that development and developed country does not mean cities and industry alone. The future lies in our villages.


(The author is an architect and former chairman of the Northern Chapter of The Indian Institute of Architects) 

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