Rural India presents a great study in contrast from State to State, from region to region and from district to district. Take the case of Punjab and Haryana where one could see lush farmyards stretching as far as the eyes can wander. Assam presents a different topography with houses perched on the slopes of steep hills. The annual floods in Brahmaputra have a great bearing on the rural economy in Assam. Neighbours in peninsular India, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, are poles apart in the life and village patterns. Kerala has as many as 44 rivers and several lakes and backwaters. While there is heavy rain in Kerala from June to September during the South-West Monsoon and from November to December during the receding North-East Monsoon, Tamil Nadu is blessed with only the North-East Monsoon. Water scarcity affects most of the village in Tamil Nadu. Yet it is Tamil Nadu that provides rice, vegetables and fruits for Kerala whose rice production has come down with paddy fields giving way to coconut farms, bananas plantations and construction of houses. Kerala is known for its coconuts cashew, pepper, rubber and other cash crops.

Things have changed a lot in village India, yet people still migrate in large numbers to the cities that, in their view, provide a better quality of life. The rural needs in different States could be different, yet one cannot deny that basic needs like access to food, schools, medical centres, good connectivity through roads and telecommunications, provision of electricity, etc. are not met in most of the villages. We talk of self-sufficiency in food production and overflowing grain storages, yet there are stark instances of deplorable malnutrition and starvation deaths. How do we reconcile these divergences? Such practices as child marriage are prevalent in certain rural pockets in India despite law and these lead to both maternal mortality and infant mortality. As many as 1, 60,000 villages are not even connected by good roads. Sixty per cent of rural households have no electricity and no access to education and healthcare. How do we bridge such a yawning gap between rural and urban India? There is no dearth of programmes initiated and run by the Central and State Governments and Panchayats, but the impact of these programmes has been negligible.

Addressing the convention of the National Alliance and the first convocation of the Jamshetji Tata National Virtual Academy in New Delhi on July 11, 2005, the Honorable President of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam observed that knowledge of technology was the means for realizing sustainable rural prosperity and employment generation. He dwelt on the novel concept of PURA- providing urban facilities in rural areas-which if backed with technology, would bridge the rural-urban divide. Dr. Kalam said village knowledge centre was one of the essential components for realizing the goals of graduating into a knowledge society and leading to the transformation of the nation into a developed country before the year 2020.

The National Alliance aims to achieve Mission 2007 or to make every village a knowledge centre-an initiative to connect every village in India by 2007 through a network of knowledge centers. Each of these centers would become a center for knowledge based on livelihood and income generation for the less privileged sections of society. Initiated by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation and One World South Asia in collaboration with Microsoft, the mission plans to create a network of information kiosks in 6,00,000 villages in India by 2007. In the first phase, the focus is on connecting 2, 40,000 panchayats. Dr. Kalam said for providing the knowledge connectivity to the PURA complexes, village knowledge centres would act as frontline delivery system.

The basic idea is to introduce Knowledge Power or the Information Age-which has all along been the preserve of the elite or the middle class or urban India-into all the villages in India-engineering a knowledge Revolution without precedent in history. What is knowledge? The fertile and innovative brain of scientist-President downloads every facet of Knowledge: “Knowledge is acquired through education, information, intelligence and experience. It is available in academic institutions, libraries, research papers, seminar proceedings, organizations, workers, managers, drawings, process sheets and shop floors. Knowledge, though mainly associated with education, comes also from learning skills such as those possessed by artists, artisans, philosophers and saints. There is an abundance of unorthodox, earthly wisdom in our villages and even in our folk songs.”

According to the Swaminathan Foundation, 10,000 village knowledge centres, including 5,000 e-choupals, are already functioning in India. While Knowledge Power would catapult our chronically backward villages into the 21st century, we should see that rural India is provided with its basic needs like food, shelter, avenues of employment or self-employment, easy access to health care and education, protected water supply and awareness generation in regard to the small family norm. If one browses through the Annual Report of the Department of Rural Development, one would come across several programmes aimed at the development and progress of village India-anti-poverty programmes, development of village roads, rural water supply programme. Central rural sanitation programme, rural housing, rural employment and self-employment programmes, watershed development programme computerization of land records, etc. The planners and the department brain trust need to be commended for their ideas and plans. When there is a change of Government at the Centre, some of the old programmes are recast or amalgamated with schemes of similar nature. Apart the State Governments have their programmes for the underprivileged. Apart from the criticism by the CAG in its reports on the performance of these programmes, we in India seldom monitor their real impact. Are the people, entrusted with the implementation of these programmes at different levels, doing their jobs as sincerely as they could? Are the funds really utilized?

We make allocations for different programmes in the annual budgets without bothering to ascertain whether the funds have been properly utilized. Corruption permeates every facet of life in India and has seeped into the official machinery in village India too. Knowledge centres alone will network the miracle. The rot of corruption needs to be destroyed. Will it ever happen? Even a rabid optimist will utter a resounding “no”1

Take a hard look at the health care in the country. Almost daily we hear about the woeful state of affairs in government hospitals in the cities. Most hospitals themselves have become cesspools of infection. The loyalty of most of the doctors and paramedical staff and other members of the staff is conspicuous by its absence. Medicines, and even life saving ones, may not be available in the hospitals. If this is the state of affairs of health care in urban centers, better forget about health care in rural India. In many remote villages, there is no medical facility. And hence, luckily, there is no need for any complaint. And if there is one center, it may be far away and the poor cannot reach there on time because there is no road. And sudi medical centers may have neither medicines nor a doctor. You can’t blame the doctor if he refuses to go there. He is not a saint working for salvation; he has a medical degree, wants a decent house to live in, a school for his children and other basic needs. Politicians and ministers who want the doctors to serve in rural areas must ask themselves whether they are there to ‘serve’ the people or themselves. Only one in a thousand may be willing to serve in villages without any amenities and such villages may run into thousands.

Elementary education has been made a Fundamental Right. A law to implement this right is under way. For this right to become a reality there are a hundred requisites to be met. First, the poor parents need to be made aware of the need of education for their children? To put a penal clause against parents for not sending the children to school will be an abysmal failure.

There are umpteen reasons why children do not go to school. More children are required in poor families to supplement the meager income of parents. More children means more hands to work on farms, beedi making, Handloom work or several other vocations. How will parents send the girl children to schools of want of security? And they find curriculum totally useless for a productive living.

Rural India can change for the better if there is a will-not mere political will, but will on the part of every citizen in the country-the officials from die top in the National Capital and State Capitals to the village panchayats, the Ministers, the MPs and MLAs, professionals, doctors, engineers, and everyone concerned in transforming India. Let everyone be made accountable. It is a tall order. But it must happen. Otherwise, more peasants will commit suicide. And peasants live in villages. If this state of affairs is not rectified, the UPA government will go the NDA way.

Prof Gilbert Etience, Professor emeritus at the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, said the other day: “My observations about economic reforms in Pakistan, “My observations about economic reforms in Pakistan, Indonesia or anywhere in Asia is that due to their overriding urban bias, there has been a neglect of agriculture sector…… Asia is continent of peasants. Thirty-eight percent of China lives in urban areas and India has only 30 percent of its people in dues. The contribution of agriculture to the GDA in China is 15 percent; 22 percent in India; 20 percent in Pakistan. All these countries are trying to re-emphasize the role of agriculture. In China, income disparities are one of the worst in the world, even after being one of the most egalitarian societies. There are tensions, unrest, unemployment and the government is concerned about bridging the income gap between the rural and urban areas. Now there is greater thrust on agriculture. India’s future lies in formulating more rural-oriented policies having deep social content.

There is nothing new in what the Professor said. Gandhiji and Dr.  Amartya Sen said the same thing. Though we remember Gandhiji only on October 2 and January 30 and like all politicians who assemble at Raj Ghat for prayers not these two days, we forget him for the rest of the year.