Rural Mandsaur, where five persons were killed during a demonstration recently, is a prosperous region of western Madhya Pradesh. More than a decade ago, I had the opportunity of spending two days with the children of a private residential school in Mandsaur.
At that time, it was the only English-medium residential school. Its vast and opulent campus in the middle of sprawling green fields was a great anomaly. The school had little to do with its milieu. It represented the dream of a philanthropist to export the best human talent of his region to the global market. This dream resonated national policy trends which, since the mid-1980s, had chosen to view education mainly as human resource development. The idea that education can serve a village in ways that allow it to retain its best boys and girls had been discarded long ago. If you carried in your mind any residues of Gandhi’s ideas about village education, you would see the residential academy in rural Mandsaur as an incongruity.
Here was an institution set up to give its metropolitan counterparts stiff competition on global playgrounds. The school had invested heavily in computers. Its strategy to serve rural children was neither purely commercial nor patronising. It was a professional bid to give rural youth an opportunity to aspire for legitimate heights. Some of them belonged to well-off farming families who could afford to send them to study in a residential school. But there were quite a few whose parents had small land holdings or minor jobs. For them, the school meant a potential break from the likelihood of a life dependent on shrinking income from agriculture and labour.
A supplier of talent
The impact of education on rural life has remained consistent since colonial days. When a village boy did well at school, he was expected to shift to a nearby town. That is where he could expect his talent to be recognised. Gradually, villages became the supplier of talent to the city. Only those who were dependent on land stayed back. With the passage of time, land got subdivided into smaller pieces, making agriculture unattractive. In recent times, investments made land more productive, but real income declined. Work opportunities in villages in non-agricultural pursuits remained scarce, and, in the recent past, job growth has come to a standstill. The phenomenon of ‘waiting’ to find work, described by Craig Jeffrey in the context of Uttarakhand and western Uttar Pradesh, is valid elsewhere too. One part of this phenomenon is the struggle to sustain one’s aspiration and the other part is living with frustration.
It is quite common these days among parents in all districts of M.P. to send their sons and daughters to towns such as Bhopal and Indore for coaching. As a broad spectrum industry, coaching now represents an acceptable way of spending much of your youth. It fills time and protects you from feeling constantly frustrated. Countless young men and women find themselves in a formidable situation that offers neither a choice nor the hope that something will eventually turn up. Coaching classes provide access to a peer group where everyone is faced with a similar, chronic crisis. Lakhs of students from rural and semi-urban areas spend their youth getting coached indiscriminately for competitive entry into an ever-shrinking opportunity market. Every year, a new army of candidates for coaching is spewed out by rural schools. Many get absorbed in the coaching industry itself, or in its ancillary industry of private tuition.
Despite better connectivity by road and phone, villages continue to be alienated from the state’s imagination. The former Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram, once said that migration from rural areas has a positive side to it because the state’s services are more accessible in cities. His belief that change in the rural-urban ratio of population will accelerate development is widely shared. It underpins development planning, especially the project of ‘rural development’. In a historical study of the Indian village, Manish Thakur has demonstrated how the term rural development represents an essentially colonial view of the village. This view also enjoys political and academic consensus. According to this view, modernity for the village can only mean its merger in the urban landscape. The legitimacy granted to panchayati raj has not diminished the political isolation of the village. The recent protests in Mandsaur and surrounding areas show that higher productivity and relative prosperity have not given the farming community any political clout or relief from uncertainty.
Education could have been a means of integrating the rural into the larger political community symbolised by the nation. This did not happen for several reasons. To begin with, schools in rural areas remained neglected and attempts to improve them never gained momentum. Policy focus remained on selecting the talented from among rural children through schemes such as Navodaya Vidyalaya. The larger cohort of rural children suffered the consequences of low budgeting and poor staffing. The message that rural children received and absorbed was that they must change their behaviour and values in order to become good citizens. Education of the rural child has failed to depart from the stereotype which associates modernity with city life. Education has, indeed, exacerbated the rural-urban asymmetry, deepening the alienation of the rural citizen.
Farmers or peasants?
An instructive aspect of the media coverage of the recent unrest in rural M.P. and Maharashtra is the disappearance of the distinction between farmers and peasants. Most people involved in agriculture in India are small-scale peasants. The term ‘farmer’ refers to the minority with substantial landholdings. Those who died in Mandsaur at the hands of the police were in all probability peasants, not farmers. Among the tens of thousands who have committed suicide out of despair, perhaps most were peasants. Their despair must be read and respected in the larger picture of visionless development. The loans they had failed to repay were minor by urban standards. Their distress reminds us that India has become morally blind in its hasty leap into what it believes to be modern.