How rural India is changing - not necessarily for the better

I feel one of the important reasons for rural migration is the non-availability of good high schools.  Too often good people go to big cities for better schools for their children. Excellent schools in rural areas can help attract good educated and professional people to these areas which in turn can also benefit from their contributions in various fields.

Anil K. Rajvanshi Jan 31, 2024
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Photo: Anil K Rajvanshi

I have lived in the rural town of Phaltan in western Maharashtra since late 1981. I will describe the changes that I have witnessed in the last 40 years. Similar changes have taken place in other parts of rural India where urbanization of rural areas is taking place at a great cost to the quality of life and reduction in farming areas. Unfortunately, corruption has resulted in unplanned growth in these areas; so all the ills of urban areas have come to rural areas without getting their benefits.  

In 1981 we purchased a barren 2-acre plot around 5 km from the centre of Phaltan town, which is about 250 km from Mumbai. We got this land at a throwaway price since the owner had cultivated it to death. The owner hardly used any amendments to enrich the soil, so in summer it developed fissures large enough for a sheep to disappear.  

Look of a tropical forest

We built our house on this land and planted trees (about 25 different types).  These tree seedlings were planted by my wife Nandini Nimbkar. We built this house with lots of innovative features of passive cooling and thick stone walls to minimize air temperature fluctuations inside the house. I have also experimented with simple living and have done innovative experiments to reduce our energy footprint.

As there was no electric connection to our plot, no water facility was available to irrigate it. We hired a farm laborer who would get the water from the canal (which was behind our plot) on his shoulder and water the seedlings. 

Even with such meager watering of seedlings together with rain (~500 mm/yr.), they survived and in a matter of 5-7 years, we had a very pleasant garden with good tree growth.  All our neighbors used to laugh at what stupid people we were who planted trees instead of farming the land.  But that initial growth has converted our garden into a thick tropical forest and is presently like an oasis against noise and air pollution.  This tropical forest also attracts about 30-35 different types of birds and rock bees which make their hives in the trees.   

Then and now

We moved into the house in 1984 January. After sunset, the whole area became deadly silent.  Due to the absence of any artificial lights, the visibility of stars was unbelievable. The place was so isolated that nobody would come to work in our house in the evening since they were afraid. Nevertheless, it was very peaceful and tranquil.

We partially fenced the plot with Subabul wood stakes which did not last very long and hence the fencing was porous. Thus, one day we saw a pack of jackals in front of our house!  An occasional wolf also ventured onto our land and ate all our leather footwear kept on the verandah in front of our house. Even today we occasionally get jackals around our house (fencing is better now so that they cannot enter it) and two years ago panther pug marks were observed some distance away from our house.

There were snakes galore (they are there even today). Mostly cobras, rat snakes, vipers, and green vine snakes. All this wildlife has increased because of the thick tree cover that we have planted in and near our house.

But the strongest memory I have of those times was the absence of any sound at night.  Many a time we would walk on the road in front of our house after dinner and there was no traffic or sound.  It was so peaceful. In contrast today the sound of traffic is so great that even when sitting in our living room at night it is often deafening.

Similarly, the road in front of our house (a state highway called Alandi-Pandharpur road) was a single lane with lots of trees shading it. All that is gone now and instead we have a 4-lane highway and 24-hour noise pollution from traffic. All the old banyan and other trees of various species, which lined the road, are gone and in its place is the broad tarred road with hardly any greenery. The 4-lane highway is the gift of rapid industrialization that is taking place in Phaltan.

Shrinking farmland

This industrialization includes six sugar factories in and near Phaltan (in 1981 there were only two) which take sugarcane from the Phaltan area; a huge Cummins Mega site which came in 2010; and 2 major milk processing units. All these have increased air and noise pollution.  On average AQI of Phaltan is between 175-200.      

When we built our house in the early 1980s it was the last house on the road with farms all around us. Today we are surrounded by a construction boom with car showrooms, hotels, and petrol stations all around us. Consequently, we had to put green shade nets all around our fencing to provide privacy.

With urbanization another sad aspect has crept in and that is the selling of large areas of farmlands by farmers to developers. Thus our farms are shrinking which may lead to serious consequences for the food security of India.

Nevertheless, Phaltan has also seen some positive effects of industrialization. For example, excellent quality vegetables and fruits are available year-round. The increased purchasing power of the local residents has made it possible to get these things here.  Previously all good farm produce would go to big cities because it got better prices there as compared to Phaltan.       

Till the early 1990s, I would daily walk from my office to home (a distance of about 2.5 km) on this beautiful tree-lined single-lane road.  Now with tremendous heavy vehicle traffic on the 4-lane highway, it will be a nightmare to walk on it. Similarly, we would often walk to town from our house but now it is impossible to go on foot with heavy mixed vehicular traffic.

Also, many times I and my wife Nandini bicycled on these roads to the Institute.  It was mostly a very pleasant ride by bicycle. Today it will be suicidal to go on a bicycle when the heavy vehicle traffic is going at 70-80 km/hour.

Most of the land surrounding our plot was rainfed and so eight months of the year had a very dry look. Thus, during the summer months (April to June) it used to be very hot.  Today agriculture has grown multiple fold with sugarcane, fruits, vegetable, and milk production driving it. This has substantially increased the green cover.

Noise pollution is shattering

In the early 1980s, Phaltan was an overgrown village with hardly any facilities and shops. To make a long-distance phone call sometimes I would hop on the bus to Pune and make the calls.  Today it is becoming a mini Pune, with malls, shops, and good eating places.  One advantage of urbanization has been the provision of better health services though it still leaves much to be desired.

The noise pollution is ear-shattering and during the COVID lockdown of 2019, all the pleasant memories of silence were revived for a short spell of a few months.  Indian cities are some of the noisiest ones in the world and now the rural areas are catching up with them. In addition to the traffic noise, six months of the year the tractors transporting sugarcane are blaring music to drown out the din of their vehicles. With increasing sugarcane cultivation, tractor traffic has increased tremendously. In old times sugarcane transportation was done using silent bullock carts. Now they have been completely replaced by noisy tractors. Also, during the marriage season and festivals music on Dolby systems and loudspeakers is ear-splitting.    

Even with all this urbanization in Phaltan, most people would still like to work in big cities like Pune and Mumbai. Even when the jobs are available in Phaltan they prefer big cities. Some people claim that they cannot get married while staying and working in Phaltan. Others say that because of poor schools in Phaltan and other rural areas, people prefer to stay in big cities. So we have gotten most of the bad things of urban areas without many of their benefits. 

Lack of high schools

In the early 1990s, our Institute helped establish a National Policy on Energy Self-sufficient Talukas.  The idea behind this policy was to create energy self-sufficiency in rural areas so that overall development could take place. It was also hoped that it would minimize and completely stop urban migration.  

Since then we have seen good availability of energies like electricity, cooking gas and petrol in Phaltan. However, it has not stopped migration from here to big cities. This is the case in almost all rural areas. I feel one of the important reasons for rural migration is the non-availability of good high schools.  Too often good people go to big cities for better schools for their children. Excellent schools in rural areas can help attract good educated and professional people to these areas which in turn can also benefit from their contributions in various fields.

To lots of people malls, shopping arcades and good restaurants in rural areas are a sign of progress.  But in the process, we have destroyed the environment; created more noise and air pollution and increased the level of stress.  That is not progress but a downward spiral to hell.

(The writer, an IIT and US-educated engineer,  a 2022 Padma Shri award winner, is Director, Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, Phaltan, Maharashtra.)

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Prasad Joshi
Thu, 02/01/2024 - 07:46
Very well penned down . The Rapid and hafhazard urbanisation of Rural towns is really concerning .
Manas Chakrabarty
Thu, 02/01/2024 - 20:46
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