"If the village perishes India will perish too. India will be no more India.”
- Mahatma Gandhi
By 2050, more than half of all Indians will live in urban areas, as per United Nation's World Urbanisation Prospects, a big shift from now, when just about one-third of the population does so. This would mean tens of millions migrating from the villages and into towns and cities each year, with profound impacts on every aspect of our life including the social, cultural, political, economic and ecological.
This phenomenon is not new – the mass urbanization and the gradual decline of the rural areas has been repeated, and studied extensively, all over the world over the last century.
For instance 6 million African-Americans moved out of the rural United States and into the cities starting 1910. Over a period of time this decimated the black population in the smaller places, tremendously altering the spaces. This is considered one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements in history, and has a rich cultural legacy. An example is Isabel Wilkerson's Pulitzer Prize winning historical book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration” (2010).
And China has recently crossed the 55% urban mark, growing from 26% in the 90s, which has been thoroughly mapped and dissected.
But in both these, as with all the other mass urban-rural migrations, what has been documented is not just the benefits and challenges faced by the new as well as the existing population of the cities but also what happens to the people and the places that get left behind.
In India, however, the shift is still in its adolescence and so nearly everyone, from administrators to town planners to social scientists to the media, is busy on the urban side of the equation. Which is not to understate its importance or necessity. However it looks like it will be many years or even decades before the other side of the divide gets more than cursory attention. And there is a reason why we should be doing so.
In an article [#1], Architect Dhiru Thadani writes that Gandhi's vision of village life was, and is meant to, apply to the urban spaces He speculates that Gandhi was in fact describing a community or neighbourhood and was lamenting the difficulty of instilling the dignity of village life into the anonymity of the city. According to Thadani, it was a later statement made by Gandhi that reinforces this point: "put the village back into the city."
Indian villages may have their drawbacks but all of us have ultimately come from there, directly or indirectly, and so it is our genesis, our history, our legacy. Today it is treated only as a source of resources, both human and otherwise, but in doing so, we are slowly losing out on a part of our own identity. And that is perhaps one of the reasons why cities are getting increasingly communised and ghettoised.
Though it is not surprising that there is a lot of content in India of the effects of migration on the city and its citizens, it is surprising that the rural spaces are only being noticed through the other end of the binoculars.
And so, attempts like “Miyar House” (2011) are important. Written and made by film-maker Ramchandra PN, this documentary is his personal story, that covers the dismantling of his ancestral house in a remote village called Miyar (Karnataka, South India). Armed with just a digital camera, he and his friend Ajay Raina document not just the dismantling of the house but of the past itself. They also interview the other owners of the house and gather what the process of change and migration means to all of them.
According to Ramchandra, this sense of loss is something that they share with generations of rural Indians, but the house had to come down. Nostalgia here is mixed with practicality and an acceptance of inevitability. The story could have been of so many others but on a philosophical level it can be said to be the journey of a country that is propelling itself into modernity.
In the rush to embrace what is moving forward we are forgetting or worse ignoring what is being left behind. Miyar House is one of the few counter-narratives. We need and deserve many more.
How can we ensure that the gradual dismantling of the rural areas is documented, analysed and understood, so that we can start putting some of the good aspects of the villages into the cities? Tell us in the comments section...