Monday, July 22, 2013

Where it comes from, where it goes

The other day, I came upon a strange comment thread on a website. Somebody had posed this question: are villages an asset for India or a liability?

At first I just laughed. What kind of question was this? But then, I also read an item of news from Odisha. Apparently, a herd of elephants had wandered into Rourkela and were reportedly nudged back towards the Saranda hills. But, according to locals who live in villages on the outskirts, the herd was simply pushed out a few kilometres out of the city and the elephants were still destroying houses and crops. There were complaints that the administration seemed to care only about the lives and property of those who lived in the main city.

Could it be that somewhere in the collective city-dwelling urban subconscious, we are actually convinced that villages don't matter? Could we actually be that clueless about our own lives and our economy?

Grain and most vegetable and fruit comes from villages. Much of our diary produce and meat too. Our homes are built of cement and steel, or stone and wood – all of which are mined or made in rural or semi-rural areas. Our clothes – the good ones, anyway – are made of cotton or wool, for which we depend on farmers and shepherds. Much of the cheap labour that builds cities and provides essential services is drawn from villages. 

One could go on. Water, coal, herbs, medicinal extracts, and ultimately, power.

And what do we send to the villages? Manufactured goods, of course. From shampoo to tyres. Modern medicine, perhaps – if one can get a doctor to live in a village. Technology, perhaps. But the side-effects of industrial activity and modern urban lifestyles are also imposed upon villages.

Recently, matters reached a head in Kottayam district. For years, Kottayam town had been dumping its waste on the outskirts. The residents of Vijayapuram village were demanding an end to this system because they had to tolerate tonnes of garbage in the vicinity, and the dump was a breeding ground for diseases. Besides, the water in their wells was getting contaminated. When the municipality failed to listen, a rally was organized. People went to the dumping yard and forcibly locked it up.

In this instance, the protest got some media attention because the result was immediately felt in the city – garbage began to pile up in Kottayam. But there are thousands of villages affected by urban waste, industrial effluents, or because a disproportionate share of resources is taken away with no resultant benefit to the locals.

For instance, Sundargarh district in Odisha. The people who live near the mines are complaining that they don't have enough water for farms and that water is taken away to a factory several miles away. In Goa, villagers in Pissurlem were reportedly complaining about industrial waste being dumped in open spaces.

How many of us who live in cities know what happens to our waste – where does it go? 

The garbage collector takes it, and that's that. We don't want to know if there is a system that ensures nobody else is made miserable or sick on our account. We don't even want to know if we ourselves are getting sick because of bad waste disposal practices, and whether there are alternatives.

Sometimes, I wonder how citizens and administrations would react if villagers began to drive up to cities with tractors piled high with personal, agricultural and industrial filth, and dumping them in any open space they saw? What do you think might happen?

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