I have a large number of friends across social, political and professional lines and also in, what is often called, rural or small-town India. And I also make the effort to visit them, usually by a cross-country train plus bus plus car plus bike plus tractor plus bullock cart plus on foot.
All this has come to a bit of a halt in the last few weeks. Looking back, my observations used to be a mixed bag, tending to lean towards sad, as the numbers and the realities were often not too heartening.
Broadly, the way I observed rural India was like this:
a) Shortage of good workers, because the best had gone away to the city or abroad.
b) Buy for cash and sell for credit, with incoming payments often in doubt.
c) Much harassment from farm till mandi, courtesy all sorts of laws and costs.
d) A shortage of warehousing space plus absence of value-add options.
e) Perishables items on the move are treated as weakness.
Certainly, there were parts of India where at least one or two of the above were not applicable and solutions were available. But, by and large, farming was viewed as the last resort, and very often old men and young children were the only ones you saw working in the farms.
The past 10-days have changed all that, I hear, from locations as diverse as Samastipur in Bihar, Nagpur in Maharashtra, Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh (MP), Kottayam in Kerala, Shillong in Meghalaya, Belgaum, Kunigal and Mangalore in Karnataka, Ratnagiri in Konkan (Maharashtra), Coonoor in Tamil Nadu, Muri in Jharkhand and Kurnool plus Guntur in Andhra Pradesh (AP)—where young men and women workers have returned.
Crops are sold on cash and carry—typically 80% up front and balance on weighment plus quality; warehousing and local transportation is mostly not a problem; otherwise labour sleeps over at the farm itself; and seeds plus other inputs are available on credit, a new breed of potential buyers arrange that. And goats plus pigs have replaced cows plus buffaloes. Poultry is in doldrums, but fish are the new gold.
This does not mean that everything is rosy—restrictions on movement are still an issue in some places because of the lock-down, but at least there is access to those in power now in case fresh produce is blocked on the roads. That is the big change, which appears to be replacing the horrendous traffic jams at check posts a week ago.
Is rural India all set to overtake urban India? Possible.
Here is another anecdotal experience from me. There are houses in Defence Colony where I live in Delhi, where the tenants, domestic or foreign, have upped and left, and the buildings are in the care and custody of the guards. The owners may live on site or elsewhere, and the fact remains that they as well as the guards want to head out too.
Here is yet another anecdote. Over the last few days, complete stocks of two-wheelers of the Bharat Stage-IV (BS-IV) variety have been picked up in "not to be registered" kind of deals. Many dealers now report zero stocks of BS-IV.
Where have these bikes gone, since they cannot come on Indian roads? Your guess is as good as mine but one thing is visible. In the coming days, movement of fresh produce across short to medium distances on two-wheelers is going to be a big business model.
Registration will be easy to resolve. Fresh produce will have to move. In a country where delivery of a packet of samosas costing Rs50 is workable, loading a few quintals of something fresh from a field and dropping it to the next warehouse or cold storage will be best done on two-wheelers, and something like registration is not going to come in the way.
Something good is happening out of the present situation too. Here is to the future—and hope bad governance does not ruin it this time by interfering on something like a motorcycle registration. After all, growth has many fathers, and freedom of movement is one.
(Veeresh Malik is an activist from Delhi, who continues to explore several things in life.)