One of the challenges in reporting for the rural-centric newspaper Gaon Connection is that I have to often look for stories relevant to the rural readership. Of course, rural Indians are as interested in global affairs as urban Indians but there are many in villages who like to know where they figure in India’s diplomatic discourse around the world. It is from that standpoint that I did the following piece for Gaon Connection the other day. It bears repeating here:
By Mayank Chhaya
Washington: As expected, India’s massive rural population figures in its most important bilateral relations with America only marginally and by implication rather than directly.
A joint statement issued by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the conclusion of the latter’s first official visit is loaded with great economic potential but it seems to be heavily in favor of urban India.
Gaon Connection asked Syed Akbaruddin, the Indian government’s official spokesman, whether there was a rural piece to what came across as highly urban-centric themes, he had to think for a few moments. He said aspects of the joint statement such as skills development and renewable sources of energy, both of which form important parts, have consequence for rural youths and rural populations generally. Akbaruddin cast renewable energy as addressing the energy needs and problem of access of the country’s 400 million rural people who were deprived of it.
Although it seemed like a bold attempt to incorporate India’s massive rural population into the country’s economic mainstream, it did not quite fully answer the misgivings that bilateral diplomacy with important countries around the world, particularly America, is almost always focused on economic potential that concern the urban population and strategic considerations which address national defense and security interests.
In terms of skills development, under which the two countries will work together to arm India’s huge youth population with technical and other skills to work in the 21st century, the joint statement says, “India is home to the world’s largest youth population, with more than 50 percent of India’s population under 25 years of age, and over two-thirds under age 35. This demographic dividend presents a tremendous opportunity for India to become a global economic leader, and create new and diverse investment opportunities for the world. Investing in India’s youth will enable India to realize its full potential and further strengthen India’s leadership in promoting global economic prosperity and democratic stability. This landscape presents promising opportunities for knowledge sharing and public-private partnership.”
One area of bilateral cooperation that could have included rural India relates to water and sanitation. However, the joint initiative called Water-Sanitation-Hygiene (WASH) Alliance is aimed entirely at urban centers. That initiative says, “Within India’s seven mega-million cities alone, 23 million people live in informal or slum settlements with inadequate access to safe water and sanitation services. As a result, water-borne disease is a constant concern and a leading cause of sickness and mortality, particularly among children under five. The scale of this challenge requires innovative approaches to urban development which draw upon the best Indian and U.S. expertise. USAID announced a knowledge partnership with the Indian government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support the new 500 Cities National Urban Development Mission and Clean India Campaign. State-of-the-art research, targeted technical assistance, innovation, knowledge-sharing, and public-private partnerships to facilitate scale are central to this partnership, which includes a new $6 million Urban Water-Sanitation-Hygiene (WASH) Alliance to support public-private partnership models in urban areas.” This initiative could have somehow included rural areas but it does not.
Another initiative of missed opportunities for rural India is the development of smart cities under which Ajmer (Rajasthan), Vishakhapatnam (Andhra Pradesh) and Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh) will be gradually converted into smart cities that combine new technologies and broadband connectivity to run civic and other affairs. At least one village could have been added to it as a pilot project.
The overall vision statement is called “Chalein Saath Saath: Forward Together We Go” and takes in its sweep a large number of initiatives which if implemented to their full potential have the potential to transform hundreds of millions of lives.
One area that may have some direct benefit for India’s rural population is the agreement on developing national parks and wildlife conservation using America’s world famous expertise. Since parks and wildlife conservation are often closer to villages than cities, scaling up India’s existing parks to global standards could generate rural employment.