Small Towns and Their Hinterlands
India has always had an interesting history of ancient riverine towns, and entropots on the trade route, at the cusp of mountains and plains, and rivers and seas. The hinterland is the most interesting of geographical phenomena, because ancient cities like Benaras, Gauhati, Gorakhpur, Kochi, for example, would bring to attention not just the co-existence of various religions, but also of occupations. One only has to think of the phenomenal variety of production of crafts that many small towns carry with them, to know that the idea of the modern city or the metropolis is something which speaks demographically of industrialisation, and artificially produced consumption patterns. Metropoli, by their very nature, as the Mexican sociologist Manuel Castells showed, are linked not only to cities of various population density, but also to small towns and villages. It is the nature of communication networks that allow small towns to be meshed with a larger more complex and voluminous maze of populations, with their varied occupations and their social and cultural needs. India’s villages are now being sought to be denuded by the intensity of massive modernisation projects with the assumption that the greater volume of electricity produced by damming rivers, will bring down local populations through a Malthusian project, which will make villagers lives seem outdated and on the route to self extinction.
Industrialised agriculture, which the so called Green, White and Mulberry Revolutions propagate are based on the idea of mono agriculture. Punjab and Gujarat are examples politically of what happens when industrialised agriculture projects itself as the only type of modernisation that is available to the Indian imagination. Tamil Nadu has offered another way, which is agriculture as sustainable, as a means of livelihood, and of cross border exchanges, leading to profound nutritionally substantive indexes. It might be interesting to look at the way in which Tamil farmers have foregrounded education too, since the time of Nadar freedom fighters, such as Kamaraj, to premise professionalization as a goal, along with the contexts of farming, engineering colleges,automobile manufacture and industrialisation as co-existent occupational zones. The same tradition has valorised weaving, metal and stone work as ancient occupations which have a very important role to play. Spiritual centres also attract tourists, as do dance and music as forms of classical and contemporary discipline. The dialogue between Kerala and Tamil Nadu on the question of dam renovation is probably the most interesting relic of a colonial history, and foregrounds how we think of Agriculture and Tourism in the two states. The Pallakad gap has now completely transformed from verdant hills to a long traffic lined route for trucks going between the two states carrying goods.
It is very important to set up the debates on what the people want, by conducting studies which are not biased towards industrialisation as the only way in which modern Indians see their role in a buoyant economy. The average land holding is two and a half acres, perhaps, but the constant success of traditional farmers in producing bumper crops, whether in Nalanda in Bihar or in the former arid zones of Tamil Nadu, have to be understood within its cultural and historical contexts. With the water crises and climate change representing itself continually through modes of adaptation by local farmers, it is necessary to take the voice of activists into account. The North East which has withstood varieties of colonialism, including interior colonialism, is now in a precarious political condition with the appointment of an army chief known to have disciplinary action being taken against him for vacuous, or even worse, actively dastardly behaviour against local communities.
When we look at tribal or dalit communities, we have to be aware of the way in which their world view is attached to visions of the land as a potent and animistic force. When they are forced to leave their homes, where they are able to lead frugal lives in consonance with their beliefs, they are rendered destitute. This is why for decades the Indian government (bureaucracy) has worked with alleviation of poverty programmes rather than with the sole idea that forced eviction is the only way that the poor can be forced into the cities as cheap labour. Industrialised farming will create the kind of destructive, separatist and entropic violence that India faced in the 1980s, and which continues to be seen in Maoist regions.
Where people are well fed, clothed, educated and offered employment, the chances of survival of people and freedoms are the highest. Alongside this, comes the awareness of citizen rights and privileges. By constantly offering free electricity to urbanites in large cities, so that their recreational and consumption enhanced lifestyles are protected, we are doing tremendous damage to the environment and to local communities.
Small towns, which have a hinterland in agriculture, also provide us the best window to tourism, which is one of the most revenue generating occupations in the globalised world. This permits people to have the autonomy to choose how and where they wish to live, rather than competing unthinkingly with the industrialised West, and which also permits revisiting our pragmatic orientations with regard to survival strategies.