Friday, March 13, 2009

VILLAGES, INFRASTRUCTURE AND DEVELOPMENT

The last two weeks I have lived in an English village named Tattenhall; the name of the village is derived from words that correspond to 'a meadow'. This village is actually an area of rolling meadows with large tracts of land owned by farmers, who not only specialise in farming but horses too!!, and some of them race horses. The village has a population of 1986 people, as per the 2001 census. I am not attempting to write a history of this village. All I am trying to do is to highlight certain important facts that I have observed during my 2 weeks of stay here.

The village is a village only in name, as we understand it, as it has all the basic infrastructure that is available in any town or city. I stayed in this Bed and Breakfast place. I had a wireless internet connection in my room, a TV, 24 hours electric supply, heating and 24 hours piped hot and cold water supply. The entire village has all these facilities, and is connected to two international airports, Manchester and Liverpool, a rail station and a bus station by means of a narrow, but well marked two-lane tarred road. The village is also connected by a local bus service. The village of 1986 people also boasts of a Primary school, a post office, a veterinary doctor, a 'Rookery surgery', a child care & old age centre and a small shopping complex with a pharmacy, atleast four restaurants and a few other establishments. It also has garbage collection. Why am I highlighting these facts?
The reason is that the availability of basic infrastructure and the relatively lower cost of doing business in a village attracted an international business to be setup in this place. The school that I attended for the last 2 weeks is of an international standard with central air conditioning and every other thing that one can think of. In my two weeks here I have attended classes with students from the US, Maldives, UK, Russia, Denmark, Belgium and Germany. Students from all over the world come to this school in the village. Why? Cheaper prices and professional training. All this has been possible because this village has the basic infrastructure to support a business.

I have travelled and stopped, but have never stayed, in villages in the US and Canada. My experience has been very similar in these two countries too. Village folks are much simpler than their city brethren and are more family oriented. Their dress, speech and less stressful life is noticeable. However, they enjoy the same facilities as the people in the cities, at the basic level. This has always amazed and fascinated me. I have lived in a village in Punjab as a child, while on school vacations during the 60s. It was very very basic then - our water was brought from the 'village spring', and we had to trek about 3 kms to bathe in the river Beas. There was no electricity and the only bus would make a round once a day to the village from Pathankot - it used to drop us on the main road about 1 km away from the village. The post man used to walk along the river and hand over the letters for the village to any one he found along the river bank. Life was very basic in the village in those days, and is still so in many ways.

Things have improved since then. We now claim to have electricity in nearly every village - we may not have electric supply though for most part of the day. Flying at high altitude by night along the border areas of Punjab right down to Gujarat one can pick up the border with ease - our side is electrified, and the other side is pretty dark. However, there is a lot to be desired still, and we have a long way to go.

With rapid development taking place in India, the migration to the cities is accelerating as there is no infrastructure to support businesses in the rural areas, which still house over 70% of our population. Big cities are the only places that provide some sort of an infrastructure to run viable businesses. Businesses are thus coming up in and around big cities. People from villages are migrating to the cities looking for opportunities, creating more and more slums in the bargain. The only way to stop this migration is by encouraging businesses to move to rural settings by providing the infrastructure in terms of roads, power supply, water, schools, ITIs - to upgrade knowledge and skills of rural people so as to be able to work in these businesses, and incentives for businesses to do so. This will help retain people in their villages and also help bring down costs of business. I believe the SEZs were attempting this by planning new townships beyond our big cities but then our politicians will never let any thing happen without controversies - a la Mamta Banerjee style. I do hope that the SEZs come up quickly so that the migration from the rural areas can be slowed.

Provision of basic infrastructure would also prompt big developers to develop country villas and country homes for those who can afford (over 50 million, I believe) - this has already happened around a number of cities, notably Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, etc. These big enclaves generate a lot of employment for unskilled/ semi skilled rural folks, in addition to other skilled jobs, in terms of construction, security, gardener, and various other jobs. The only way forward for us in India is to provide basic infrastructure to our villages so as to help provide better opportunities to the 70% of our rural population. This will also stem the migration from rural to urban areas and also help in slowing the buildup of slums in our cities. Can this happen???? How can we help make this happen??? Any ideas????

Sunday, March 8, 2009

FIRST STAY IN U.K. - MY IMPRESSIONS

I have flown through London Heathrow on a number of occasions on my trips to North America, but have never stopped over in U.K. This is my first stay in the U.K. and I had been looking forward to visit this country so as to get a feel of this country. Well I got my chance this time, as I was required to do a two week course at a village named Tattenhall in Cheshire county from 02 Mar 09 to 13 Mar 09. I flew in by Emirates from Bangalore to Manchester via Dubai. The flights were good, but I couldn't help but notice the deterioration in the Emirates experience - could the hiring of more local population as cabin crew be the reason?? - am not too sure, but will confirm on my return trip.

Saw Slum Dog Millionaire on the way from Dubai to Manchester - I had read a number of reviews of this film in the blog world and was thus very keen to watch the film in a theatre with my wife, but could not let up the opportunity to watch it on my personal console during the flight. I found that the film was very artistically made with flashbacks and may have depicted a factual and ugly face of India which has hurt the sensibilities of many Indians who live in a different world in the same country....I too am a part of these Indians......I know this exists but I donot believe this to be a part of my India...well, whether I like it or not, this is a part of my India....Having said that, I also need to add that India has many other faces too and many of them are really captivating. Those faces have been captured by more knowledgeable channels like National Geographic, History and other TV channels.
I do wish though that we can do something about our ugly side rather than live in a make believe world that it does not exist. Now about my stay.

I am staying at Carriages Bed and Breakfast at the village. The place is comfortable without too much extra fuss thrown in. I do have a wi-fi connection and that is how I keep myself updated with the blog world and am uploading this post. I do not have too much spare time during the week and thus have not been able to blog as much as I would have liked to. In this past week I have experienced what I had read about in my school days, and later, about the English weather - cold, wet, fickle, ever changing, windy, bright sunshine and then hail in a matter of minutes. I wake up to see frost every moring with a bright sun shining.. when I go out, I can feel the cold seep in through my ear lobes, my lips and the tip of my nose...it is still close to zero in the morning - the wind adds to the chill. By the time I reach the work place it is already overcast and dark - this has happened nearly every day.

View through my bedroom window
Mother nature is trying to find her greener side in the face of this weather, and everyone seems to be getting fed up with the cold and leafless countryside. The grass is thrusting out of the soil and the birds come chirping out when the sun is out. I went for a walk this afternoon and could see Daffodils trying to bloom and the violet coloured Crocus flowers in full bloom - these really look beautiful and welcoming in this weather... I can now visualise what William Wordsworth must have felt when he wrote the poem "Daffodils".

"For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils".

Crocus flowers in bloom
I finally got some time to myself at 4 pm on Friday and thus took a ride with a colleague to Birmingham to meet up with Prerna and Sanjeev over the weekend. The car ride was interesting... I got to see the countryside and also enjoyed riding on narrow, but well marked country roads. My stay at Birmingham was good and I enjoyed the hospitality of Prerna and Sanjeev. They both went out of there way to make me comfortable and I did feel very pampered. Yesterday, they took me out to the City centre and Broadway street and I got to see the Birmingham museum, the canal walk with the boat rides and boat restaurants in the centre of the city on the canals running through the centre of the city. It was my first experience at this sort of thing. Sanjeev told me that people live in such boats on these canals too. I was reminded of Srinagar and the shikaras and house boats there. Prerna tried her hand at making 'besan poodas' this morning for the first time. They came out very well - congratulations Prerna on experimenting with something new.


Took the train from Birmingham to Chester.. the ride was good, saw a lot of the open countryside and was just hoping that I had come here in May...that same countryside would have looked beautiful. Took a cab back to the village and then walked down to the "Village Indian" - the only Indian restaurant in this village, to have lunch.

The restaurant is owned by a Bangla Deshi and the waiter was Bangla Deshi too - Saha. We got talking and he told me a very fascinating conversation he had had with a white person about, "which country does he belong to?" He said, "I come from Bangla Desh, my father from Pakistan and my grand father from India". He told me that the white person found it difficult to understand this. I realised that his grandfather was born before partition and independence in the then British India, his father was born after partition in the then Pakistan and he was born after December 1971 - only South Asians can understand this without explanations. The Indian food turned out to be such only in name - Saha confessed that it was what the white's liked........too much garlic, onions, turmeric and every other masala with oil liberally thrown in. I can still smell garlic on my breath. In UK, donot attempt Indian food, if you actually want to eat Indian food....treat it like a new experience in South Asian food.

I would now like to say good bye until next weekend, when I would be heading back home and uploading some more impressions about the UK, and so until next week...Good bye and keep blogging.