Last updated on May 8, 2020
From the local gossip corner to farmers worrying about a fair price for their crops, villages in India are facing the lockdown with resilience and faring better than their urban counterparts
A hundred-metre walk from my home is Babu Kaka’s grocery shop, one of the major sources of news for villagers. Standing outside the shop, I listened to old Makhanlal Ojha, popularly known as Mama, talking about ‘marai’, a phenomenon where the outbreak of an unknown disease causes immense loss of life.
Every year, he informs me, the villagers perform a prayer at a temple of Bhot Wali Maiya (stone goddess), to save our village from any such illness. This worship is not just to save human lives but also includes prayers for cattle. “Marai doesn’t even spare bovine animals when it occurs, they die in such high numbers that there is shortage of land to bury them,” says Ojha.
Present at the shop is Babu Kaka, in his late 70s, the head priest who conducts this prayer. Keenly listening to what was being discussed, he chimed in to inform us that this prayer hasn’t been conducted for the last few years. The ritual was discontinued as there has been no major outbreak in the recent past, threatening the lives of villages and their animals.
The priest made an interesting point: “My father used to talk about marai in his time leading to the death of many villagers.” I guessed that he was talking about the Spanish flu that resulted in the death of millions of people. It is interesting that people in villages remember epidemics more vividly than in urban areas and are aware of possible dangers, thereby preparing them to better attempt to save them through all means possible. In urban settings, people tend to outsource their security concerns to the state.
I spent one week in Parichha, the village where I was born, 24 km from the small town of Shivpuri in Madhya Pradesh. I had spent most of my lockdown period in Shivpuri and came to Parichha for a story about musicians of the village. After completing work on the story, while walking around the village, I felt a familiar calm that I had felt all through my life whenever I visited.
The morning was beautiful, with a sanguine sun asking the birds to wake up, the afternoon, which is the time when the langoors roam the village in search of water, jumping from tree to tree, enliven village life. In the evenings, the chirping of birds is Nature’s orchestra. People go to sleep around 9 pm, signing the day off as early as possible — though some stay awake till 10 pm to watch the Ramayan TV serial.
A day before I visited the village, a medical team had advised people to stay indoors. I thought it would be difficult for the villagers to follow physical distancing measures, but to my surprise, the compliance of villagers was better than that in my city. This was possible because the population of the village is around 3,000 and the villagers have enough space to maintain distance.
Many villagers have bought soap and are taking care of hygiene more than they used to. Another interesting change was in the way villagers greet each other – hugging and handshaking are rare in general, that too when they meet after a long time. Elders’ feet are touched. So whenever I met anyone from my village, keeping a distance was not difficult.
One evening, a friend told me that a ‘doctor’ (quack) was beaten up by the police as his shop was becoming a place where many patients would gather for consultations. And since no private doctor is attending to patients in the city and people are afraid of going to the government hospital, going to quacks is the only option.
This quack, popularly known as ‘Bengali Dakar, a well-mannered guy, is trusted by the villagers. His shop is always full of patients, even patients from nearby villages come to him for treatment. He arrived in the village in 2018 with his younger brother and is now part of the community. Interestingly, nobody asks his caste before inviting him to their homes because he is a ‘doctor’.Otherwise, the caste system in milder forms is still prevalent.
I thought of talking to him the very next day, but couldn’t meet him. His shop was closed so was the adjacent medical store. “He must be resting,” said my uncle and advised me to see him another day. In India, more than a million quacks practice medicine, which is dangerous but it is also true that they provide primary healthcare and in rural areas people trust them.
A big problem in many villages is the availability of water. In my village, under Nal-Jal Yojna, piped water is available at every home. But every village is not so lucky. In a village called Marora just three km away, people have to go to the nearby hand pump and wells to fetch water, which puts them at risk of viruses.
When I was in Shivpuri, the quarantine was quite monotonous, I was spending my days engrossed in my mobile phone, either watching movies or working. Whenever I went out, I saw empty roads, police vans and some non-compliant citizens flaunting lockdown norms by gathering and then dispersing at the sound of an approaching police van.
The important difference between urban and village settings is the seriousness with which people are taking the lockdown. Fear of social boycott in case of any mistake is higher in the villages. Villagers often avoid visiting cities and for them, social distancing is not strange as they have been observing it one way or the other– caste system being a major factor.
Storytelling is also an interesting aspect of village life. ‘Police used force’, is an everyday headline. Police beating up someone on the main road or an escape from such beatings are discussed in great detail. Madhya Pradesh government recently recruited some young personnel in the police force but this has not ushered in any change for the better. Villagers think they are more merciless than older ones. “Young policemen enjoy the act of beating,” says a villager.
This is the harvest season on my family farm, farmers are busy. The process of harvesting wheat is almost complete. Some farmers worry about the prices of the crop if lockdown prolongs. “We don’t know as of now, but we hope this ends and we get adequate price for our crop,” says Anek Yadav.
Visiting my village in the midst of the pandemic, I conclude that cities are more vulnerable and require greater management than a village. Villages are to an extent self-managing units and engaging people to follow the guidelines is easy.