Back in the 1960s, before the Persian Gulf states witnessed an oil boom, many Malayalis left the greenery and economic uncertainty of life in Kerala and moved to Bombay (as the metropolis was then called). Many of them were armed with just a basic higher education and moved to a city that was even then short of space. Despite cramming it up in tiny apartments, the move was worth it for most as they could earn the kind of money that was unthinkable in Kerala at that time. This trend continued and migration expanded to the Gulf and other parts of the world, although the idea for most Gulf-bound people was to come back to Kerala after retirement.
Those in Mumbai, Bengaluru and other parts of the world seemed to be happy enough in those urban surroundings, but the outbreak of a global pandemic has highlighted the drawbacks of urban life.
For many, the very idea of being confined to a small apartment for weeks on end is a kind of mental torture. No doubt, the Indian middle class is highly privileged, and doesn’t face the large hardships that the poor do. Rich or poor, under normal circumstances those living in cities deal with toxic air, barely potable water, lack of personal and public space, and incredible pressure on common resources.
How many generations of urban children even know the thrill of seeing stars on a sky that is free of light pollution? They learn about fireflies and bees in school, only to never see them in real life. In urban India, real estate developers still manage to get their hands on every inch of public land, denying citizens their right to have a park in their locality. Adults waste hours daily commuting to work while school bus drivers wade through recklessly in traffic when they take children to and from school. Many urban Indians are overweight and suffer from a host of lifestyle diseases. Life in a big Indian city indeed comes with diminishing returns.
A return to village life
Kerala probably has the best rural infrastructure in India. The roads are okay, a well-functioning bus system ensures that even the smallest villages are connected to nearby towns, drinking water, though dwindling on account of public mismanagement, is readily available, and electricity is reasonably reliable. Thanks to India’s telecommunication revolution, the internet is widely available even in the most remote corners of the state. Add to this, clean air, an environment free of industrial pollution and enough space for children to enjoy a “real childhood.” At least those with remote jobs can easily move to rural Kerala and be closer to their roots.
One of the biggest concerns of parents is good schooling, but the on-going crisis has shown that good internet access is enough to ensure that there are no disruptions to an academic year.
There is no reason why a young professional with a remote job cannot move to a rural area. COVID-19 has helped many companies realise how much money and time was wasted on travel, physical meetings and even rent! The physical distance between colleagues imposed by the pandemic has stopped many an office-related confrontation.
If urban middle-class families were to relocate to villages, there will also be an economic boom in them, as the need for all sorts of services would increase. The phenomenon could also prove to be a great leveller in India, with villagers benefitting from the expertise of tech-savvy erstwhile city dwellers and the latter living a life more connected to nature and the earth. The co-habitation of urban and rural India could also lead to the revival of dying performing and fine arts and a handicraft industry.
Of course all this would have to be planned in a way that we don’t witness massive disturbances to the rural way of life. The last thing anybody would want is for the tranquil villages of Kerala to turn into big cities by default. Kerala should be looking at a model more akin to that of Sweden, where many residents of Stockholm have moved to small villages near the university town of Uppsala and live comfortable rural lives, with urban comforts being close enough when needed.
Big cities are not going anywhere. There are too many people that find life in megapolises too comfortable to let go of. Resettled city dwellers could always go back to check out an art exhibition, sporting event or concert or even to attend a crucial business meeting. However, imagine a lockdown or crisis, where a family has access to far more than 500 square feet of indoor space, can eat homegrown produce and get an abundance of outdoor light! Such conditions would make the worst of crises more bearable.