Citizenship by Design: The Rural Agenda

In this last Messenger of the year, we end our series on Citizenship by Design with a conversation on our collaboration with Rural Voice on the Rural Agenda, focusing on how rural citizens perceive themselves beyond traditional roles like farmers or laborers. The collaboration with Rural Voice was one of the highlights of our work this year, and includes events such as the budget charcha we wrote about earlier.

The Rural Agenda

India’s rural sector is facing a severe crisis that’s affecting the countryside, despite improvements in things like roads, toilets, and phone service. People used to think of villages as peaceful, clean places where everyone had farming related work. But the reality is different. Many rural areas still lack basic needs like steady electricity, good roads, clean water, quality schools, and health care. Farming is becoming a tough way to make a living, both in terms of money and respect. Also, rural people are dealing with problems we usually see in cities, like pollution, diseases from modern lifestyles, unemployment, and drug problems. This change shows a big shift from how we used to see rural life.

Rural Voice and Socratus teamed up on an extended exercise called ‘Agenda for Rural India’ to understand what people in the countryside need and want. We stayed away from metropolitan life and instead we went to smaller towns in five states: Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and Meghalaya. Each of these states has its own way of farming, economy, and crops. For six months, we spoke to a varied range of stakeholders such as farmers, community leaders, policy makers, and those who help sell farm products. After all these events, Rural Voice and Socratus now have a clearer idea of what rural citizens are looking for.

You can read the final report here.

What are rural citizens concerned about?

A great example of a rural person being a fully active citizen is this man from a village in Meghalaya, who was both a farmer and a teacher. He shared his dreams and problems, and his views showed his experiences as both a teacher and a farmer. He talked about how not having good roads in his district made it hard for farmers to get their crops to market and how it was also a problem for getting to hospitals. These are common issues in rural areas. By speaking up about these things to the local government, he was really taking part in the process of being a citizen and making his voice heard.

We’ve also noticed that people living in rural areas are politically engaged and understand political issues well. For instance, in many places, we’ve heard that corruption in local government and in electoral politics is a big problem. They think this corruption is a main reason why a lot of developmental projects fail.

In Coimbatore, for example, farmers are very knowledgeable about problems like pollution. They know about the laws and the organizations that are supposed to stop things like dumping dirty water into rivers. This shows us that rural people are not only aware of the nature and environment around them, but they also understand the bigger issues that impact their communities.

In the first two events in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, the participants were mostly male. But then, in places like Odisha and Meghalaya, where there are many tribal groups and women, we saw more diversity. Still, the main problems were similar everywhere: things like climate change, crop prices, government support for farming, and the lack of education and healthcare. One big issue across the country was animals causing problems for people. This varied by region: in Muzaffarnagar, it was cows; in Odisha, it was different animals; and in the Nilgiris and Coimbatore, it was wildlife.

Each area also had its own specific issues. For example, in Meghalaya, bad roads were a major concern. In Rajasthan, the big problem was water. In Uttar Pradesh, people worried a lot about using too much fertilizer and pesticides. While issues like political corruption were mentioned in a few places, in Tamil Nadu, it was talked about a lot. People there were very clear about their local problems, like a bridge not being built or water pipes being laid but not working, and schools or health centers in their villages not functioning properly.

The Idea of Rural India

We realized something important: we can’t think of rural areas as all being the same anymore. They’re really diverse, and the way we understand “rural” can change every few miles. Plus, rural areas are changing quickly because of global influences and people moving between cities and the countryside.

This means our ideas about rural life need to change too. We should recognize how fast these areas are evolving.

We also noticed that the traditional image of what villages are supposed to be like isn’t really there anymore. When we talked to people, their idea of a better rural life focused on things like improved education, including better colleges, and better healthcare options for young people. It doesn’t seem like there’s a unique vision for rural life that’s different from city life. Instead, it looks like people in rural areas aspire to have the kind of facilities and opportunities that are usually found in cities, right where they are.

There is a difference in how people in the cities and rural areas think about the environment differently. In cities, you usually only think about nature when there’s a big event, like extreme weather. But for people living in the countryside, dealing with nature is a daily challenge. This is true for everyone in rural areas, but it’s especially clear for farmers. Things like climate change, pest attacks, or conflicts with animals are always on their minds. These issues are a constant part of their lives, not just something they think about once in a while.

Concluding Words

Incorporating the views of rural Indian citizens into collective decision-making is essential for a balanced and inclusive approach to governance. With a majority of India’s population residing in rural areas, their insights and experiences offer invaluable perspectives that can significantly enrich policy formulation and implementation. This is particularly crucial in a country as diverse as India, even if rural aspirations are converging with urban aspirations.

Rural citizens, with their direct experience in sectors like agriculture, can provide practical insights into agricultural policies and reforms. Their firsthand understanding of local ecological systems, climate patterns, and sustainable practices can guide environmental policies toward more effective and ground-rooted solutions.

Overall, incorporating rural opinions in national affairs ensures a more democratic, equitable, and comprehensive approach to governance, acknowledging the diversity and complexity of India’s socio-economic fabric. It leads to policies that are not only fair and inclusive but also grounded in the realities of a significant portion of the nation’s populace.