Social connect in times of social distancing

Covid-19 and rural India


April 17, 2020

/ By / Pune

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Social connect in times of social distancing

The Covid19 brought back the spirit of social connect as stories of humanity emerge from various part of the country (Representational image)

At a time when social media and some of the mainstream ones are spreading message of communal hatred, stories of humanity are emerging from various part of the country. Here is one such story from a small town in Satara in Maharashtra.

The annual travel scamper in China, known as chunyun, is the largest annual human migration in the world. It all began on a huge scale in late 1970s when China’s economy had opened to the outside world. Coinciding with the Chinese New Year, the event sees a massive rush of hundreds of millions of people working in the major cities towards their villages in the country side to enjoy new year’s festivities with their families. It has now estimated to be nearly 30 billions trips per chunyun. Images of train stations all over the country during the 40-days of nonglinian (Lunar Year) lockdown of China are as terrifying as the banks of the Ganges river during Kumbha Mela-a holy Hindu festival that comes once in 12 years.

The world was equally stunned recently to view  the images from India of thousands of migrant workers travelling from various metros to their village-homes after a nationwide lockdown was imposed by the government of India as precaution against the spread of new coronavirus. While Chinese migration is always well planned, and this time came earlier than the lockdown announced by Chinese government, the Indian departure was sudden and unexpected.

But Chinese migrants carrying the virus with them on their annual break this year was unexpected too. News about fast migrating new coronavirus hit the migrating population of Chinese on holiday as a bolt from the blue. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says chunyun is one of the reasons for the fast spread of the virus outside Wuhan where it was first detected.

The migrant workers in India rushing to their villages after lockdown was announced was also feared to have significantly affected the steps to contain the spread of virus. But decisive evidence is yet to surface. Measures to deal with COVID-19 like a lockdown and social distancing have been extreme pain points for India as well as China like all the nations around the world. In China as well as in India, it was especially severe for the poor and villagers working in the cities, especially daily wage earners who have little or no savings at all. In India, with millions of workers migrating from cities to villages further added to the misery.

Interestingly, there have been hidden and massive benefits from the lockdown like improvement in  the air-quality due to near-zero transport, reduction in carbon emissions like never before, mainly due to the significant slowing down of the industrial activity and fossil fuel use. The more important but invisible benefits included enhanced time for togetherness of  family, getting used the travel-free low-carbon and sustainable consumption  life style coupled with the  increased deployment of the digital technology to communicate.

The most important advantage in India, however, appears to be bringing back the rural rich culture for the returning migrants who recognised that in face of disaster the way to live with dignity is to go back to the villages. ‘India’s future lies in the villages’  is what Mahatma Gandhi famously said. COVID-19, proved to be a small pilot activity towards this belief. Though it sounds bit strange and feels like a derivative of  vicarious pleasure but Mahatma would have been pleased to see that in wake of global crisis the masses are heading for villages. Abdul Kalam, India’s former President, was keen that rural India become centre of India’s development. He believed that foundation of sustainable development exists there in villages but there was need to bring in rural area the infrastructure that is normally available only to urbanites.

The Chinese People’s Party also recently unveiled the massive plans to make Chinese youth remain in the villages through a number of incentives. Many Chinese going back to their villages during chunyun have known to make plans to migrate permanently to villages. Chairman Mao the initiator of cultural revolution in 1970s that forcefully brought elite and privileged youth from cities  to the farmers and workers in the villages as part of ‘Cultural Revolution’would have been pleased!

Villages, neither China nor in India, have shown a strong spread of COVID-19. The virus has remained mainly constrained to urban clusters, cities and big towns, with some exceptions. Cities have shown their divisive tendencies, careless attitudes and dogmatic behaviour. Villages, on contrary, have remained true to their root-culture, cautiously welcoming their migrant -brothers and carefully assimilating  them in the daily life. The religious conflicts, economic inequality and power struggles-typical of urban shades- were kept aside and even buried. Opportunity to witness again social harmony and traditional culture is yet another benefit from COVID-19.

A short story of the small town of Rahimatpur in Satara district is worth telling in this context of COVID-19.

Rahimatpur is a town of nearly 20,000 people not far from River Krishna that originates from Mahabaleshwar in Western Ghats of India. Till early 17th century it was called village Kumathe, known for Kumbheshwar temple. Vijapur’s King Adil Shah deputed his one of the army commandants, Ranadulla Khan, to establish the well-developed and structured town there. Village Kumathe then became Rahimatpur. The name change was to please King Adil Shah.

Having established the town, Ranadulla Khan, curiously, became a staunch devotee of a sage residing in nearby Hindu temple at Brahmapuri, the banks of Krishna. He then decided to spend rest of his life in and around Rahimatpur. Broad minded, matured and spiritual disciple of a sage, Ranadulla Khan allowed scores of Hindu temples as well as a mosque to flourish around Rahimatpur where Hindus and Muslims have stayed together in peace since then. Randullla Khan, later, requested King Adil Shah to relieve him from his duty and allow him to settle in Rahimatpur and spend time in spiritual activity and to promote harmony with people as preached by  his guru.

Except for the short period during which the army of Afzal Khan, who later was ambushed and killed during the hug by Shivaji, in later part of the 17th century, went on rampage to damage temples, the Hindus and Muslims lived in the harmony in and around Rahimatpur till this date without any untoward instance and oblivious of the religious drift in the country.

In late 19th century a bigger temple of Shri Ram was built by Pandit Ganagadhar Shende on the banks of a rivulet and tributary of Krishna called Kamadalu that wades through Rahimatpur. It was just the opposite to the mosque on the other bank of Kamandalu. The bridge between the temple and the mosque built by the British is the example of the ‘Ram-Rahim’ link.

In early 20th century, when India was struggling for independence, Jainism arrived in Rahimatpur and a well-constructed Jain temple with 24 paintings of Shwetambar Jainism disciples became a distinct identification, not far from the mosque and a Ram temple.

Many key personalities born in the small town of Rahimatpur later added to the legacy of harmony. V.G Paranjapye, a scholar of the French and Sanskrit, who had obtained Doctorate in Literature from University of Sorbonne in Paris, established an education society in Rahimatpur and dedicated his  work for the cultural development of the village. His son V.V. Paranjape went to Beijing to study Chinese and later became India’s Ambassador to China in 1955. A well-known Marathi author V. S. Kanitkar, who scripted a drama on Shivaji who fought against the Mughals became famous all over the country. It was popular among the Muslims in Rahimatpur who thronged to see the drama.

The bond between the two communities has continued even in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. Following the closure of the mosque for all the activities including prayers, the Jain community launched a  daily food-aid for the poor and marginalised persons of all communities in Rahimatpur. The town council identified the poor and needy families and requested them to take the benefit for their daily need of food. The doctors in the town went from house to house to check for possible infections and give free medicine to all.

On April 2, in middle of the lockdown, on the occasion of the Hindu festival of Ram Navami, marking the birth of Lord Ram volunteers from Jain Service Centre joined hands with the Shende family that runs the Ram temple to distribute sugar packets and sweets for the poor and needy families. The social and religious gatherings were prohibited on that day and hence Ram temple remained closed except for the morning ritual that too by one priest. Maratha, Jain, Brahmin, Muslim and other volunteers from all strata of Rahimatpur joined the hands to distribute the sugar and sweets to all who were standing in the queue keeping social distancing in the mind. They went to localities near masjid to distribute the prasad of Ram Navami.

The Covid-19 brought back the spirit of Ranadulla Khan, preachings of the Hindu sage in the temple of Brahmapuri and teachings of the Jainism. That harmony reappeared on Ram Navami in Rahimatpur.

Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of modern India that lives in the villages and chairman Mao’s movement of learning from villagers are still visible in numerous villages and towns like Rahimatpur.


(The author is chairman Terre Policy Centre, former director UNEP, IIT Alumnus)



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