Somewhere in rural Assam, I stare out of the window with nostalgia. I’ve never lived in a village, but it was the setting of most of my childhood summers in India and—as my family likes to point out—that is probably why I romanticize the experience: As I always knew I would be leaving.
Now, with most of them relocated to ever-bustling Guwahati, these glimpses of village life have become rare and somewhat precious. So, earlier this week, I savoured it for 27 hours—my total travel time in buses, vans and taxis in the North-East over four days. One morning brought children literally skipping to school, some barefoot. The same night saw ponds flickering with the flashlights of night fishermen. In dozens of villages over the weekend, Muslim residents lined up for Eid celebrations. In between, preparations unfolded for Durga Puja. There was something comforting about every few feet of my journey marked by worship —the bumpy ride really needed it.
Despite the greenery and tranquillity, traversing the rural North-East (and much of rural India) remains far from easy, and spoils romantic reverie. The 136km between Guwahati and Barpeta Road, a town known for its vegetable market, takes four hours. The 90km trip to Shillong, the famous hill station in neighbouring Meghalaya, takes the same. The abysmal road conditions leave me wondering just how these regions and their people connect to the Indian dream.
And so I teeter between nostalgia and alarm, as I am sure is the case for many urban Indians who return to places several notches down on the tiered system that has come to clinically describe our homes. Here, infrastructure tends to crumble in the face of ruthless floods—it is a fact as dependable as the floods themselves. For me, the discomfort comes in the form of a rough ride; for residents and their livelihoods, it is far more devastating.
These last few months have seen a surge of interest in the North-East. Cities such as New Delhi and Bangalore are experiencing waves of new migration from the North-East, as employers tap an English-speaking labour pool for business process outsourcing, retail and hospitality. Last month’s Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)-sponsored India@60 event in New York City dedicated a whole day of panels to investment in the North-East. A group of non-resident Indian Assamese entrepreneurs will gather in Guwahati for another CII-sponsored meet in December.
The dialogue, discussion and exposure are certainly welcome and overdue. But those who have been trying to tackle development in the region have been through this before, jaded by great ideas that never see implementation. “It’s very important to understand ground reality. Statistics are important, but without correlating to the ground reality, that cannot happen,” said Mahfuza Rahman, a geography professor in Guwahati’s Cotton College who has studied flooding and rural development.
“Whatever people do, if they are happy, they can live. We have not found that happiness in Assam.”
I asked for her take on the worst after-effects of the flooding in September, some of which I saw from the safety of a car window—a ground reality albeit distant in many ways. Her list seemed endless. “Drinking water—it gets contaminated,” she began. “Then it wears on their health and how do we attend to the health-care needs of women and children?”
She continues: “The question of livelihood is there, of course. Rural Assam is basically an agricultural economy. We need to look at alternative crops that can withstand the floods.”
Saying the efforts to lift up rural dwellers have been piecemeal, Rahman, past executive director of development group Rashtriya Gramin Vikas Nidhi, arrives at the issue of infrastructure: “The feeder roads… Even if their crops are affected, how do they market their produce and avoid distress selling?” she asks. “Without the roads, children during the monsoon season cannot come to school. We can advocate universal education, but if the infrastructure for students to come to school is not there…”
She trails off and tells me she thinks aspiration levels within Assam seem to lag behind the rest of the country, partly because the exposure to the Indian growth story does not match their chapter. As our bus chugged back towards the city, the unmistakable glow of television sets marked many houses in our path. “The physical infrastructure has not moved that way and in rural areas, that is much...detrimental,” Rahman says. “Their imaginative world is so far from where they are.”
Her words resonate with a billboard I passed at a busy intersection of Shillong: “Job is not impossible.” I tripped over the slogan’s use of the double negative, not understanding the connection to a course for certified industrial accountants. Perhaps a grammatical misuse—or perhaps acknowledgment that too many residents here have already accepted their dreams will remain only that.