I have often wondered about the trickle down effect. Or simply put, about whether the fruits of economic development percolate down to the last man. Even though the common man may not understand business jargon or the compelling choice between guns and butter, it’s been a make or break issue for several governments of India.
Dr Manmohan Singh and team swear that their policies benefited the Aam Admi of the country. They also made Bharat Nirman a campaign issue, without going overboard about India Shining. Sticking, really, to the basics - food, shelter, agri loans, education, better roads etc.
So when a chance opportunity to revisit a remote corner of Andhra Pradesh came my way, I thought it would be an eye opener on India’s growth story post-economic liberalisation. It goes without saying that this Deccan state is the one that had once shown Chandrababu Naidu the door, because he was too dazzled by IT gizmos and had forgotten the poor farmer.
The place where I stopped over is the coastal hamlet of Suryalanka. It is so secluded that even lifelong residents of its closest major city – Vijaywada- have not heard of it. For me it was also a nostalgia trip, as it took me to over 20 years back in time, when I, as young girl, would visit my parents here on school vacations.
Essentially an Air Force base, this tiny settlement was used for missile testing and precision targeting. The mere idea of setting my foot back in that place not just brought back a flood of memories, but also excited my curiosity to no end. The isolation of the place and the time gap provided ideal opportunity to test whether the poorest corner of India is really getting to partake in a slice of India’s progress. If Suryalanka had moved on, then India sure had!
<a href="http://www.zeenews.com/imagegallery853.htm" target="_blank"> <IMG SRC="/Img/2009/5/15/suryalanka-thumb-150509-ra1.jpg" border="0" align="right" style="margin-left:10px;" /></a> I was not disappointed. There were visible signs of change. For one, the road was smooth and well-metalled till the village. I remembered how barring defence vehicles, there used to be no private four-wheelers. I remember the acute embarrassment we felt when travelling in a car, as we were chased by a dozen bucolic kids. Now, jeeps plying as taxis are commonplace and affordable. There is also a car park! I felt a strange sense of happiness to see that those kids, who just couldn’t contain their excitement in yesteryears, were now grown-up adults and would be using these as means of transportation. Our children need to be fascinated by something more remarkable than a car…..
There were other transformations. I remember I had witnessed the first AC being installed at the Station House, as locals would gather in fascination about a “special cooling device”. Now, the entire office area, the Station Mess, houses are fitted with split ACs. For us as kids, one movie was allowed on the VHS per week and the tape had to be brought from Hyderabad, which was 400 kms away. Now, there is a Home Theatre system with the choicest of picks. DVDs etc can now be hired from the next door Bapatla, which also has a fast food restaurant! Now, there is also a holiday resort in Suryalanka, built by the Andhra government to captivate those with a taste for the wilderness.
Fishermen on bikes also seemed ubiquitous, another sign of growing prosperity. The station school, then offering education till Class V, now provides a full course till Class XII and due to its reasonable charges is well attended by the village children.
Not all changes, I felt, were advantageous though. A lot of builders seem to be constructing apartments in the area. While housing is a good idea any day, what seemed to be a bad idea is that a lot of farmers seem to have fallen for the lure of instant money and sold their agricultural holdings. What happens as a result is that there is a sudden spurt in their spending but then when the windfall dries up, they have nothing to turn to for an income.
The beach, which was once untouched, is now more crowded with villagers, pilgrims and holiday makers gathering to take a dip, especially on religious festivals.
At night I sauntered on its cool sands, the seashore in the station area is still one of the most pristine in India. Now, as earlier, you won’t even find a toffee wrapper for long stretches.
The half-lit moon pierced the dark cloak of the night, and I discerned a shimmer of a thousand pearl lights over heaving waters. The waves roared as they ran into the bosom of the curled littoral.
A translucent glaze covered the dancing white froth, which surged forward hurriedly and noisily and then gently losing its voice and passion, it encircled my feet softly and withdrew nimbly.
Again the gush, the ferocity, the fervour, and yet again the collapse of energy and the melting into silence.
The rhythmic song of the untiring waters had a hypnotic effect. I sat there for hours. Excepting for the company of some fishermen at some distance, there were no strangers lingering to break the reverie.
If we wound back time, even these fishermen were not allowed to trespass the coast of the defence station. But now, they labour and sweat to earn their bread, or rather fish, I should say. They tugged strenuously at the thick ropes of their nets they had laid in waters. Making small circles of their ropes, they placed themselves in the loops as they pulled, straining every nerve of their body. There was a man who walked up and down cheering them on with some chants.
While so much had altered, I found there are some things that are less labile. The struggles in daily lives of us all. The dignity in the strive of the poorest man.
I struck a conversation with an old fisherman, whose hoary face must have weathered several sea storms. He couldn’t speak Hindi and I Telugu, but through gestures and sign language he was able to communicate something about his life. Gone were the days when small bands of fishermen would embark on dangerous fishing voyages in rickety boats. Trawlers now sturdily scouted the waters. The danger to their lives was much less, but their wages still fluctuated depending on the haul. Rs 100 a day is what they usually make.
The fishermen began work at about 5-6 in the evening, and called it a day only at the wee hours of the morning. Some fishermen would hide a tempting catch in the sand and not turn it in to the contractor, and rather carried it home to make a sumptuous meal of it. A well deserved award.
After such strenuous work, they gulp down a peg of toddy with rice and curry before collapsing into the coarse comfort of their coir beds.
Everything seemed so distant from things that have an unrelenting grip on us. As someone who works in the news media, the impact of the problems facing the country is more in-the-face and profound. Advertently or unconsciously, terror, communal politics, lack of ethics and moral degradation weigh on our minds constantly.
Sitting there under the coruscating umbrella of a thousand twinkling stars, mine seemed to be another world. The burden seemed to lift. The everyday exertions of the common man looked more real compared to the world we encounter daily.
This was so far from 26/11, our loss of security, the uncertainty about the future, divisive and petty politics. This was an escape into the essence of the Indian soul.
There seemed to me, a certain continuity in this India. For years, centuries, or in fact millennia there is an India which toils, tackles challenges, and overcomes; never losing its basic ethos, maintaining an even tranquillity, a quiet nobility.
It is here, in a tucked away corner, I rediscovered India and learnt of its journey onwards. Of its persevering spirit, and temperate pace of progress. Ever moving; slowly, but surely….