Village India: Where the clock struck 20 centuries ago

Wild monkeys jump from housetop to housetop, their long, tufted tails hanging down the sides of the buildings like bellpulls. Harsch crying peacocks, national bird of India and venerated as symbols of purity and chastity in Hindu mythology, flutter down in the courtyards of the villagers' homes.

And everywhere amble buffaloes and cows. A few plonk themselves down in the middle of the narrow lanes that curve and twist through the center of the dusty villages.

The only way to proceed is to squeeze around or jump over them. Some give a baleful stare; others fix their big brown eyes on the wall in front of them and monotonously munch their cud.

The cow is sacred to Hindus. Since its milk is good for children, the cow is regarded as the mother of children. The buffalo is not venerated, yet is twice as valuable in some ways as a cow, fetching about 4,000 rupees ($512) compared to around 2,000 rupees for a cow. This is because the buffalo gives almost twice as much milk as a cow. Its milk also has an extraordinary high cream content, about 6 or 7 percent, roughly twice that of the Indian cow.

An old man, his bewhiskered face covered in lashings of old fashioned shaving soap, squints in the sun, as a barber proceeds to give him an open air shave. Three more old men are lying in rickety rope beds pursing their lips at the sight of strangers and impatiently brushing away the flies.

A group of barefoot young boys approaches tentatively. Their faces look as though they have been powder-puffed with dust.

Dust seems to seep everywhere. These villages and all of India are in the grip of one of the worst droughts this century. The ground is dry and cracked and yearns for the spring rains. Wheat is stunted and should be feet higher. The mustard looks thin and weedy.

India must be one of the few places in the world where Rip Van Winkle could return and not experience time shock.

Except for the introduction of electricity in recent years and one village lad sporting a mod shirt -- everyone else is dressed in the loose fitting white dhoti that falls in swirls around the legs or in saris -- the villages of Haryana in the Hindi-speaking belt of Northern India have been virtually stuck in the time machine for thousands of years.

Here the ancient wells where water is drawn up in buckets with the primitive rope and pulley system are of ancient Persian vintage, a couple of thousand years old probably.

The houses, squat, flat-topped structures made of mud- mortared bricks and plastered with moistened cow dung, look as though they might have preceded the Ark.

Above the roofs and protruding from them are vast untidy piles of sticks that resemble nests for auks or some other mythologically huge bird. They are firewood bundles, drying out in the sun.

The overall color is khaki: Khaki huts and khaki dirt tracks. But the sky, free of pollution and bespangled with brilliant stars at night, is a pristine blue. Later, as it gets hot, it turns a bleached blue.

This is not Williamsburg, India style. This is India as it really is and has been -- day in, day out for the last 20 centuries.

India is village India -- some 550,000 villages which constitute 80 percent of the population. India is, in fact, a rare social phenomenon in a rapidly urbanizing world.

It is an overwhelmingly rural agrarian society, whose agricultural products represent a staggering 49 percent of the total economy.

In the Punjab, tractors and electrically driven or diesel generated tube-wells have shot that part of India into the 20th century.

Here they are lagging well behind.

The household facilities, for instance, are either antediluvian or non-existent.

Only two to three percent have bathrooms. Though children use the courtyards or one corner of the house, adults take to the open fields to relieve themselves. Rural Hindi regard their homes as sanctified and pure. As a result they feel toilet practices should take place as far away from the home as possible.

Nevertheless there are inadequate disposal methods. And the smell of animal manure in the lanes outside is almost overpowering at times.

Only 20 percent of the villagers have kitchens. The rest take over a corner of the "living room" or go to the fields to cook. For those 20 percent who do have kitchens it is nothing more than a primitive dung-fueled stove and a few pots and pans. The stove is usually in a courtyard under the stars. No need for utensils here. The villagers eat with their hands, dexterously scooping up the food with a taco-like bread called a chapati. Not a drop trickles down the arm.

Refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines, and tape decks are not only out of their experience. They probably don't even exist in their vocabularly.

The closest they have come to civilization is the sight of jet planes overhead. This writer never saw one above India's villages. But he saw them in the village children's drawings.

To the outsider the crush of people and animals seems chaotic. But in these villages, steeped in unbending tradition, there is order of the first magnitude. Everyone knows his station in life, his duties, and his obligations. Anyone who steps out of line is, to use an Indian word, a pariah. In such a tightly-woven social unit, to be an outcast is a devastingly lonely experience.

Indian village life bears almost no correlation with Western living. It's not just the lack of Western affluence. It is the absence of Western social norms and mores. Indian village life, for instance, is tantamount to segregation of the sexes.

There are men's quarters and women's quarters. This is not India's YMCA and YWCA. It is even the way married couples live.

The husband, for instance, will visit his wife, unseen to the villagers, some time after dark. He will sleep at her house and then spirit himself back to the men's quarters, sometimes about midnight. It is important that the children don't know that Daddy has slept overnight.

The western concept of father and mother getting up together in the morning, cooking breakfast, discussing the latest political news and sporting scores, and then walking out together on a shopping tour simply does not exist here. Men and women must give every impression of keeping a physical distance between themselves.

Flirting or any sign of going steady in public might be tolerated in the big cities. Not in village India. Sexual morality seems to be the most chaste and cherished value in India. As a result, it is startling and perplexing to see young boys and even adult men walking hand in hand.

Western-educated Indians hurriedly and repeatedly insist that it has no sexual connotation whatsoever. Sociologists confirm it.

Village life presents something of a dilemma for modern India.

On the one hand it is a remarkably workable, cohesive social unit. There is no divorce, and no police force. A psychologist who attempted to put up his shingle one day would have to take it down the next. Business would be that bad.

But it is precisely the village today is what it was 2,000 years ago -- give or take some electrification, a plastic mug, and the odd transistor radio -- that alarms the health authorities.

The lack of hygiene and sanitation and a healthy diet are persistent and nagging health hazards.

Throughout India and certainly here in the four Haryana state villages that were visited on an all-day trip, as many as 80 percent of the children suffer some degree of malnutrition.

A research paper on the subject says: "The enormous wastage of children is apparently in the motivation for large families especially among the rural poor. We are thus caught in a vicious circle of malnutrition leading to high child mortality which in turn motivates large families resulting in further aggravation of malnutrition."

Bad water is one of the worst health problems.

According to Razia Ismail, publicity officer of UNICEF in New Delhi which is working with local authorities to bring in hand pumps and hard rock drilling rigs, backed up with clean water education, "50 percent of the infant mortality rate is due to impure drinking water -- and the lack of education on the use of safe drinking water."

Bringing clean drinking water to India's villages is something approaching a social revolution in this, the world's second largest, society.

One of the most significant things to have happened in India, according to Romesh Thapar, New Delhi editor of the intellectual journal "Seminar," is that in the last two years 65,000 villages have been linked with a clear water supply.

"In 10 years we would like all the villages in India (there are about 550,000 ) to have clean water. This is very important for our health because we are a water-drinking nation. It is China that is tea-drinking."

But, cautions Miss Ismail, "we have found that just the provision of clear water is not enough. We have to be sure it is used properly. What happens if the water is pure, but the vessel carrying it is not hygienic? it is not sterilized because there is a shortage of fuel and coal, and the villages cannot afford to boil the water."

According to UNICEF's chief information officer, the danger comes with the weening stage, between 12 and 24 months, when the child is off the mother's pure milk and onto food which is not cooked properly.

Some 10,000 children, under the age of three, she says, die every month in India because of bad water and bad food.

Eighteen percent of all children in India are under 6, and that 18 percent accounts for 40 percent of India's total mortality rate. India has a proportionately higher percentage of children than China, the world's most heavily populated nation.

Quantum allocations for social services, health, and child welfare have gone up in India, but the percentage allocation has gone down -- a development that Miss Ismail finds disturbing.

"You'd think that with all the pronouncements on the Year of the Child [1979] that the percentage allocation would go up. It hasn't."

Any callous calculation that improved health will only save millions more Indians and add to the food and population pressures is immediately discounted as specious logic by Miss Ismail.

"No. You've lost your labor when a child dies, so you have a new baby. Not until you ensure survival of the baby can you have birth control. The people will have the three more babies so one can survive."

health habits down at the village level are changing, but those who are trying to push the reforms have to contend with aeons of rigid tradition. It takes coaxing and kindness and perseverance and support of the villages themselves to take even one giant inch forward.

Ask Dr. Vasudeva Kathura, Dean of Community Medicine and head of the Department of Social Preventive Medicine at the Medical College, Rohtak, Haryana State. He knows the trials, tribulations and rewards of trying to turn around the villagers' health habits.

"It is a question of struggle," says Dr. Kathura. "Sometimes you seem to have got it. Other times you look around and ask yourself if anything has happened."

"Day by day there has not been much change. But I was away for a couple of years, and it was then that I saw the change." The program has been operational for four years.

It is an uphill struggle. Very often the villagers yield only gradually. In some areas there is no apparent progress at all.

A visitor, for instance, pointed out the quagmires of water, mud, and manure that were collecting on some of the sidewalks as a result of buffalo and cow hoof imprints. Were these not health hazards as well as unsightly blots on the landscape?

"It's awful," concedes Dr. Kathura. "It breeds all kinds of mosquitos. If we could get the villagers to take the cattle out of the village it would help. But we could never get them to do that," he says.

Some improvements they have taken to quite readily. To help purify the brackish water, for instance, bleaching powder is dropped into the wells every two weeks in the village of Lakhanmajra. "Now when than doesn't happen they even write and say the man hasn't come with the bleaching powder," he says. In other villages there are now up-to-date filter beds and chlorination systems.

Dr. Kathura and the three physicians who work with him on this preventive health care program say their efforts are wasted unless the villagers are willing to go along with them.

This realization prompted the medical college to take the most respected in the village, both men and women, and train them in midwifery, nutritional diet, sanitation, hygiene, and preventative social medicine.

Dr. Kathura says of these trained aides: "They are the best communicators. I cannot do a thing. They village people will often go back to these people and say of me, 'Was he right?' The village people have tremendous confidence in these aides, and the responsibility for getting a large number of sterilizations rests with them."

The value of these aides was demonstrated in the village of Ghironthi (population 3,000) in a rudimentary nursery school, where the walls are pasted with Hindi health and nutritional messages. The pictures show the need to clean teeth, the importance of milk and vegetables in a proper diet, and how flies sitting on cut fruit can spread disease.

Rajbala, a village aide in a subdued blue sari and wearing gold earrings, was asked how much the children were learning from these health lessons.

Through an interpreter she answered, "The children don't ask the questions. But they tell their mothers. Then the mothers come in and start to ask questions. That is the beautiful thing."

Rajbala concedes, though, that when the children were first given nutritional supplements the mothers were suspicious, if not angry.

"When the children are given a vitamin table the mothers would come in and say, 'What are you giving my child?' My child doesn't need this. When I explain the function of nutrition they accept the tablet. They will even help give it to the children."

Fortifying the children's diet in this way has made a dramatic impact. In an 18-month period between 1977, when the children were first tested, and 1978, when their progress was assessed, the percentage of children regarded as normal according to recognized nutritional standards shot up from a mere 12.7 percent to 43.4 percent. Those classified as slightly undernourished went up from 9.6 percent to 37.5 percent. Meanwhile those previously regarded as severely malnourished dropped in the same period from 5.8 percent to only 1.4 percent.

Pride and resistance, based on years of acceptable tradition, make it heavy going at times.

Dr. Surindra Mohan Bansal, one of the physicians helping Dr. Kathura, is philosophical about it: "You can't change the village mentality in one day. The children, though, are definitely changing. They are learning hygiene at school and have a much more favorable approach toward sanitation. They see the lack of sanitation as bad. The older people relate sickness to sin and the evil eye."

But the village aides are breaking down some prejudices and misconceptions. Subhedai Mani Ram, a retired junior commissioned officer and one of village elders chosen by his people as the link between the village and the medical center, reports some breakthroughs.

"They come to me for their problems because I'm a local person. they accept me much more than if I were someone else from outside. I make a point of telling them only to drink the water that has been chemically treated.

"Family planning is where I failed, because the people were so afraid of compulsory sterilization. It was such a block in their minds. There was rumor that men over 60 and boys under 14 would be forced to be sterilized. It was only a rumor. But every time a team from the center came to tell them about sterilization and why it would be good to think about it, they would run into the fields and hide."

Despite this dread, sterilization appears to be making considerable headway nevertheless -- at least if the views of the villagers themselves are accurate.

About half a dozen men were seated together on the veranda of a village home watching a game of cards. They all wore identical clothing -- the traditional white dhoti. Questions were asked. There was some low muttering among them. finally a mand spoke up and exclaimed in Hindi:

"There is a difference in our lives since the health project started. We have more variety in our diet. They tell us how to look after our children. Nobody told us that before."

Six of the seven men in the group in this village of Dhandlan, when asked if they had been sterilized, nodded affirmatively. Only one man shook his head no.

Responses like this encourage Dr. Kathura. But he is cautious about his obvious achievements. "We are far behind. We have miles to go," he says.

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