A headline in yesterday's New York Times illustrates once again the gap between two Indias: The one we live in, urban India, where the roads might be bumpy and the power sometimes unreliable, but where people walk the streets freely, have access to information, schools and jobs. And on the other hand rural India, a world apart. The cut-off isn't this strict of course, and there are obviously a variety of situations in both Indias, rich and poor people everywhere; noone would dare denying the dramatic importance of urban poverty, while some rural areas have recently observed notable growth and prosperity.
But what distinguishes remote rural areas from the India we experience on a daily basis is without a doubt the isolation in which they live. Far from most traveled roads, some localities live in almost complete autarky, cut from any political or economic reality of contemporary India. Ruled by their local government bodies, they live in an age that we would think has long gone, where men order, women serve, and villages work as units closed from the rest of the world.
There's a problem though: new information technologies, movies and TV, have introduced the outside world in these villages, and communication technologies have increased the reach of NGOs or government programs. And the men in charge of these villages are fearing for their bit of power. Like has been seen in many other times and places, local authorities, too worried this might lead to them losing the influence they have on their co-villagers, are trying to fight change as hard as they can, conducting their own version of a witch hunt. Without even having to get into the terrible debate around the waves of rapes that moved India last month, less dramatic examples actually show best the current trend in the most remote parts of the country: A village in East Bihar implements Rs.10,000 fines for girls caught using a cell phone; a Khap Panchayat in UP issues a decreat banning "love marriage" and barring all women under 40 from shopping.
Such laws are of course illegal on many levels, as the Indian constitution does not recognize texts that would target only segments of society; but should we really expect the central and state governments to do anything, when they rely so heavily on the traditional instances to mobilize voters, and when the victims of these diktats have so little power and visibility? Probably not. Except maybe if we, with the access we have to both information and communication media, work on making their voices heard for them...