Rural India is home to 12% of the world population. Categorized by its low levels of development, geographical inaccessibility and low income levels it has remained an area hitherto unimaginable by urban dwellers. While working for Unilever in India I had a chance to spend six weeks living in a village, where time had decided to move very slowly. Unilever had undertaken rural development in district Etah in India in the 1970s. The story started when the company built a milk processing unit and then discovered a whole host of problems. The breed of cattle had low yield, there was lack of refrigeration facilities and the sector was too unorganized to allow commercial exploitation. It decided to gift the plant to the Government and exit the business. The Government quickly realized that the exit of India’s largest multinational would impact its own development schemes. It requested the company to lead the development efforts.
And thus was born the Integrated Rural Development Program at Etah. Over the decades the company put in place a network of employees whose task was to lay a milk collection system, use artificial insemination to improve the breed, educate the masses on human and animal health, and undertake vaccination projects. An indication of the commitment to the project was the mandate that all managers would personally spend six weeks in the villages as integral parts of this project. It also ensured that managers learnt that the masses to whom they hoped to sell were different in their needs and aspirations from those in textbooks.
I was unprepared for what I experienced. Living without electricity, taps for water, bathrooms…and the people whose simplicity could never be overshadowed by their aspirations.
I discovered that a bath at a handpump could be an exciting entertainment opportunity for the village children. They would gather all around and watch in fascination as I stood in my boxer shorts applying shampoo. The concept that a blue liquid could produce lather in my hair was fascinating to them. So were other items like a walkman. They would squeal with delight at beholding a stereo that “played only in your ears”! The main occupation was agriculture and thus they would continually quiz us “townies” on what crops grew in cities, and whether our potatoes were as large and delicious as those grown here!
The land that time forgot? Not totally!