Social distancing actually works! It’s been more than a month since I arrived in my little village near Shimla from Delhi and my Oxymeter already shows an improvement in my pulse rate/ heartbeat. The reading used to be 82-85/ minute in Delhi and now its a rock solid 65! I attribute it to the social distancing from the Kejriwal-Amit Shah-Arnab Goswami factor, all pervasive in Delhi but non-existent here in Purani Koti. Nobody here is bothered about them, and its all for the good. Delhi talks only politics, breathes only conspiracies, sneezes only Covid, and spreads only rumours – even a Schwarzenegger would need a ventilator there. In my village they occasionally curse the Chief Minister but that’s it. The rhythm of rural life is blessedly unchanged for the most part. My oxymeter proves it. Even the come hither glances from Neerja (getting rarer by the day) don’t move the pulse rate, though Neerja attributes it to my advancing years: she may well be right, for I now no longer covid my neighbours’ wives, as the new Commandment prescribes.
To be fair, Purani koti has not remained unscathed from the effects of the pandemic. We have three hotels and four homestays here and all of them have been shut since March, resulting in about 30 local youth being rendered unemployed; a couple of shops which catered to the visitors and their drivers are also practically closed. My good friend, Geetika Khanna, who runs a boutique home stay called Khanabadosh , tells me that she has received a large number of inquiries from prospective guests, but has decided to stay shut for the time being, owing primarily to the confusion about the govt’s regulations and SOPs about tourists. The sensitivity of the local panchayat to the rising infections also has to be factored in, though fortunately our panchayat has not reported a single case so far.
As can be expected, the mainstay of the village is agriculture- mainly two cash crops of cauliflower/ cabbage and peas. These days it is the cauliflower: about ten pick-up loads are dispatched to the market every day- six thousand kgs or so.
Typically, the local landowners don’t farm the vegetables, they give the fields to Nepali labour on annual lease. Hard working folks who have been staying here with their families for many years, the Nepalis are as indispensable to the agricultural economy here as they are to the apple cultivation in upper Shimla: without them both would collapse. They usually pay a flat sum to the land owners, whereafter all expenses for the cultivation of the crops are their’s, as are any profits. They too have been hit by the corona this year: whereas last year they got about Rs. 20/- per kg for cauliflower at the wholesale mandi, this year they are averaging between Rs. 10/- and Rs. 15/-, the down turn caused by the earlier lockdowns, disruption of supply chains and impediments to inter-state movement of trucks. But of late things have been improving. Even in the midst of the pandemic, it’s a much better life than the squalor, tension and joblessness of the cities. And people are beginning to realise this. As my caretaker, whose family owns more than 50 bighas of land, told me the other day: the locals, especially the youth, now appreciate the deeper meaning of the phrase ” dharti mata”, that she can provide for all our basic needs like any mother, provided we do not forsake her; he tells me that the villagers are now realising that, rather than sell their lands to outsiders for their hotels and villas, they should farm it themselves and earn a decent living rather than seeking jobs in cities and living in their fetid slums. That if they look after and value their lands, the land will look after them, that this is the true “atmanirbhata” that the virus has taught them, not the empty slogan of the Prime Minister. Many of the youth now rendered unemployed are going back to their lands, tilling the fields which had been allowed to go fallow and hoping to make a life in the village rather than in the towns, as earlier. Some may return to the towns but even if a few stay back it will be a new and welcome beginning.
Puranikoti is, in many ways, a much better place today than it was before the pandemic came knocking at our doors. It has reclaimed its natural rhythms of life and its landscape: gone are the hordes of tourists who littered its forests and streams with beer bottles and plastics, bird calls have replaced the blaring music of car stereos, the nightscape is once again illuminated by the stars and not the intruding lights of hotel rooms and the glare of car headlights, shuttling between parties. A graphic illustration of this is a little stream which runs through our forests, just about half a kilometre long, fed by the rainfall captured by the dense growth of cedar, blue pine and oak. It feeds many village houses downstream. Till last year it was choked by the plastic, bottles and rubbish generated by the hotels and picnickers. This year, I was delighted to see, it flows crystal-clear, released from the bonds of irresponsible tourism, the way it has done for decades. The only traffic jams are those caused by cattle returning from their daily grazing in the forests, another beat in the rhythm of everyday life here. Notwithstanding the economic hardships imposed by corona, the villagers appear happy to have reclaimed their rural landscape.
Villages like Puranikoti, it appears to me, do not need controversial stimulus packages or the RBI’s confused monetary policies- in any case those lucrative lollipops never reach the villages, siphoned off by the double A’s and the triple A’s on the way. They need sensible agricultural, environmental and tourism policies, and then need to be left alone. They need basic good governance, not promises of becoming a super power or a “vishwaguru”. Whether our rulers will see this light at the end of the Covid tunnel, I don’t know- my guess is, probably not. After all, we live in an age when tunnel vision is mistaken, and praised, as real vision.