For some years now, a growing number of city dwellers have been migrating to the countryside, to the hills, small towns and farmlands, with dreams of a greener, cleaner life, away from pollution, the daily commute and escalating prices. This outflux is predicted to grow substantially as the world recovers from the pandemic.
Many have already relocated as novel coronavirus cases continue to rise in cities. Gareth Thomas and Neha Barjatya moved in June to their second home in Assagao, a quiet village in North Goa, with their two daughters and Barjatya’s parents, closing their home in Gurugram, Haryana. “By September each year, we were already dreading the pollution and the winter ahead. In fact, wearing masks comes easily to the children, who had to use them through Delhi winters,” Thomas tells me. The couple had planned to move eventually to Bengaluru, but when covid-19 cases began to surge in all cities and a neighbour tested positive, they knew it was time to leave cities behind. Their home in Assagao seemed like the best choice.
Barjatya works with Google, while Thomas runs a content management company, and the children attend online classes. “We are taking it step by step,” says Thomas. “Life is already less stressful, we have open space. I take my laptop out to the fields nearby and work in clean fresh air.” They have a year to plan their next step, and the future. For now, they feel safe.
Post-covid-19, many of us will leave the familiar world behind: recreational activities, weekend routines, carefree travel and, in the case of many, employment. Existing jobs are vulnerable to pay cuts and many families may now have to manage on a single income. Besides, office work may not require the physical presence of staff. Employees of companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter will continue to work from home till 2021, and more firms may follow. There is much we don’t know about the years ahead. Except this—life will never be the same again, especially in the city. With the majority of cases being reported from big cities, it is clear that the smartest move to stay safe is to disperse and spread out.
As urban areas are responsible for almost three-fourths of the world’s carbon emissions, the pandemic may also be an opportunity to save the planet, starting with its cities. With a third of the country’s population living in a disproportionately small area, cities are crowded, dirty, polluted and uninhabitable for most residents. In the rush to develop, produce and consume, we have forgotten the most vital connection to the earth as the precious resources of our rivers, mountains, forests and grasslands are diverted systematically to meet the insatiable demands of megacities. In contrast, rural India receives little and utilizes considerably fewer resources per capita.
Our beleaguered cities urgently need to use this time to heal and prepare for a different kind of future. This is imperative to make them cleaner, greener, affordable, and ultimately, more liveable.
WORKING IN THE COUNTRYSIDE
Before you decide to move out, however, it would be useful to seek out people who have made the move—and made it work—to find out about their experience. Looking back at my own move to a small hill station in south India 33 years ago, I realize now how unplanned it was. My husband George, a chemical engineer and rubber planter, had no scope for employment in our tiny hill station. As a writer with some experience as a designer, and a young mother of three, I was unsure of career opportunities. But we knew we wanted to get out of the city, and the prospect of raising our children in the countryside in a pollution-free atmosphere was attractive. We had a “gap year” to figure things out, and in the following years, we found our feet. George started a small business and was also farming on weekends. I continued to write and started a landscape design firm. Running small businesses with flexible hours and downsizing meant there was time for golf, weekend picnics, visiting family and travel.
Ideally, you should scope out a few places before you make the final decision to move. Small towns, hill stations and villages in rural India are always short of health workers, lawyers, teachers and other professionals, as well as enough local businesses that provide employment. If, however, you choose to continue the kind of work you are doing remotely or seek something less community-oriented, to lead a quiet life working from home or working with the earth, you will already be contributing to greening the environment at large.
Through the pandemic, the production, marketing and distribution of food has been a crucial requirement. If farming interests you, you may be on the right track—food will never go out of business. You can enrol in comprehensive online learning courses which cover the basics of integrated organic farming, or specialized courses on beekeeping, food processing or forestry. Identify farming systems that suit your terrain, altitude, climate and location, and plan feasible field trips: a road trip to the nearest farm stay for a getaway that may help put things in perspective as you discover what farm life entails.
With more states aspiring to follow Sikkim in turning organic, there are several government schemes from the Union government’s ministry of micro, small and medium enterprises to support and subsidize organic farming as well as ventures like dairy farming, beekeeping and organic manure production. India’s organic product exports exceeded $750 million (around ₹5,480 crore now) in 2018-19, up almost 50% from the previous year—this is expected to grow as the global demand for clean food will increase after the pandemic. There is a growing demand for healthy foods like avocado, quinoa, hydroponic vegetables, microgreens, exotic fruits and vegetables for domestic consumption and export. You can choose to keep it small—growing your own food and selling the surplus—or go big, with plans to supply cities or even export.
Ultimately, agricultural growth has a direct impact on rural India, with a cascading effect on all sectors. If climate change and pollution are defining factors for your move out of the city, consider small agribusinesses that have minimum impact on the environment: like the storage, sales and processing of perishable goods, which will help farmers. Other avenues in the agricultural sector could range from startups in the supply chain and online store segments to small businesses: grain mills, oil production and biodegradable packaging made with agricultural waste. These are all best started in small towns and villages situated near farming hubs.
Now, more than ever, there are opportunities to create your own employment to suit your skills and interests. Many migrants who returned to their villages or smaller towns during the lockdown may be reluctant or unable to return and start again in the big city. These skilled, semi-skilled and literate workers who have already relocated will form a strong labour force for new ventures.
Opportunities need not be restricted to agriculture. From essential services like English learning institutes to innovative startups, young entrepreneurs need to bring their skills to the villages and small towns that send their IT professionals to cities in India and across the world. In a unique experiment, Zoho Corp. founder Sridhar Vembu is taking the office to the village. The software development company, with its headquarters in Chennai, began the process of setting up small “village offices” in 10 villages across Tamil Nadu earlier this year— 200 of its engineers, all belonging to villages within 20-30km of their workspaces, work from these. Vembu’s daring experiment stemmed from a desire to revive villages in India while watching his employees thrive in their own backyards, encouraged to participate in community life.
With big tourism taking a hit, people will not only be travelling less in the short term, but will head for the small bed-and-breakfast ventures in the mountains, the farm-stay in a picturesque village, the river lodge, the lesser-known beach, when they do move out. So, you can choose to start a tourism-related business, depending on the capital you can invest.
“Every day is different, not without its challenges and lessons that nature teaches us,” says Anjali Rudraraju, who left a corporate job in New York City for Yarroway Farm in rural Karnataka, where her husband is a second-generation organic farmer. “We want our son Vikram to have access to the same lifestyle until he decides what he wants to do in his life.” Your move out of the city must be weighed and balanced in terms of the rewards it offers you personally. Accept the things that are thrown at you in your stride—power outage after a sudden storm, more basic technology or infrastructure, and generally doing without ready access to the many things you take for granted (though online shopping, which delivers nearly across the country now, has helped bridge this gap).
Remember, living in the countryside doesn’t necessarily mean cutting off all ties with the city, which is the natural habitat of so many. Cities offer advanced medical care, higher education, cultural opportunities, time out and travel connections. If it is not possible to entirely leave the city, you can opt to divide your time between town and country. For instance, Simrit Maali and Ridha Arfaoui, a couple in their late 30s who moved from Mumbai to a permaculture farm near Kodaikanal with their young daughter Aeko, firmly believe that moving to the countryside does not mean you have to “bury yourself” there.
The couple, who spend a few months of the year with family in Goa and Holland, recommend a monthly or quarterly trip to the city. “It’s good to have your escapes to the city, catch up with old friends,” says Maali. “I need that as I miss the arts and cultural activities cities have to offer.” But after a few days in a crowded city, they are usually eager to return to the clean air and solitude of their farm. Dividing your time between the city and your new home will largely depend on your circumstances. A small city apartment may be a wise investment if your finances permit, but short-stay rentals and B&Bs are other options for your forays into the city.
COASTAL CITIES AT RISK
With entire coastal regions, from east to west, increasingly ravaged by cyclones and rising tides, big cities and their suburbs will be forced to confront the frightening challenges of climate change. The sheer magnitude of population will be a defining factor when it comes to saving human lives. How for instance, do you relocate and move millions of people to safety during a disaster? Author Amitav Ghosh writes in The Great Derangement, “The reality is that ‘growth’ in many coastal cities around the world now depends on ensuring that a blind eye is turned towards risk”—a prescient warning of the devastating effects of climate change on Indian cities. This is true for all megacities.
It’s also true, however, that cities have always reinvented themselves after every calamity. After the pandemic, the city of old may emerge dispersed, with fewer attractions and, alas, without the magic and excitement of busy, crowded spaces. As people disperse, cities in turn will benefit from reduced human activity—as will the agricultural sector—as a wave of young farmers and agri-entrepreneurs bring a new dynamism into agriculture. And once the pandemic is behind us, this year of turmoil could turn out to be one of transformation.
Where can you move?
Small towns/home town: Relocating from metros to a smaller town may be relatively easier for those who thrive on the attractions of city life. Small towns have many of the same conveniences, without the bustle of bigger cities, as well as good travel and network connections. Being in the relative safety of the small town or village you grew up in, with family nearby, has its advantages.
Such as: Mysuru, Kochi, Shillong, Chandigarh.
The hills: In many ways, small towns in the mountains are perfect places to start anew—you can be assured of a fairly active community, clubs and good schools. Mountain towns have scope for small businesses related to travel and outdoor activities, home-stays, adventure tourism, as well as small convenience stores, bookshops, coffee shops and restaurants. Outside the main town, there are opportunities for farming, cheese-making, beekeeping and fruit processing units. Writers, artists and other kinds of creative people also make perfect mountain residents.
Such as: Yercaud, Kurseong, Shillong, Lansdowne.
On the edge of the forest: Obviously, you can only live in the vicinity of forests (unless you own a private forest retreat) but studies show that living close to forests is stress-relieving and calming. For those who love the outdoors, there are opportunities for wildlife photography and trekking companies. These are protected areas and you must tread softly as your nearest neighbours will often be Adivasis. This option is best suited for nature lovers, animal and bird watchers and the environmentally conscious.
Such as: Wayanad, Coorg, Kalimpong
By the sea: Small towns and villages by the sea with access to a beach have immense appeal for people who love the ocean. There are opportunities for small restaurants, diving schools, yoga and fitness centres.
Such as: Puducherry, Kannur, Shankarpur, Malpe, Diu.
Communes and farming collectives: Auroville, an international township near Puducherry, is an experiment in international communal life, with farming and self-reliance at the heart of its philosophy. More recent farming initiatives, like the privately owned Tamarind Valley Collective and Hosachiguru, both in Karnataka, are models for those who want to explore community living on managed farmlands. If agriculture appeals to you but you are a novice, you could even start a farming collective with like-minded friends or family.
Such as: Auroville, Raitha Mithra
Lathika George is a landscape designer, environmentalist and organic gardener who lives in Kodaikanal. Her latest book, Mother Earth, Sister Seed: Travels Through India’s Farmlands, documents India’s traditional farming systems.