Urban stress and rural distress

Urban stress and rural distress

Narendra M Apte

Stress in urban life or urban stress for short, has become a subject of research and, of course, of unending discussion. Rural distress, as we all know, is a subject of heated debate among many agriculture experts, economists and politicians.

Urban stress is a subject which is researched extensively today. Rural distress too has attracted attention worldwide. Agriculture experts, economists and politicians all have reasons to worry. In many countries and particularly in developing countries, rural distress caused by climate change has become a huge problem and more worrying fact is that it is defying a viable solution.

Increase in urban stress, particularly the one caused by a hectic urban life schedule, is considered to have many adverse consequences. With very little time left to be spent with one’s family, many urbanites find themselves in situations of stress. Of course, some may argue that a little stress is okay for an individual as it provides her an impetus to get over the situation which may have caused stress initially.

Teachers of Social Psychology, a branch of Psychology, tell us that stress level experienced by many among us is nothing unusual or abnormal. We are living in a world in which a school-going kid and even her parents may be suffering from different levels of stress. Irony is that some among us become victims of acute stress but fail to recognize well in advance real ‘risks’ associated with stress. It is also true that many among us are simply helpless as we cannot do much to avoid situations of stress. Is it not true that as a society we too are responsible for creating an environment in which stress has increasingly become a part of our life? Stress has become an unwelcome guest.

Disappearance of joint families and absence of elders in many urban homes, it is often claimed, is one major reason for increase in urban stress. It is worth noting here that emergence of nuclear families is inevitable and as a society we must learn to manage the stress levels, wholeheartedly accepting that presence of increasing number of nuclear families will be the norm in coming decades.

It is now well accepted that there are no perfect methods and solutions, with universal applicability, to reduce stress. Though, stress ‘within limits’ may be considered okay, it is necessary to recognize a risk of the stress crossing normal limits. It won’t be difficult to reduce stress levels by seeking professional assistance from trained psychiatrists. But how many among us would first recognize that we are facing a situation of stress and would then approach a psychiatrist? As I see it, it may not be easy to define ‘normal’ limits as those limits may differ from individual to individual.

Urban stress and rural distress have the same adverse impact: individuals suffer from some physical, and sometimes not-so-physical, illness and cannot therefore live a normal life. In that sense, both urban stress and rural distress have striking similarity.

I believe that following three factors are the main cause of rural distress: (a) very huge population still depends on agriculture as main source of livelihood, (b) small land holdings together with problems associated with unpredictable monsoon, and consequent low income from farming activity, and (c) non-availability of jobs in manufacturing and or service sectors for unskilled rural workforce. These three factors have a direct and adverse impact by way of increase in rural indebtedness and consequent rural distress.

Though we have been able to reduce poverty levels during last seven decades, there still are millions of families whose per capita income is rather low. Economists classify all such poor families as “below poverty line” or BPL families. There are BPL families in urban areas too. But I guess no statistical data about stress levels related to BPL families in urban areas is readily available.

There is striking similarity between (a) stress arising out of loss of jobs and consequent defaults in housing loan repayments by urban borrowers and (b) rural distress indicated by unpaid loans of farmers and increasing incidents of suicides by farmers.

To summarize, it would be appropriate to say that rural distress has a direct relationship with inadequate income from agriculture. Basic objective of our Five Year Plans, launched in the fifties, has been to enhance share of our manufacturing sector in GDP and broad-base our economy. Although our policy makers have underscored the fact that growth of manufacturing and service sectors is the only way through which we can achieve a substantial decrease in population depending on agriculture and increase in per capita income, we have still not succeeded in our efforts to do that. Our efforts in immediate future should be directed to enhance income earning capability of BPL families in rural parts of our vast country. Therefore, I feel that rural distress would have to be dealt with a new strategy of creating job opportunities in rural areas. On the other hand, implementation of appropriate urbanization policies together with implementation of social security measures for unorganized sections living in urban areas would be necessary to deal with some types, if not all, of urban stress.

(Narendra M Apte, a qualified chartered accountant, is a freelancer.)