One year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi was born, in 1951, a young French parliamentarian in his 40s, Emile Aubert, came up with an out-of-box concept of rural lodging for tourism purposes.
It was a time when French society, post-World War II, tasted prosperity after a long spell of the resistance movement and recession. The centres of prosperity were mushrooming in the urban areas, while the rural regions were being deserted. Aubert came up with Gites de France, literally meaning ‘French (rural) shelter’. He thought that if the houses left vacant by people migrating to cities are converted into ‘country lodges’ and if tourists are provided with local cuisine, those who had not tasted such life would get attracted and the rural folks would get employment. Gites de France started from Basses-Alpes in the scenic background of mountains and hills, from where the parliamentarian was elected.
Today, nearly 50,000 rural lodges exist throughout the France with 30,000 prividing bed- and-breakfast facilities. The rural business (direct and indirect) is the equivalent of about Rs8.4 billion per year. The concept became so popular that many other countries followed suit.
Behind these figures is the concept of living with nature, mitigating the pressure on urbanisation and even reverse migration by providing employment opportunities at the rural level. More importantly it represents Modi’s vision of inclusive development.
When Aubert initiated his move, India had just become the largest republic in the world after a prolonged struggle for independence. Eighty-four percent of the population of half a billion at that time lived in rural areas. There were only five Indian cities with a population greater than one million and only 41 cities with a greater than 0.1 million population. Much of India effectively lived in 5.6 lakh villages. The bond between nature and the rural population was strong. Most of the rural population got water from nearby rivers and streams. They even worshipped the rivers and their water almost every day.
In 2011-12, 68 percent of the population – more than 800 million Indians – live in rural area in 6.4 million villages. There are now three cities with a population of more than 10 million and 53 cities with a population of more than one million. Huge masses of young people in rural areas – more than 80 percent of Indians are born in rural areas and are struggling to find a decent living. They finally land up in cities, abandoning their rural homes, heritage, nature and environment that supported their fathers, grandfathers and their grandfathers who had lived with nature for centuries.
Today in India, half of the population is under 25 and 65 per cent are below 35. Many of them are in rural areas and would soon become urbanites. The Indo-French collaborative projects like skill building in rural tourism and rural hospitality would prove to be more appropriate for “inclusive growth”.
By Rajendra Shende
(11.04.2015. Rajendra Shende, an IIT-alumni, is chairman of the TERRE Policy Centre and former director UNEP. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)