History has provided several examples that when faced with difficult situations, communities responded with increasing unity and mutual help and this enabled them to not just reduce distress but even to make sustained gains and improvements. This is something worth remembering and emphasizing at a time when problems in many villages of India are increasing due to the pandemic, economic stress and other factors. While the need for greater unity and mutual help in rural communities has always been there, this increases in such times of difficulty and uncertainty.

To give just one example, the option of reducing problems by going to other places for better opportunities is reduced, or there is increasing uncertainty regarding this in times of pandemic. Hence people have more need to look for solutions within the community and in the process, they may discover possibilities of mutual help and cooperation to which they may not have given adequate attention earlier.

Small but nevertheless precious examples of such mutual help are taking place all the time but there is a real need to take this further in more sustainable and comprehensive ways so that these can have a much greater impact. Actions with clear promise for reducing distress should be emphasized. Violence as well as discrimination against women and girls at several levels is clearly a problem in several communities.

This is manifested in several forms of domestic violence, sexual violence, verbal and emotional abuse, dowry related problems, insecurity resulting in imposed and voluntary curbs on women, denial of education and other opportunities to realize potential and problems in finding suitable life partner.

All these are a huge cause of avoidable distress on daily basis, for women of course but also for many men and children as well. While laws to curb all or most of these problems may exist, perhaps sincere and sustained community action can achieve much more. And if in the process women are asked to express themselves freely and implement their own priorities of reform efforts, then it is quite likely that in many rural communities, perhaps even in the majority of them, women will prioritize above all a big reduction in the consumption of liquor and all other intoxicants.

According to WHO data, three million people die in a year due to alcohol consumption at the world level. One half of all sexual assaults on women take place when the perpetrator of this violence is under the influence of alcohol, and other things being equal, cases of domestic violence, youth violence, accidents and crimes are much higher when liquor consumption is high. Contrary to common perception there are many examples of community action leading to much lower consumption of alcohol and other intoxicants, and as worldwide data reveals, the cases of voluntarily giving up the liquor habit are much higher than is commonly believed.

Hence reduction of liquor and all intoxicants and all substance abuse can be a very important part of community reform effort, led by local women. This can help to reduce distress greatly. Another community effort should be to resolve all village disputes, not just new disputes but also old festering ones, at the village level. Respected community elders can play a leadership role in this, while women too can make an important contribution.

However, reforms and cooperation work best in conditions of equality. In villages where inequality is very high and where Dalits or other disadvantaged sections face discrimination, it is difficult to create really strong community ties in sustainable ways. Ending discrimination and according a place of dignity to all sections of the rural community is both an essential pre-condition for establishing strong community ties as well as an important component and means of strengthening all community-based reform efforts.

In fact, the word community cannot really be used legitimately in a village where high levels of discrimination exist among substantial number of people. Hence ending all discrimination based on caste, sub-caste, religion, sect etc. is an essential part of community effort. Ending discrimination and according dignity to all clears the ground for many-sided cooperation among all sections of people for the common good of the entire village.

Then there can be better cooperation for the most important tasks of protecting and increasing greenery in villages and for improving soil and water conservation, betterment of sanitation and composting. Better unity means that villagers can ensure better use of development funds, can better resist corrupt practices and ensure better functioning of rural decentralization, at the level of not just panchayats but also gram sabhas.

In addition, there can be much better cooperation for improving education and health, livelihoods, and organizing cultural activities. At present the creativity of various sections of rural communities cannot be properly utilized because most of the potential energy and capacity is wasted in avoidable hostility at various levels. Of course, the need for resisting those who are unrepentant exploiters, corrupt and violent will remain. But the overwhelming majority of people, around 90 per cent perhaps in many cases, can benefit much from increasing goodwill, unity and cooperation as well as much-needed reforms made on the basis of this unity.

(The writer is a journalist and author. His recent books include When the Two Streams Met and Man Over Machine)