Re-looking the rural

SURINDER S. JODHKA

 

THE ‘rural’ in India has had a rather peculiar trajectory. It has often been celebrated as the soul of India and a site of authentic native life. It is also a place where a large majority of Indians have always lived. Journalists and social scientists go there to investigate the realities of social and economic life of the nation, and the churnings taking place on the foundational grounds of India’s political processes.

The Indian village has also carried a moral weight. Gandhi was not the only one who had visualised life in the Indian village as a ‘superior’ alternative to the materialist and consumption driven cultures and economies of the modern West, though he remains the most well known of them. Its other votaries, a section of civil society activists, environmentalists, policy advocates of sustainable economic growth and decentralized governance, too looked upon the village with a positive and ‘constructive’ perspective on human life. Indeed, the Indian village continues to be an important category of engagement for many.

Village life in India, however, is also invoked in the negative. Its sources are diverse. Perhaps the most vocal critic of those who celebrated Indian village life was B.R. Ambedkar. He vehemently disagreed with Gandhi on the value of the so-called traditional ‘village communities’ and his call for its recovery and revival for true independence from colonialism – swaraj. Ambedkar also found no weight in the arguments of those members of the Constituent Assembly who asked for the village to be made the primary unit of Indian democracy. His obvious reason for its denunciation was the preoccupation that the villagers of India had with the caste system. The rigid social hierarchies made it impossible for his fellow Dalits to lead a life of dignity in the village. They were made to build their houses away from the main settlement and always encountered prejudice and violence during their interactions with the ‘caste Hindus’.

To put it differently, the experience of being rural could significantly vary depending upon one’s social location, in terms of caste, class and gender. These differences continue to be relevant even today. Besides these internal divisions, the character and forms of rural settlements also vary across regions and communities. A tribal village of Jharkhand and Orissa or the village settlements in the hills of northwest and northeast India are very different from those of the plains of central and northern India, the so-called typical villages. Thus, Ambedkar would perhaps have objected to a generic narrative of the village and asked for a more nuanced and differentiated understanding of rural life. The popular Gandhian view only represented a hegemonic construct. The existing villages of the subcontinent were marked not only by diversities but also by relations of power and domination/subordination.

However, disaffection towards it in recent times have not stemmed from such political critiques and sociological framings of village social life. Instead, much of its denunciation in contemporary times has come from an increasingly dominant and hegemonic elite and the urban middle classes. Their emerging common sense sees the village as a source of India’s backwardness;
a place left behind and marked by
a state of hopelessness, poverty, and desperation.

 

Interestingly, such negative views of the village have often come from the same kind of people who also celebrated it, those from the urban middle classes, many of whom would wear their Indian-ness with a sense of unflinching pride. This is even more surprising because many among India’s urban educated literati, the opinion makers and ‘influencers’, tend to have rural origins – either having been born in a village or having parents who were first-generation migrants from the village to the city.

Sources of the negative view of the village go even further back. The 20th century social science theories of development and change that came to be accepted as common wisdom by the emerging elite in developing countries after their decolonization were all founded on the Eurocentric imaginations of human futures. In the then dominant evolutionist modes of thinking and modernization theories, the village came to be increasingly seen as a ‘relic’ of a pre-modern past. Its end was taken for granted. Modern societies were all to be urban. Villages were to eventually disappear, either through outmigration of its residents to urban centres, or through their demographic expansion and occupational/economic differentiation.

As the well know peasantologist Teodor Shanin argues, the modern society of the West saw itself as a ‘world without peasants.’1 Since this was presumed to have happened in the West after the Industrial Revolution, it was bound to happen elsewhere, according to such a mode of thinking. Despite their fallacious and empirically unsustainable assumption, such a view prevailed. It even enetered the textbooks of economics, sociology, and development studies. The proactive developmental state in countries of the Global South was encouraged by advisors from such vantage positions to give the process a push if the ruling elite wished their countries to move quicker on the path of modernization and development.

The fallacy of such a view is also borne out by the trajectory of change in India, and in many other parts of the Global South; it has been very different and far more complicated than was speculated by the western social science theoretical masters. A cursory look at the Indian demographic processes over the past century and more provides a useful pointer.

 

 

Rural-Urban Demographics: Along with its economic growth over the past seven decades, India has been experiencing urbanization at a steady pace. The proportion of its urban population grew by nearly three-folds over the past century, from 10.29 per cent in 1911 to 31.16 per cent in 2011. The absolute numbers are far more impressive. While only 26 million Indians lived in its urban settlements in 1901, their numbers had gone up to 377 million by 2011, an increase of over 12-fold. While some of this increase would have indeed been due to the natural growth of the urban population, a larger share in the rising numbers would be due to migration of rural residents to urban centres and additions to the number of urban settlements with reclassification of the expanding villages.

India has seen a consistent increase in the number of its urban settlements, from 1827 in 1901 to 5161 by 2001 and further to 7935 in 2011.2 Of the ten largest cities of the world today, two are in India: Delhi and Mumbai. Seen in a comparative perspective, the absolute size of India’s urban population is huge, larger than the entire population of any other country in the world today, with the exception of China. This voluminous increase in the size of the Indian urban population matters beyond merely the theatre of demographics.

 

 

However, this increase in India’s urban population is in no way an indication of a decline or disappearance of the ‘rural’. On the contrary, the rural population of the country has also been consistently growing over the same period. In other words, the pace of growth of the rural population has been significantly larger than the rates of out-migration of its population to urban centres. The total population of rural India grew from 212.5 million in 1901 to 480 million in 1971, and further to 742 million in 2001. According to the Census of 2011, a total of around 833 million Indians lived in rural areas, nearly four times their number in 1901.

Interestingly enough, despite the reclassification of a large number of villages into ‘towns’ or ‘census towns’, the total number of rural settlements enumerated by the Census officials has also been growing. It went up from 5,67,000 in 1901 to 6,38,588 in 2001 and further to 6,40,867 in 2011.3 This was obviously due to a mushrooming of a large number of new rural settlements during this period. Even by 2050, India is likely to have nearly half of its population living in rural settlements, perhaps larger in numbers, in terms of the absolute size.

India indeed lives in its villages, as it does in its cities. This has always been the case. The middle class common sense, drawn from the dominant western demographic imaginations, suggests a binary and a kind of sequential view of the two where rural represents tradition, and the urban exemplifies modern; the rural represents the past, and the urban is its future. However, a historical sensibility suggests a different trajectory of the two. The two ideal-type constructs of human settlements have been around ever since the rise of human civilizations. Indian cities are no imports from the West, nor the village an exclusive quintessential Indian reality.

The demographic numbers presented above provide us with a fact check and clearly question the simplistic theories of urbanization and social change. While patterns and processes of urbanization do provide important pointers to the changes taking place in the social and economic life of a region, and they could have significant political and developmental implications, they should not be read
as the unfolding of pre-scripted evolutionary processes. In other words, we ought to avoid a teleological narrative that pre-supposes disappearance of the rural. Such a perspective makes it difficult for us to look at the underlying dynamics of class and power, which tend to manifest themselves through an increasing ‘urban bias’ of state policy and mainstream media.

 

 

Rise of the New Urban: Despite their obvious limitations and diversities, categories or constructs of ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ have come to acquire a life of their own. Beyond their demographic value, they have also become sources of envisioning social and economic processes and influence policy and politics. They also shape elite identities and their imaginations of the national present and its possible futures.

As is evident from the brief discussion of India’s emerging demographics above, the rural remains huge, nearly two-thirds of the total population. How and why then has it come to be a source of neglect in a country that goes to elections ever so often? As we know, beginning with the 1990s, the rural has increasingly been marginalized in the national imagination. The popular self-image of India began to emanate from its cities. This process was a direct outcome of the major shift that began to unfold after the introduction of economic liberalization. This was followed by a growing visibility of the urban middle classes. A ‘new’ India was on the anvil, a nation on the way to becoming a global power. The rising cities – Bengaluru, Gurgaon, Hyderabad, and many other metropolitan centres – began to be seen as the sites of India’s self-realization in the emerging world.

Led by the ‘new economy’ and the service sector, the Indian economy grew at a much faster pace than ever before for the next two decades. This process has had far reaching implications for rural life and the value of its economies. The newly acquired urban prosperity marginalized the status and share of agriculture in the national economy, as also the value of village life. Educated rural youth from farming families began to increasingly aspire to move out of the village into urban occupations, to join the ranks of the middle classes.

 

 

The ‘Resurgent’ Rural: Nearly 30 years after it began to recede from the national imagination, rural India appears to be making a comeback to the front pages of national newspapers and television chatrooms. In the recent past, it started with the painful spectacles of hordes of migrant workers trekking on national highways, returning to their ‘homes’, located hundreds of kilometres away from their workplaces, when the Prime Minister of India ordered a countrywide immediate and indefinite lockdown, on 24 March 2020, to stop the spread of the looming Covid-19 pandemic.

Their numbers were not in the hundreds or the thousands but in millions; the migrants went back from the sites of their work to their sites of residence, where they could feel secure. Besides being agonizing, the spectacle that continued to haunt the middle class public for weeks was revealing of the many underlying social and economic processes that have been underway across different regions of the subcontinent for several decades.

 

 

Economists, anthropologists, and demographers have been writing about the processes of circular migration that the rural poor have been engaged in since the 1970s. It began with the availability of seasonal employment in agriculture with higher wages in the Green Revolution states of Punjab and Haryana. The landless rural poor and those with marginal landholdings from the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh began to migrate for seasonal work. They tended to return to their native villages once the peak seasons ended, to carry out work in their own villages and fields. Besides giving migrating workers some additional earnings, their ability to find employment outside the village also weakened the older structures of power and patronage that invariably also corresponded with the prevailing caste hierarchies.

This process of outmigration from agriculturally distressed regions saw a major acceleration during the 1990s. A much larger number of rural folk from these regions, mostly younger males, began to move out for work across the country. They started going to far-off cities and towns; even to villages in states like Kerala, provided they could get work and better wages. However, the nature and outcomes of mobility across social categories varied. Economic liberalization brought significant prosperity to the mobile urban middle classes; it also generated newer avenues of employment for other kinds of work in real estate, manufacturing, and providing a wide range of subordinate services, such as private security, drivers, delivery services and other odd jobs required by the expanding ‘new economy’. The new urban employment available for the rural poor was generally informal in nature, relatively low paid and almost always precarious.

 

 

Field studies from Bihar4 show that in some pockets, up to 70 to 75 per cent of rural households had one to four male members working outside. Nearly all of them eventually came back to their homes in the village, as they age and find it harder to carry on with the precarity of the work in ‘alien lands’. Their migrations for work rarely lead to their urbanization. For example, villages of the Madhubani district of Bihar have one of the highest rates of out-migration for work, but its share of the urban population was only six per cent in 2011. Even though going out for work helped them add to their income, it merely helped them subsist, and occasionally enabled their children to go to the local English medium schools, but it did not change their overall economic status.    

Underlying this phenomenon is also a kind of structural shift in the rural-urban relationship where the two support each other but the terms of their relationship are set by the increasingly dominant urban actors. At another level, it also reflects a significant decline of agriculture, though not of the rural. It is the persistence of the rural that enables the younger men go out and work, while the women and older folks work on marginalised holdings and bring up children at a relatively low subsistence cost.

 

   

Farm Protests Become Louder: The rural in India is not only demographically large but it is also socially and economically diverse. While the agriculturally poorer regions have been seeing out-migrations of the adult male members of the farming families, and agriculture has been increasingly losing its pre-eminence as a source of rural livelihood, farming communities from the relatively better-off regions have not yet given up on agriculture, nor on their identities as rural farmers. The nature of their integration with the urban markets and national economy is also different. They are the surplus producing farmers from the Green Revolution regions.

Except for land and partly their labour, they purchase all the required inputs for cultivation from the market; some even lease land from the local land markets for a cash rent. They also sell almost everything they produce in the market. It is in these pockets of commercial agriculture that agrarian distress has been looming large since the 1990s. Distress is invariably felt more intensely where prosperity has been the experience.

The most painful manifestation of the ‘agrarian crisis’ in these regions has been the rising rate of suicides, particularly of those with smaller holdings and poorer resources. Higher integration with the market also implies greater power of the market and of those who dominate it. The growing influence of corporate capital over the political system during the past two or three decades has manifested in an unprecedented move by the central government to introduce a new set of laws that have the potential to fundamentally changing the terms of access that corporate capital could have to agriculture. Together the three new laws open up the agricultural sector of India to active commercial engagement by the big corporates, enabling them to purchase, store and even decide what crops a farmer should produce, albeit, through contract farming.

In the Indian legal system, the issues concerning agriculture are a part of the ‘state list’. However, the new laws were enacted by the Union government using the ‘ordinance’ route at a time when the country was under a complete lockdown and at the peak of the first wave of Covid-19 infections. Further, they were enacted without any meaningful consultations with different stakeholders.

 

 

Alarmed by the possible prospects of the new laws, farmers from these better-off regions have been protesting with all their might. Beginning with the north-western state of Punjab, sometime in July 2020, the protests gradually spread to other regions of the country. The most spectacular of these protests was when they arrived in large numbers at the borders of the national capital on 26-27 November 2020. Estimates of their numbers at this point vary, but they were certainly in excess of 50,000, and their numbers swelled to around 300,000 within a week or so. The numbers peaked on 26 January, when nearly a million more of them arrived from across the country for a bigger protest and drove their tractors on the belt roads of the capital city.

Farmers have been sitting on the roads ever since their arrival, surrounding Delhi from all four sides, and occupying the major highways connecting the national capital to different parts of the country. Their sit-ins covered so large an area that they soon looked like distinct townships covering an area of 10 to 15 kilometres at each site. They have been sleeping in the trolleys which they brought along tied to their tractors and have set up huge pandals for their protest speeches. They also listen to protest music, most of which is composed and sung by their own, mostly Punjabi singers from Punjab, Mumbai and Canada.

 

 

The resilience of the farmers has been remarkable. They sat through the harsh winter, when night temperatures in Delhi are down to 1-2 oC. They sat there in the summer, confronting hot days with temperatures soaring up to 45 oC. And they stayed through the monsoon season. This has been no picnic, as has been mischievously reported by some news channels in India. More than 700 protesting farmers have died, mostly at the protest sites around Delhi, unable to bear the hardships of the weather and living conditions. Some also died at the local protest sites in different states, and a few in road accidents while travelling from their villages to the protest sites on Delhi’s borders. ‘The ‘battle’ is still on, as the farm union leaders put it. ‘Our lands will be lost forever. Our children will have no lands to cultivate. This is a battle for saving kisani (farming cultures), our livelihood and our dignity’, they argue.

Besides, migrations and farm protests, the erstwhile dominant sections of the rural population have also expressed their disquiet for a while through mobilizations for their inclusion in the OBC quota list. The policies of economic liberalization and changing fiscal dynamics of federal relations have significantly weakened the provincial/state governments and their ability to generate employment. India’s experience of the post-1990s industrialization and growth of the service sector economy did not generate as many jobs as the value it added to the national income. The right wing shift in Indian politics provides no space for articulation of the emerging economic issues and rural/agrarian distress. The new ‘neoliberal’ and ‘communalized’ language of right wing politics does not even acknowledge the presence such issues.

 

 

Wither Agriculture? The available statistics on the Indian economy clearly suggest a steady decline of agriculture in terms its contribution to the national income. It has also been declining as a preferred economic activity, or an occupation. The share of agriculture in the national economy has come down to nearly one-third of what it was during the early decades after independence. Even in the rural economy, a larger proportion of income is now earned from non-farm sources. The share of those who depend exclusively on farming for their livelihood has also been shrinking, though at a lesser pace. Many of those who report themselves as cultivating farmers in surveys are increasingly engaged in pluri-activity.

However, looking through a purely economic lens, often presented in aggregate statistics or data sets, could produce a wrong judgement. The worth of agriculture is much larger than its quantifiable value addition to gross national income. As Barbara Harriss-White put it, ‘Agriculture is growing in a mediocre way…; it is rapidly dwindling as a proportion of GDP, vanishing from macroeconomic policy, but remains a massive and vital sponge for absorbing surplus labour.’5 It works as a critical fallback support of livelihood and sustenance for a very large number of people. Even when they move out of agriculture, as the above discussion on migrant workers suggests, the security that a retreat to it provides is much greater. Thus, despite the uncertainty that the craft of agriculture entails in a country like India, it continues to provide a source of social and cultural security.

 

 

In times of crisis, it also remains a source of economic refuge. As Harish Damodaran and Mekhala Krishnamurthy have recently pointed out that during the 2000-2021 financial year, when the pandemic hit the Indian economy badly and its overall growth declined to minus 6.2 per cent, Indian agriculture grew by 3.6 per cent.6 

‘Rural’ and ‘urban’ are not sui generis categories, as if representing two stages in the life of a biological organism. Nor is ‘agriculture’ a static activity, or a quintessential peasant way of life. Neither are they simply demographic or economic processes. They are human realities – fluid, inherently diverse and ever changing. As relational structures, they also need to be seen through the prisms of history, culture, and power. An economic or demographic reductionism only serves to blind us from their obvious veracities.

 

Footnotes:

1. Teodor Shanin (ed.), Peasants and Peasant Societies. Blackwell, London, 1987, p. 468.

2. See Surinder S. Jodhka. ‘Villages and Villagers in Contemporary India’ in Sanjay Srivastava, Yasmeen Arif and Janaki Nair (eds.), Critical Themes in Indian Sociology. Sage, New Delhi, 2019, p. 80.

3. Ibid., p. 80.

4. Amrita Datta, ‘Migration, Remittances and Changing Sources of Income in Rural Bihar (1999-2011): Some Findings from a Longitudinal Study’, Economic and Political Weekly 5(31), 2016, pp. 85-93.

Surinder S. Jodhka and Adarsh Kumar, ‘Non-farm Economy in Madhubani, Bihar: Social Dynamics and Exclusionary Rural Transformations’, Economic and Political Weekly 52(25-26), 2017, pp. 14-24.

Alakh N. Sharma and Gerry Rodgers, ‘Structural Change in Bihar’s Rural Economy: Findings from Longitudinal Study’ in Surinder S. Jodhka and Edward Simpson (eds.), India’s Villages in the 21st Century: Revisits and Revisions. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2019, pp. 91-119.

5.The India Cable: https://www.theindiacable.com/p/the-india-cable-many-kinds-of-farm. Accessed 25 June 2021.

6.Harish Damodaran and Mekhala Krishnamurthy, ‘Explained: Rural India Played the Economy’s “Saviour” in 2020-21 – Can it do so Again?’ The Indian Express, 2 June 2021.