The Indian village is not what it used to be, and even further from what it has been for long imagined to be. There are unambiguous statistics that point to the falling rates of growth in agriculture, and to the increasing exodus from country to town. On top of this we have the phenomenon of non-farm employment whose scale has increased tremendously over the years. It is estimated today that about 24 per cent of villagers are engaged in non-agricultural occupations. This is not a small number, and in all likelihood, it is probably a conservative estimate. Even more striking is the fact that over 45 per cent of the rural net domestic product comes from non-farm activities.
While these gross statistics do suggest a whittling down of the importance of agriculture as the mainstay of Indian society, there is in addition a general undermining of values and practices that have their origins in the villages and are imbued with the so-called “rural ethos”. There was a time, not too long ago, when a Jat farmer in Uttar Pradesh or Punjab, would proudly proclaim that farming was the noblest of all occupations. If not farming, then the army, but never a nondescript salaried job. Today this swagger is missing amongst them. They want an urban foothold, and would even condescend to take up occupations in towns and cities that they would not deign to perform in their own villages.
The profundity of changes in rural India is not fully captured by census figures, or by statistical surveys. Useful though they are, it is necessary to comprehend the depth of the disenchantment that prevails in the villages. This disenchantment is on a variety of fronts. Indian agriculture has always lurched from crisis to crisis. If the monsoons are good then there are floods, if they are bad there are droughts; if the production of mangoes is excellent then there is a glut and prices fall, if the onion crops fail then that too brings tears. The artisanal nature of agriculture has always kept farmers on tenterhooks, not knowing quite how to manage their economy, except to play it by (y)ear.
Even in green revolution areas, where there has been a spectacular increase in mechanization and chemical inputs, the dependence on the vagaries of the weather continues. This is further aggravated by the insufficiency, and irregularity, of electrical supply and other infrastructural inputs. Put together these can throw the best agricultural calculations out of gear. It is not surprising then that whenever the occasion arises, villagers are more than willing to up and leave for a future outside their mud walls and in fields as distant from agriculture as industrial labour. When they step into urban jobs they are usually absorbed in the organized sector, notorious for its iniquities. But this too is preferable to living in the village. It is not as if the availability of non-farm jobs is, in most cases, an outcome of agricultural prosperity. In a large number of cases, the phenomenon of distress diversification must also be taken into account. The rural economy is not a viable entity any longer, and this shows in the temper of the village. Nowhere else does one find the level of hopeless disenchantment as one does in the rural regions of India. In urban slums there is squalor, there is filth and crime, but there is hope and the excitement that tomorrow might be quite different from today.
Indeed, it is hard to meet a villager today who would want to be a farmer if given an opportunity elsewhere. Indeed, there are few rural institutions that have not been mauled severely from within. The joint family is disappearing, the rural caste hierarchy is losing its tenacity, and the much-romanticized harmony of village life is now exposed for the sham it perhaps always was. If anything, it is perhaps B.R. Ambedkar’s analysis of the Indian village that strikes the truest of all. It was Ambedkar who said that the village was a cesspool of degradation, corruption and worse. If village India was able to carry on in spite of all this in the past, it was because there was little option for most people, rich or poor, outside the confines of the rural space.
That another world has opened up outside the village is what threatens rural culture the most. Given the nature of intervention that modern democratic politics and economics make, it is not surprising that rural India has lost its charisma so comprehensively. With the abolition of landlordism and the introduction of adult franchise (the two must necessarily go hand in hand), old social relations that dominated the countryside are today in a highly emaciated form, when not actually dead. Roughly 85 per cent of landholdings are below 5 acres and about 63 per cent are below even three acres. What land reforms and land redistribution could not do, demography and sub-division of holdings have done to land ownership. Where are the big landlords' There are some, but they are few and far between. But does this make the village an egalitarian utopia' Far from it.
Medium-sized owner cultivators contend against landless labourers, both economically and socially. While the rigidities of the caste systems no longer operate in their pristine form, caste prejudices and identities die hard. The stigma of tradition sits incubus like on social relations even if the prescriptions of tradition cannot be followed with equal facility these days. Other than the lack of economic opportunities, it is the nature of social relations in rural India that drives many poorer castes and classes out of the village.
Often, landless labourers get back to the village during harvesting season, for that is when they can demand and get higher wages. As family labour is insufficient at this peak time, owner cultivators are dependent on hired labour, and, beyond a point, they are unable to hold their wages down. But these considerations are relevant only for a short duration and the season is soon over. Clearly, the poorer one is, the greater the temptation to up and leave the village before the sun finally sets.
Where landholdings are so fragmented there is little scope for agricultural regeneration. Planners would be happy if agricultural production can be sustained year after year, and elated if there is a modest increase of even 1 per cent. Last year, there was in fact a negative growth rate. In small plots there is always a preponderance of family labour and the Chayanovian logic of balancing drudgery and needs usually operates in such cases. But for that to happen without emotional philippics, the needs horizon must curve within the village perimeter. Only then is the family farm a precious gift to be harvested in perpetuity.
But now needs have escalated and the family farm is no longer what it was earlier cut out to be. It cannot support the ambition to be where the bright lights are. Nor can family farms provide employment to the landless youth in the villages. Therefore, no matter which way one looks at it, as owner cultivators or as landless labourers, the village is no longer a site where futures can be planned.
Of course, wealthy landed people often have considerable political leverage in villages and form a vested interest group. While many of them draw their wealth and esteem from the village, they either live in cities, or they recreate an affluent urban ambience in their rural setting. In stark contrast to the poorer villagers with urban aspirations, when the rural rich engage with the outside world they do so from a position of relative strength. Yet, they too see their future outside the village, or in interacting with the town in enterprises that require rural and urban inputs. It is against this background that the culture surrounding agriculture must be understood. This culture is not a stable one. History has not left behind a consistent legacy, nor does rural culture have a temporal overhang that is safely cantilevered on present commitments. Agriculture is an economic residue that generously accommodates non-achievers resigned to a life of sad satisfaction. The villager is as bloodless as the rural economy is lifeless. From rich to poor, the trend is to leave the village, and, if that entails going abroad, then so be it.
All this may sound a trifle alarming, but this is what India’s villages are telling us whether or not we are inclined to listen to these rustic murmurs.