Among the many ways that village economies have changed over the years, particularly in the last three decades, the most important is the sharp decline in the importance of agriculture
At a time when there are conflicting trends emerging from the national accounts on the state of the economy, it is interesting to look at the village surveys to understand the changing nature of villages and rural India. Photo: Mint
2016 marks the centenary of the publication of this book. While this was not the first survey of villages, it was definitely the first systematic approach to studying rural India through village surveys.
The tradition has continued to this date, with many researchers using comprehensive village surveys to understand the process of change in rural India.
These have included not just single-visit surveys of villages but also a large number of villages which have been surveyed repeatedly. The Slater villages have also been surveyed at different intervals, the last time in 2010.
The other notable village which has been surveyed seven times, once in each decade since independence, is the north Indian village of Palanpur.
The availability of large-scale secondary data has not diminished the role of village surveys but, in fact, has helped in improving our understanding of the process of change. At a time when there are conflicting trends emerging from the national accounts on the state of the economy, it is interesting to look at the village surveys to understand the changing nature of villages and rural India. An important caveat is in order here. There are more than half a million villages in India and each of them are unique in their social and economic composition. So is the process of change in these villages and the nature of studies of these villages. Nonetheless, it is possible to identify certain themes and broad contours of change which resonate across states and villages within them.
Among the many ways that village economies have changed over the years, particularly in the last three decades, the most important is the sharp decline in the importance of agriculture.
While this is obvious in terms of share of output in the village economy, equally remarkable has been the shift of labour away from agriculture. The emergence of non-farm as the driver of rural economy, however, has varied across villages in terms of quality and the pace of change. While most of the non-farm employment is casual or self-employment with low earnings and poor quality of work, they do contribute to more income for households, enabling them to move out of poverty.
This has also been accompanied with greater integration with the outside world. The integration is not just limited to product markets but also labour markets, mainly through migration but increasingly also through commuting. With improved connectivity, both physical as well as through mobile phones, the integration of the village labour market with the outside has brought new dimensions of labour engagement and faster transmission of wage trends between the village and its periphery.
However, the rise in economic transformation has not seen an equivalent transformation in human development outcomes. The impact of these economic changes varies for women, with little movement of women in the workforce in the northern states to the increasing trend of feminization of agriculture in many states. On the other hand, despite substantial economic growth, education and health services show slower improvement with deteriorating public services in many cases. However, increasing demand for health services and education have also meant increasing reliance on private providers of health and education, sometimes of questionable quality.
While the caste structure and the associated hierarchies across castes do not show any sign of visible change, there is evidence that the disadvantaged castes may be benefiting from the changing production relations. This is particularly true for the Dalits, who have moved in to non-farm in a big way. On the other hand, the traditional cultivating castes are slow to take advantage of the opening up of opportunities outside the village and the agricultural sector. However, the dominant castes and classes have managed to gain disproportionately from the changing production relations. A result of these changes has also been rising inequality in most villages where income data is available.
Most of these changes have also been accompanied by changing social and political structures in the village. One of the visible changes has been the emergence of caste conflicts, partly because of reservation in local body elections but also due to the changing economic status of different caste groups. With large transfers from the state and the centre on various schemes, it has led to the emergence of new forms of cooperation as well as conflict.
While it is difficult to generalize the changes in village economies and societies based on these studies, these do highlight the importance of understanding change through in-depth village studies. Declining fortunes along with increasing vulnerabilities in agriculture may be important in explaining these changes in the way the village is responding to the external and internal stimuli. Despite the large heterogeneity in caste, class and social structure, most village studies suggest a fundamental altering of the production and social relations. Some of the recent happenings in rural areas, including the rise in Dalit assertion, the rising aspiration among the youth and the demand for reservation by dominant cultivating groups are easier to understand through village surveys than secondary data alone.