The disappearing Indian village

Written by Bibek Debroy | Updated: Aug 15 2010, 08:30am hrs
India lives in her villages. Most people will recognise this quote and its author. It was Mahatma Gandhi. However, this isn't quite an exact quote. Gandhiji actually wrote, India is not Calcutta and Bombay. India lives in her seven hundred thousand villages. Notice the number. Today (Census 2001), there are 6,38,596 villages in India, of which, 5,93,731 are inhabited. Since Gandhiji wrote those words, the number of villages has dropped by 1,00,000. In censuses, village is the unit of classification in rural India and the definition is almost a residual one. Whatever doesn't satisfy some characteristics is a village. It can't have a municipality, corporation, cantonment board or town area committee. The population must be less than 5,000. The population density must be lower than 400 per square km. A certain percentage of the male working population must be engaged in agriculture. Most people don't know there are 275 revenue villages in Delhi and one is not talking about the Commonwealth Games village. The simple point is this. Villages in India are extremely heterogeneous. As per Census 2001, there are 3,976 villages that have population sizes more than 10,000. Had it not been for the other Census criteria, these would have been towns. But there are also 2,36,004 villages that have a population less than 500. There are villages that have a population less than 50.

Minocheher (Minoo) Rustom Masani wrote several books. One of these was published in 1940 and was titled Our India. It was widely read once and described India and the Indian economy, especially village India. In many of India's villages, nothing has substantially changed since Minoo Masani wrote that book. Indeed, nothing has substantially changed for several hundreds of years. But there are also villages where life has changed. The classic village is one where government and governance is non-existent. There is no formal law and order machinery. There is no social infrastructure (schools, primary health centres). There is no physical infrastructure (roads, electricity, drinking water, sanitation). Housing is unsatisfactory. There is no occupation outside agriculture, and there is no irrigation. The caste system is overwhelming. The PURA (Provision of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas) idea remains, though the term is rarely used now. If one looks at the alphabet soup of programmes run by government and rural development ministry, other than NREGA, it is these things that we are talking about. That is, villages lack these amenities. If these amenities, connectivities and opportunities exist, the dichotomy between rural and urban India will break down. Bharat and India will become integrated, regardless of what the Census classification says. Villages will disappear and that is a good thing. Everywhere in the world, urbanistion is correlated with economic development. The logic of economic development should be no different for India. The number of villages has declined from 7,00,000 (when Gandhiji wrote) to 6,00,000. There are several reasons why villages disappear. There is migration. Villages get integrated into urban areas. There is reclassification. Urbanisation has been low in India and has slowed down over the decades (till 2001). But we are probably in for a surprise when the Census 2011 figures surface. We will find urbanisation has shot up and the number of villages has declined to something like 5,50,000, if not lower.

There are several reasons why village India has been changing. First, there has been a diversification away from traditional agriculture. NSS figures on the number of people who work in agriculture is misleading, because that refers to the principal occupation. Transforming rural India requires generation of off-farm employment opportunities and commercialisation and diversification of agriculture, away from foodgrains and towards horticulture, aquaculture, dairy, floriculture and even services. While foodgrain agriculture is no longer remunerative, and that provides a push, there has been the pull too, triggered by improved transport connectivity, better power and irrigation (subject to spatial variations) and even use of information and non-information technology. It can be no one's case that this change has been fast enough, or that it has been evenly spread throughout the country. It is also the case that a long agenda of agricultural-cum-rural sector reforms remains incomplete. However, in some parts of Bharat, the change has begun to happen, especially in states where agricultural distribution chains have collapsed and there are direct links between farmers and processors, with or without formal contract farming. Second, female work participation rates have altered. Third, hikes in procurement prices, farmers' debt relief, NREGA, income from sales of land that have now become urbanised, better efficiency and accountability of public expenditure (RTI and panchayats) have resulted in higher rural incomes, reflect in changing patterns of rural consumption. One should probably not call it the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid. But the fact remains that two-thirds of the consumer market is now in India's villages. Fourth, despite warts, one shouldn't downplay the social empowerment and transformation that panchayats have brought. However, there is a catch. These positive developments are evenly spread out geographically and spatially. As a rough indicator, out of those 6,00,000 villages, around 1,25,000 were already somewhat integrated with urban India when the reforms started in 1991. Today, the integration will roughly be for around 3,00,000 villages. That still leaves another 3,00,000.

Many of these are small villages. With population sizes less than 500, provisioning of any service is not viable. Some villages are geographically inaccessible and in hilly terrain. Think of Arunachal Pradesh. There are also specific problems associated with tribal areas. If one looks at it differently, what is the single most important trigger that has brought about change in rural India The answer is probably road connectivity. It took us 60 years to figure that one out, though every successful civilisation in history has built roads. If we can ensure that for the remaining 3,00,000 villages, bypassed and marginalised today, Census 2021 will probably show no more than 2,00,000 villages. And smaller villages will become integrated with larger ones and these larger ones will become integrated with towns and cities.

The writer is a noted economist