An important source of the difference that persists between India and the advanced economies of the West is that a greater share of the Indian population lives in rural areas. The hinterland is sometimes seen as a drag on India’s progress, preventing the achievement of faster modernization. But that’s only when a particular view is adopted, which ignores the country’s history of public service provision. If one examines the situation from the ground up, taking a worms’-eye view, a different perspective emerges.
India’s rural areas are huge and diverse. Not everyone in rural areas lives off agriculture, and the share of agriculture in rural incomes has diminished. But agriculture still remains the mainstay of the rural economy, and how much land a person owns is the measure of his status. Farmers in some parts of India have become rich from growing high-value export crops, such as cut flowers and other exotics. But the majority of Indian farmers have much simpler lifestyles. To get rich from farming you need to own a sizeable area of farm land, at least 10 hectares (22.5 acres) according to government experts, but only 1 per cent of all farm families, regarded as “large farmers“ in the government’s classification, have landholdings of this size. Another 4 per cent, classified as medium farmers, own between 4 and 10 hectares, and they are able, in most part, to make a decent living. All other farm families, the vast majority, are in trouble. More than 75 per cent have marginal landholdings of less than 1 hectare.
The same experts calculated that a minimum of 2 hectares of farm land is required just to feed a family of five, leave alone meeting its other necessities.
For most people in rural areas, it’s a struggle to survive. There are few traces of India’s dollar economy in the interior. Moreover, there has been a progressive deterioration in the conditions of the farm family that has gone largely unnoticed. From more than 3 hectares in 1947, the average size of the family plot fell to 1.1 hectares in 2003. Since then, it has fallen further. The share of marginal and uneconomic landholdings has doubled from what it used to be 50 years earlier.
Population growth has a lot to do with this trend, as does the practice of inter-generational subdivision. But both of these factors have been known for a long time, so why has so little been done by way of rectification? The state in India has done little to ease these transitions, and coping with this slow but relentless transition in the absence of effective supports has transformed the ways of life in rural India.
Unlike the industrial revolutions of the West, which converted farm labourers into factory workers, the transformation in India is of a different nature: the grandsons of peasant farmers have become mazdoors in the millions. More than half of all rural residents work as irregular unskilled labour. Millions of circular migrants spend part of each year in their village (where the land is and where the family lives) and another part in a city (where there’s demand for manual labour). Families are torn apart because of economic necessity. Children who grow up in these circumstances face a bleak future. If one is a circular migrant, there’s little prospect of achieving a stable existence or steady income.
More effective solutions have to be found to the rural questions: How will its rural parts fit within the India of the future?
Two candidate solutions can be ruled out at the start. First, you can’t just ignore rural areas, thinking that sooner or later they are bound to become part of the rapidly growing urban. The numbers and projections which show a rapid dwindling of the rural just don’t hold up in closer investigation. For a long time to come, hundreds of millions of Indians will live in rural areas. This large share of Indians cannot simply be asked to wait for a dim and distant future.
The second proposal which can also be ruled out is to keep giving large and larger cash doles to people in rural areas. Giving someone handouts is not half as good as raising their capacities for self-improvement. It does not lead to a life of dignity, nor are handouts what people necessarily desire. I have yet to meet the woman who preferred a bag of free grain to improved education for her children. Poor people, wherever I have met them, have expressed the same kind of sentiment that I heard from a woman in a Gujarat village: “We don’t want free things. We need more resources and better opportunities for our children.” Giving handouts is not an abiding solution. In some situations it may provide the only feasible solution, but only as a temporary resort, to be utilized until something better, with more enduring effects, can be made available. Besides, the game is principally about growing the national pool of talent.