India is less rural today than it ever was. At the first post-independence Census in 1951, the country was represented by a population where 82.7% of people lived and earned their livelihoods in rural areas. Today, that number is 69.1% and it is likely to decrease in the next decennial Census of India due this year.
Rural is therefore a concept that is on the decline. There are two movements out here. Urbanisation, which is on the move on a speedy horse, and ruralisation, which is on a complete decline. In many ways, the second is not a vector movement of any significance as yet. In the bargain, rural is a definition that progressively seems to come with an eventual expiry date.
And that indeed is a matter of worry. It is a point to discuss and deliberate in a bid to wake up our mindsets, and indeed our conscience. Must India be less rural than it is today? Is that really the trajectory to take? Or must India preserve its rural heritage and difference (whatever is left of it), even as it clambers on to the more exciting journey by default of acute and complete urbanisation?
The starting point in this discussion would be the very definition of rural. What is rural? Is rural a geography, distanced from the allure of the big city and its goodies? There are many definitions out there. And many, strangely, are really deprivation-oriented. Rural has progressively been defined in urban whispers as a physical geography that is distanced.
A geography with a lack of access to education, health, roads, electricity, entertainment options and of course, the life-giving internet. Add to this cocktail of deprivation a garnish of the real. Rural folk are looking for jobs. Ganesh Rathnam in Guntur is as aspirational as anyone in Hyderabad. He refuses to accept a job locked in by geography of deprivation and circumstance. Yes, his education has been a village one, his degree is one obtained at the district HQ, and his English is not as savvy as the one spoken by the Hyderabad Public School educated. But his aspiration is no different. He does not want a job in the struggling agricultural sector. Geography is not a constraint for him. He will take up a job at Accenture in Hyderabad. He will join the ranks of the aspirational first-generation city man. And this represents the tragedy of the exodus of the young from rural areas in India.
Agriculture then does not hold the young and the educated back. It does not hold back the young and uneducated as well. The menfolk who see not much of a future in agricultural jobs with splintered land holdings don’t want to till the land. They would rather work as drivers and helpers in the big city nearby. The young woman has left for a city job. Agriculture is therefore left to the older womenfolk in the house for now. The feminisation of agriculture is thus becoming a reality in India, as is the ageing
profile of the Indian farmer. The young have fled, or want to flee, in search of greener pastures, greener than their green farms.
The future ahead: In the current era we live in, a hopeful and hopefully post-pandemic world, I am excited about the options that pan out ahead of us for rural India. Without making a comment on the farm law reforms on the plate, I see both the macro and micro trends ahead exciting for this milieu of rural we have taken for granted for far too long. I do believe the decline of rural can and will be stopped. Let’s see the trends and possibilities floating around.
Rural jobs are not really agricultural jobs only. Apart from the jobs in the services sector of the government, banks and institutions of every kind, it is time to focus on the jobs in the agri-manufacturing, processing and services sectors. As more and more players look at agriculture through the lenses of mechanisation and automation of tasks, and as more of AI and ML uses rural terrains for IoT devices in the agricultural chain, the physical manufacturing of these implements and devices must not happen in China, or even in the bigger cities of India for that matter. These must happen in the hinterland that is rural. There is an eminent degree of sense, both financial and human-ethical, in doing this. The pandemic will push manufacturing facilities to lower-cost locales and rural offers just that for now.
Rural jobs therefore need to come from the agricultural segment, the agri-manufacturing and services category and also from non-agriculture related manufacturing and services. Only then will every rural milieu look like the urban and offer enough attraction for the retention of the most productive resources in the most needy geography. The new language ahead should therefore focus on the creation of the all-new rural agglomeration instead of loading the already overloaded city. Demagnetisation of the city is the task ahead, just as we micro-magnetise our rural areas.
The tools at hand are many: a facilitating environment that breaks existing nexuses and the status quo; the local political and real need to energise what will otherwise start looking like ghost villages; the ability of new technology to send shivers up our urban and rural spines in terms of possibilities with AI and cognitive IoT for agriculture; the ability to automate and correct our “low-yield” and “monsoon-dependant” negative labels of yore; and most importantly, the hunger to correct our rural-urban imbalances in terms of needs, wants and greed.
Brand Guru & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults