Know the India that still lives in its villages

Much has changed from Gandhi’s vision for rural India. But do we know precisely how things have changed? Crafting policy is tough without accurate data
Express Illustrations |Soumyadip Sinha)
Express Illustrations |Soumyadip Sinha)

Mahatma Gandhi said India lives in its villages. India’s second prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who shares his birthday with the Mahatma’s on this day, highlighted the contribution of farmers and coined the slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’. Decades earlier, Bhimrao Ambedkar wrote at length on the need to improve the livelihoods of small farmers.

The first Census conducted after the Mahatma’s death, in 1951, put India’s rural population at almost 300 million; today it is more than three times higher. A precise, up-to-date estimate of the number of rural households and rural population is tough because we could not conduct a Census during the pandemic. But we can get some insights from the Mission Antyodaya data collected by the rural development ministry. This data is useful for highlighting the broad changes that have occurred since 2011, when the Census was last conducted.

First, how rural is India? Based on the available projections, my guesstimate is that at least six in every ten Indians continue to live in rural areas. One thing we know for sure is that the number of inhabited villages has increased. Between 2011 and 2020, the number of large villages in India increased from 597,608 to 648,548. Three Indian states account for 30 percent of India’s villages—Uttar Pradesh (16 percent), Rajasthan (7 percent), and Bihar (7 percent). The relatively urbanised states such as Karnataka, Maharashtra and West Bengal account for another 18 percent.

Second, the Mission Antyodaya data puts India’s rural population at 1.03 billion. In 2011, India’s rural population was 833 million. This suggests that the rural population increased by 197 million in the decade starting 2011. Contrast this with the period 2001 to 2011, when India’s rural population increased by 90.4 million. It is tough to explain why the increase in the decade starting 2011 is more than twice that in the earlier decade.

The accuracy of the Mission Antyodaya data is not certain, but we do not have any other for our purpose. So, we have no option but to rely on it for looking at rural India at the moment. Those collecting the Mission data are likely to have cross-checked it with the Census of 2011.

The share of the rural population living in large villages has increased. In 2011, barely 9 percent of India’s rural population lived in villages with a population of over 10,000. This has now increased to 16 percent. There are news reports documenting that new gram panchayats have been formed in line with the increase in village populations. It has also been reported that state governments are considering proposals for bifurcation of large villages.

One might ask why large villages do not get reclassified as urban areas. Article 243Q of the Constitution of India pertains to the setting up of municipalities. It recognises a Nagar Panchayat as ‘an area in transition from a rural area to an urban area’. Large villages, typically, would qualify on two of the three criterions for being reclassified as urban. The two qualifications are a minimum population of 5,000 and a density of at least 400 persons per square kilometre. However, they would likely fail the criterion of needing to have 75 percent of the male working population engaged in non-agricultural work. A case in point is Bihar, a state that accounts for nearly 25 percent of all Indian villages with a population of over 10,000. This was true in 2011 too. We also know that Bihar is the least urbanised state.

Does the act of bifurcation of large villages, creation of new gram panchayats, and bifurcation of gram panchayats lead to better outcomes for the residents? We do not know. What is needed is a consolidated geo-referenced database that will help us understand whether the delivery of government services improved following the changes. The same goes for new municipal corporations that are carved out of urban India. Even here, due to the lack of relevant data, one does not know whether it actually led to improved governance.

Let us also not forget that the bulk of rural India lives in mid-sized villages—a third of them in villages with a population of 2,000-5,000, and another 16 percent in villages with a population of 5,000-10,000. We hardly know anything about the economic base of these villages. At best, from satellite imagery, we can get an idea of land use. But such data needs to be processed and put in the public domain.

So, is rural India all about agriculture? No. According to the Annual Survey of Industries, factories located in rural India account for nearly half the total manufacturing output. But these factories employ a minuscule proportion of India’s rural workforce. The reality is that nearly 60 percent of rural male workers are self-employed in farm and non-farm activity and 27 percent as casual labourers. These estimates are from the Annual Periodic Labour Force Survey. And the problem of small land-holding identified by Ambedkar continues to be pesky.

Various policies have been formulated to support rural livelihoods. Way back in the third five-year plan, we find mention of a rural employment scheme for 100 days. The idea of forming self-help groups to promote financial inclusion goes back to the year 1992-93. Based on the idea of facilitating access to appropriate technology, in 2004, the pan-India Rural Technology Action Group was conceived. In recent times, the idea of farmer-producer organisations that would aggregate the output of small farmers to get better prices has been implemented. Fast forward to 2023, when the Vishwakarma Yojana, aimed at helping skilled craftsmen get acquainted with digital marketplaces, has been announced.

These initiatives are piecemeal, and most often they treat the symptom rather than the cause. In contrast, Ambedkar and Gandhi attempted to work out a holistic plan for rural India. One lesson from that era is the need for an intellectual debate over development strategies cutting across ideologies. This is missing in public discourse these days. In the lead up to the 2024 elections, it is important that we have a discussion on our vision for rural India. The onus is on political parties to propose well-rounded plans for the places where most of India still lives.

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