Village life in India

People sometimes describe India as undergoing an economic miracle in the past twenty years.  After decades of indolent economic growth following independence, a number of sectors of the economy have taken off with high rates of growth and increasing income.  Deepak Lal addresses this assumption in “An Indian Economic Miracle?” (link).  Here is the crucial graph from Lal’s paper:

As the graph indicates, starting in roughly 1980, both GDP and GDP per capita increased at a rising rate, greatly exceeding the disparaging “Hindu rate of growth” of the 1950s and 1960s.  Lal’s paper is worth reading.  But the overall impression is that India is finally moving forward — an impression reinforced by some of Tom Friedman’s comments in The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century.

However, this impression is very misleading with respect to India’s rural population; or so V. K. Ramachandran at the Indian Statistical Institute argues.  (Here is an interview I conducted with Ramachandran in 2008.)  Ramachandran and his collaborator, Madhura Swaminathan, have pursued an important program of research on village India under the rubric of the Foundation for Agrarian Studies (link).  They and their research teams have conducted a series of village studies over the past ten years that shed detailed light on the economic, social, and caste circumstances of rural India; and the picture they find does not conform to the idea of an “economic miracle.”  Instead, they find patterns of social inequality and social domination that are continuing and increasing; patterns of landlessness that have worsened in the past decade or so; and levels of poverty that continue to challenge the idea of a fully developed human life for many hundreds of millions of Indian rural people.

A recent publication summarizes their studies of several villages in Andhra Pradesh (Socio-Economic Surveys of Three Villages in Andhra Pradesh: A Study of Agrarian Relations), and it is worth reading in detail.  This book synthesizes the detailed surveys conducted in three villages in 2005-06.  The authors describe the goals of the Project on Agrarian Relations in India in these terms: to study and analyse …

  • village-level production, production systems and livelihoods, and the socio-economic characteristics of different strata of the rural population;
  • sectional deprivation in rural India, particularly with regard to the Dalit and Scheduled Tribe populations, women, specific minorities and the income-poor; and
  • the state of basic village amenities and the access of rural people to the facilities of modern life. (1)

Here are the three villages included in the survey (Bukkacherla, Ananthavaram, Kothapalle):

http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?hl=en&ie=UTF8&msa=0&msid=108207260190333285558.00048e5a27212f2fcc65f&ll=17.056785,80.090332&spn=5.722028,4.702148&t=h&output=embed
View Andhra Pradesh in a larger map

The villages are small, ranging from 292 households (Bukacherla) to 667 households (Ananthavaram).  Here is a zoom view of Kothapalle village (372 households):

And here is Ananthavaram:

The surveys attempt to capture the important social and economic characteristics of the villages, including population, agricultural practices, social class composition, and caste composition.  Class and caste are particularly important characteristics in the analysis.  The researchers classify households as “landlord — big capitalist farmer — manual worker — peasant — other” (chapter 2). Here is how this classification works out for Kothapalle village:

  • landlord / big capitalist farmer 1%
  • capitalist farmer / rich peasant 9%
  • peasant: middle 13%
  • peasant: poor 5%
  • hired manual worker  44%
  • artisan and work at traditional caste calling 1%                   
  • business activity 8%
  • rents / moneylending 1%
  • salaried person 11%           
  • remittance/pension 5%

In other words, about 50% of households are in socially disadvantaged positions (poor peasants, landless workers, and artisans).

Here is a snapshot of the three villages extracted from the study with respect to several important socioeconomic characteristics: percent scheduled classes and tribes, percent landlord and capitalist farmer, percent poor peasant and hired laborer, land ownership Gini coefficient, household income Gini coefficient, medial household income as percent of poverty budget, and percent female literacy for persons seven years or older.

Several things are apparent from this summary.  First, the distributions of land and household income are very unequal in all three villages, with a Gini coefficient of .86 for land distribution in Ananthavaram.  The Gini coefficients for the distribution of income hover around .60 for all three villages — a very high degree of income inequality by international standards (link, link)).  And it is interesting to notice that Ananthavaram village enjoys the highest median household income and highest female literacy, but simultaneously the highest degree of inequality of property and income and the highest percentage of scheduled castes and tribes.

Second, all three villages represent a high degree of poverty among households.  The income bar represents median household income as a percentage of a household poverty budget of 21,304 Rs.  The median household in Bukkacheria falls short of this budget — as do the 50% of households below the median, implying a poverty rate of more than 50%.  The median household in Kothapalle is slightly higher than the poverty budget, and only Ananthavaram has a median income significantly higher than the poverty budget (120%).  So the poverty rate ranges between 40% and 55% in all three villages — very high.

Third, female literacy is often regarded as an important measure of overall human development in a poor region or country; and the rates observed by these surveys are quite low (42-47%), with a substantial gap to the rates for male literacy.  Likewise, there are substantial variations in literacy across castes.  Female literacy in Bukkacherla village is 43% for all households but is 28% for Dalit households; 37% for “backward class” households; and 53% for “other caste” households (160).  In other words, the literacy rate for Dalit women is about half that of “other caste” women.

Put the point another way: these village surveys do not support the idea that social progress is occurring rapidly and broadly in India.  Rather, these particular villages support the idea that inequalities in rural India are extensive and possibly increasing; that poverty is widespread; that class and caste continue to determine life prospects; and that human development is impeded by these conditions of inequality and poverty.

It is interesting to consider the question of representativeness that this volume raises.  The studies provide data for only three out of thousands of villages in one Indian state.  So it is productive to ask whether the findings provided here are “typical” of rural Andhra Pradesh — let alone other parts of India.  Ramachandran and Swaminathan have surveyed villages in a number of states, and will continue the project into the future.  Plainly, it is important to bring these micro-studies into relation with other larger-scope studies in order to assess the degree to which these developments are typical of rural India.  The authors do a good job of trying to make these connections using national and state social data sources; plainly, both methods are needed in order to arrive at justified conclusions about the state of Indian agrarian society.

Second, it is interesting to read this report as an exercise in empirical Marxist economics.  The studies are highly empirical and data-rich.  At the same time, the categories of analysis are drawn from Marxist economics: exploitation, class analysis, productive relations, and social relations of domination, extraction, and control.  The report provides a powerful illustration of the analytical value of a Marxian sociology and political economy in this context; relations of power, privilege, and property plainly have a determining role in the processes of social change in rural India today.

(For the interested reader, Ramachandran’s Wage Labour and Unfreedom in Agriculture: An Indian Case Study is an important contribution to the political economy of India.)

(Thanks to Vikas Rawal for corrections on the locations of the villages and images of Kothapalle and Ananthavaram.)

Social progress in India?


How much social progress has India made since Independence sixty years ago? According to economist V. K. Ramachandran, not very much when it comes to life in the countryside. (Hear my interview with Ramachandran on iTunes and on my web page.) Ramachandran gives a profile of the social problems faced by India at the time of Independence — depths of income poverty, illiteracy, avoidable disease, and the worst forms of caste, class and gender oppression in the world — and then judges that, appallingly, these same problems continue in the countryside without significant change. And this failure derives from the country’s failure to solve its agrarian question. Poverty, inequality, and deprivation continue to be rampant in rural society. And this persistence derives from the failure to address the fundamental relations of property and power in the countryside. Moreover, the processes of globalization and liberalization have, if anything, intensified these problems.

Professor Ramachandran is a research professor at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, and is the author of Wage Labour and Unfreedom in Agriculture: An Indian Case Study.

Professor Ramachandran takes issue with the view of India that appears to be emerging in Japan and the United States — as a country with shopping malls, hi-tech companies, and rapid economic growth. These images are true of some places in India — but they have little relevance to conditions in rural India. (And the population of India continues to be at least 70% rural and agricultural.) The progress that has occurred in the countryside is meaningful — agriculture has increased its productivity significantly since 1960, and India is now grain-self-sufficient. India is no longer locked into a “ship-to-mouth” existence. But these changes in the productivity of agriculture have not been associated with changes in the basic institutions present in the countryside — what Ramachandran refers to as the “agrarian structure.” And these social relations continue to create a system that entrenches inequality and deprivation for peasants and agricultural workers. Ramachandran maintains that three “new” inequalities have emerged — inequalities between regions, inequalities between crops, and inequalities between classes. (As an expert on agricultural workers, Ramachandran is in a good position to observe what has happened for this segment of India’s rural population.)

Ramachandran is an activist-scholar, and he is involved in a large collaboration with other scholars to provide a review of conditions in villages in a growing list of states in India. Ramachandran underlines the point that there is great variation across the map of India. The goal of these studies is to provide a detailed snapshot of the social conditions in the villages — studies of the oppressed classes, tribes, and women; the state of village amenities (sewerage, clean water, roads, education). Over a number of years the goal of the research effort is to arrive at a more nuanced description of the conditions of rural life across many states in India. This research is highly valuable, since it permits disaggregation of descriptions of the countryside that are often based on aggregated data.

An interesting feature of this research project is the fact that it is deliberately linked to the activist organizations of peasants, workers, and women. The researchers consult with the agrarian activists to discover what the most important issues are — and then to focus research effort on discovering the social details associated with these issues. And Ramachandran is emphatic in saying that the rigor of scientific investigation can and should be combined with this collaboration with the activist organizations. In fact, he indicates that the organizations themselves are insistent about this point. “Don’t lose your academic rigor,” the leaders of the organizations insist.

There is a lot more in the interview. But the bottom line is that Ramachandran offers a really good example of the engaged scholar. And the kind of social research that he and his colleagues are doing is well designed to help to diagnose some of the changes and public policies that are needed in India.