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Friday, November 18, 2011

Indian Villages

India lives in its villages. Although this romantic notion about India has not changed much with rural India still accounting for roughly three-fourths of its population, the village in itself has changed much over the years. Village studies have been central to our understanding of many of the concepts used in modern social sciences. One of the reasons for the centrality of the village in studying rural India has been the fact that it is the lowest level of administrative unit. But even for sociologists and anthropologists, village has often been the object of research notably because the village is not only an administrative unit but is also the smallest political and social unit.
Sociologist, anthropologists and political scientists have often used the technique of village studies where more often the village itself is an object of research unlike the economists who have used village studies mostly as a site for research. The differences are obvious but in a subtle way. It is partly to do with the requirement of the research objective such as caste, class and social relations which are centred on the village and can only be observed through studying the village as an object. For economists, it is the administrative unit of village which facilitates easy validation of quantitative estimates but also the nature of economic relations, notably tenancy, credit, labour which are easily understood in the closed context of a village economy. But in both cases, the village has been the central object of research.
Just as India is fortunate to have a statistical system which is comparable to the best in the world, it has also been fortunate to have large number of village studies starting from the pre-independence days (the Slater villages in Tamilnadu). Some of these have now been resurveyed over the years. Some of these have been used to get insights for formulation and understanding of economic theories while some have been used to validate our existing knowledge of the various actors in the closed setup of a village. This tradition of village studies is again back in fashion with a large number of village studies underway in various parts of India. While some of them are resurvey of old villages which again is crucial in providing a historical perspective on development, some are fresh villages with particular areas of interest such as the suicide prone areas of Vidarbha and Telangana.
But what can we learn from village studies which is not already available from secondary sources? Another obvious question is whether finding from one village out of six lakh villages in India is good enough to generalise on common issues confronting economic theory or development policy. That is, how representative is the village to be generalised over a large geographical unit such as the state or the country. This has often been the bone of contention, particularly if two village studies contradict in their findings about similar issues. Needless to say, such differences are obvious because villages are not homogenous entities. But more often than not, such differences also arise due to the personal involvement of researchers, objective of the research and most importantly the instruments of research.
Coming back to the first issue of what can we learn from village studies? It is definitely not to reproduce the secondary data which is already available and in many cases up to the village level. Secondary data has its own limitation and is certainly incapable of capturing some variables, for example tenancy. And it is precisely because of that, such exercises should be avoided. The objective of using quantitative aggregates is mainly to provide a context in which the insights on the functioning of markets, interaction of various agents and the dynamism of these over time.
These are challenging times for the world because of the financial crisis aggravating in the new year. But more than anything else, and despite claims of the financial mandarins, one must admit the shortcomings of economic theory in dealing with the changing world. And this is not only true for the fast changing world of finance and global capitalism but is also true for the village economies. Not for anything but the fact that the world in one year has seen episodes of spiralling food prices and commodity prices to them nose-diving within a span of six months. The food crisis and riots have given way to the financial crisis not because the vulnerabilities of the rural economies of developing world have been fully mitigated but the enormity of the financial crisis which is spreading like a wild fire. The vulnerabilities have become even more gruesome despite the falling prices and in some cases because of falling prices.
It is this changing nature of the village economy which needs a careful study. Needless to say, the globalised world and the integration of the local village with the global village has altered social, political and class complexities. But more importantly, the village is no more a self-contained closed economy with overdependence on agriculture and limited interaction with outside world. The village and the neighbouring towns and the metropolitan centres are now a continuum and the village is no more isolated from the vagaries of the financial markets of London or Newyork. Agriculture accounts for less than one fifth of the Indian economy. Even within rural areas, agriculture now contributes just over half of the economy. But more than the declining importance of agriculture, what makes studying village economies challenging is the way villages are getting integrated to the neighbouring and distant urban areas through non-farm employment, migration and remittances. This is also true from the developmental perspective where village is also the terrain on which development policies are tested. The NREGA is one example of this. Hopefully, some of the village studies currently underway will enrich our understanding of the changing nature of village economies.

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