Vibrant Villages Are Key To India’s Success


ploughing land farmer

The Indian village has, for long, been viewed as a convenient entry-point for understanding Indian society. At the beginning of the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi had emphatically declared:The soul of India lives in its villages”. Even after 70 years of Independence, in the wake of urbanisation, villages are at the core of the country’s soul.

For social anthropologists, an Indian village is a microcosm, ‘an invaluable observation centre’ of the larger India. Since ages, artists have portrayed a charming landscape in pointillist detail: children bringing lines of cattle home along dusty roads, colourfully garbed village women gracefully carrying water pitchers on their heads, bright saris billowing behind them, their donkeys laden with watermelons. Writers have written paeans for isolated rural settlements unsullied by the complexities of modern urban civilisation.

The legendary canvas of Amrita Sher Gill had sad-faced, incredibly thin men and women who moved silently, looking almost like silhouetted images of infinite submission and patience. This painter did it like no one before her, filling canvases with farm workers, storytellers, nurses, camel drivers and minstrels. In The Haldi Grinders, there was a group of women engaged in a mundane activity, crushing turmeric, obscured by trees, their bodies distilled into a clutch of hands that grip the crushing wheel. In The Santhal Family, by the Bengal sculptor Ramkinker Bajaj, the image of famine-stricken parents leading their two small children away from the disaster, the woman carrying a head load of their belongings in a basket. It symbolises both the anguish and the hopes of the smallest of family units.

There is a wide diversity of opinions on the Indian villages even among India’s greatest modern thinkers. For Gandhi, the village was a place of authenticity, for Nehru it represented backwardness, but for Ambedkar it meant oppression.

In his famous minute of 1830, Sir Charles Metcalfe, the then acting governor-general of India, wrote: “The village communities are little republics, having nearly everything they can want within themselves, and almost independent of any foreign relations. They seem to last where nothing else lasts. Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down; revolution succeeds revolution….but the village community remains the same. “

However, in his seminal work, Society in India: Change and Continuity (1970), David Mandelbaum refutes this formulation. He writes: “An Indian village typically is hardly a republic; it has certainly changed from time to time, and it clearly was not and is not self-sufficient. The whole nature of traditional society militated against the independent isolation of a village.”

Gandhiji wanted to attain moral, social and economic independence for villages as distinct from cities and towns. He was enamoured of immemorial ‘village republics’. He said: “If the village perishes India will perish too. It will be no more India. Her own mission in the world will get lost. “Gandhi championed village life for its virtues of self-sufficiency, peacefulness, honesty, and spirituality. But his  vision of   social and spiritual transformation in   villages turned out to be too idealistic.  

The failure of the Gandhian rural model has largely been due to its focus on the social perimeters at the cost of the economic ones. The economic regression, in most villages, has bred many social ills and created a cesspool of both moral and spiritual decadence. A more reasoned approach would be to inject more economic oxygen and industrialise villages. At the same time, there is a need to insulate societal institutions from the likely negative fallout of the new economic policies. The ability to offer fulfilling lives to village inhabitants will be a crucial safety valve for volatile social tensions. India’s resilient   villages are seeking to adapt to change and remain relevant without losing their valued traditions and skills. An economic boost in the villages is germinal to India’s vision of achieving a great power status.

The growing tendency of village groups to seek outside political support for solutions to local development issues has ruptured the traditional social structure. Each leader in a village has now a political master in the nearest town. All these developments have made the village political and social structure highly complex and confusing. The new roads and highways that provide a fast passage to towns and metros have demolished whatever relic we had  of village republics. There is an increasing involvement of villagers with the wider economic and political world outside the village via travel, work, education, and television. Expanding government influence in rural areas and increased pressure on land and resources as village population grow may have resulted in increased factionalism and competitiveness in many parts of rural India.

The solidarity of a village is getting increasingly fractured by conflicts, rivalries, and factionalism. Living together in intensely close relationships over generations, struggling to wrest a livelihood from the same limited area of land and water sources, fellow villagers are prone to disputes, strategic contests, and even violence. Most villages of India include what villagers call ‘big fish,’ prosperous, powerful people, fed and serviced through the labours of the struggling ‘little fish.’ Villagers commonly view gains as possible only at the expense of neighbours. This is, however, changing in villages close to cities.

Declining fortunes along with increasing vulnerabilities in agriculture suggest a fundamental altering of the production and social relations. Thus, there have been some very visible changes in the village polity, including the rise in Dalit assertion, the rising aspiration among the youth and the demand for reservation by dominant groups..

Indian villages are living repositories of ancient, diverse traditions that have survived the driftwood of history through a combination of adaptation and constancy. This resilience enabled diverse cultures to flourish in environments ranging from agricultural plains in India’s north and southeast to the arid plains in its centre and the temperate mountain ranges of the east and west coasts.

As Stephen P. Huyler states in Village India, the financial poverty of village society is matched by a wealth of communal customs, attitudes and rituals. “Their faith and the interdependence of their societies provide a unity and sense of purpose rarely experienced in the contemporary West… Modernisation is essential but its most healthy expression would be a blending of traditional forms (and the wisdom gained through centuries of subtle adaptations to the environment) with innovative technologies.”

Those who espouse the Gandhian approach to villages have to recognise the stark truth that villages will never be immune to change. India’s economic boom has bypassed those who were unwilling to let its currents touch them. The social tensions in rural India can be resolved only through economic solutions. Preserving traditional cultures is crucial because it embodies India’s rich legacy but this can be done only by those who practice it, not by outsiders. Once they are economically broken, nothing will prevent them from revolting against it.

The best way forward is to initiate change by transforming the objects of these developments – the villages themselves. The process of ‘transformation’ is needed for ensuring a basic quality of life in villages.It is awidely accepted belief that the initiative for and ownership of this change needs to come from the communities themselves.Through convergent societal action, it is possible to trigger a process of socialisation that can lead to new normative behaviour and create fertile ground for rural communities to transform themselves.

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at [email protected]



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