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Rural relegated to the background, urban 'sought to be seen' as future of India

By Arjun Kumar*
The Centre for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies, Impact and Policy Research Institute, (IMPRI), New Delhi, recently organised the book release of ‘Remembering India’s Villages’ edited by Prof Santosh K Singh followed by a panel discussion on ‘Why India’s Villages Matter: Challenges and Possibilities’ in order to highlight why villages need to be approached differently.
Insisting on the necessity to discuss the villages along with the cities, the #WebPolicyTalk on #RuralRealities saw the participation of Surinder Jodhka, professor of Sociology, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Prof Santosh Singh, Chandigarh-based academic and commentator; Dr Mekhala Krishnamurthy, associate professor of sociology and social anthropology, Ashoka University, Sonepat; and Manish Thakur, professor, public policy and management, Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Kolkata.
Prof Surinder Jodhka said the title of the book ‘Remembering India’s Villages’ itself suggests that Indian villages have been forgotten. However, they continue to be a significant component of the Indian society, and to some extent they are still talked about. Two-thirds of the Indian population still resides in the rural areas and another 10% is still in close touch with the villages.
Post-1990s, a new India began to take shape in the form of shopping malls, political corridors, and global imaginations. The idea of India in this sense was very different from what the sociologists and social anthropologists such as MN Srinivas had been studying in the 1940s and 1950s. At that time, the village was a microcosm of India, it was like a case study.
In the 1990s, the cultural imagination of India began to take different shape. The middle class had represented India in some sense even before the 1990s, but from that decade onwards, the middle class essentially appeared to become India.
Today, it is possible to find books on the Indian economy without a chapter on agriculture even though it was and continues to be a major sector of the Indian economy. While the service sector has been booming, followed by the manufacturing sector, the agriculture sector has been going down. Agriculture, however, is just one component of the village life.
Prof Santosh Singh, editor of the book, talking about the trajectory of change in the idea of rural over decades, highlighted how in the 1980s there was a special interest in the villages of India. Even though the 1990s the emphasis was more on new and changing India, about globalization, the idea of rural did come up, but more as a crisis. However, things changed. A large number of suicides began being reported from the areas that were supposed to lie in the Green Revolution belt of India.
In the 1970s the village studies took the centre stage and all sociologists and anthropologists would study at least one village each. But there was gradual disappearance of rural issues in the subsequent decades. Urban is seen as the future of India and the rural has got relegated to the background. Now, not many are interested in studying about rural India. He believed, his book would create a bridge and remind people about villages, giving them the attention that they deserve.
Wondering why do the Indian villages matter, he said, a commonsensical answer would point towards the fact that two-thirds of Indians still live in rural areas; but the theoretical reason is very different. Today, rural and urban are always viewed as bipolar islands, two completely different ideas, even though they do have a unidirectional connection.
Everyone wants to migrate to the urban areas as it is believed that people can only fulfill their dreams in there, and the rural areas do not provide that possibility. Referring to the urban to rural migration during the pandemic, he said, while doing a comparative analysis there is a need to find out what factors drive people back home at the time of crisis.
Prof Manish Thakur talked about how most people have not really engaged with the idea of village as such and have just looked at it as an empirical container. They have focused on caste, class, agrarian relations, modernity but have not looked at it as a blueprint of collective life. Today, the state has influenced and entered the village in a big way through its policies and programmes.
Today the villages have become, metaphorically, a railway platform where everyone is just waiting to catch the next train and leave
The idea of the village has been subjected to multiple sorts of ruptures by the state on one hand and the market on the other, he said. Today the villages have become, metaphorically, a railway platform where everyone is just waiting to catch the next train and leave. People come back, but not because of the sense of belonging. We have conspired to make villages into places of despondency and despair, places that do not inspire people.
Dr Mekhala Krishnamurthy recounted incidents from the time when she engaged with people from rural areas during her field research. The notion that the village has a particular sense of intimacy, moral economy and interdependence is often used by protagonists of globalization and urban sites to produce a sense of interconnectedness. The village has always been more than agriculture and agriculture has always been more than the rural.
She recalled David Ludden’s remark that, for the longest time in Indian and South Asian history, urbanization happened inside agriculture. The cities emerged from within agriculture itself. We have a lot to learn from the people living in rural India. In a sense, they are scholars, too. Rather than rethinking the village, more time needs to be spent on listening to the way people are moving and talking about it.
Prof Thakur agreed with Dr Mekhala’s point that we need to speak to the villagers themselves. We also need to look at the ideological work on the idea of village. Millions of Indians are compelled to give up villages. They work in cities, and only go back to villages during festivals. To this, Dr Mekhala added, belongingness has a material basis as well, it could the basis in the family, maybe someone prefers the openness that the rural areas offer in comparison to the cluttered cities.
Prof Jhodka added that even the migrants who live in the urban areas never really leave their villages, they come back, they do not get ‘urbanised’. Referring to the need to re-vision villages, he said, villages have always been changing. They had been changing even before the British arrived. The idea of market and state was there even in the 5th century. People have lived in villages for centuries and will continue to live there. Villages are not going anywhere, we just need to approach them differently, which is what Prof Santosh Singh’s book reminds us.
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*Inputs: Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta, Ritika Gupta, Sakshi Sharda, Swati Solanki, Mahima Kapoor. Acknowledgment: Sneha Bisht,  research intern at IMPRI

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