It’s complicated

Understanding Rural Crisis

Farmers plant paddy saplings in a field as the Boro paddy season starts, in the outskirts of Kolkata. PTI

The present crisis in rural India is underscored by multiple factors. What is called for is a deeper understanding of the rural reality. It is important to note that overall, rural communities today have far less autonomy from the state and larger socio-economic and political forces than was historically the case. In the present context, rural communities are deeply incorporated into the larger socio-political and economic processes. Therefore, let’s look at the state and rural communities, the crisis within the rural communities and, thirdly, the rural communities and supra-rural forces.

By state, we do not only mean the State apparatus, but more broadly all the elements of the state. More particularly, the rural communities and the party system, bureaucracy and the ideological apparatus of the state, and finally, but in no small measure, the repressive state apparatus. Presently, democratic politics reaches far deeper, going down to every village in every corner of the country than earlier.

Panchayat elections are only nominally party-less. In reality, all the elections in rural areas, including panchayat elections, operate on party basis. This is the case all over India. The second factor is the spread of television and digital media to the villages. Today, it is difficult to find an Indian village without access to TV and its 24/7 news channels broadcasting all the politics from White House to the local neighbourhood.

Consequently, when rural people contrast what they see of the rest of the world on television with their condition, it causes severe alienation and stress. Often, there are organised and everyday forms of protest against the immediate social reality; for example, Dalits protesting against upper castes. However, the state has now not only penetrated the rural world through its political parties and ideological structures, but also with its repressive arm to put down such protests and conflicts. The point is, the rural world no more lives in splendid isolation from the rest of the world.

The rural communities contain within them many elements of significance. These are the fast transforming caste relations, the decline of caste as a ‘system’ as such, with the decline of jajmani relations. The economic decline of caste occupations as the mainstay of the rural economy is a major aspect to underscore here. Not only this, the rural family, too, is fast changing from large families into nuclear families. Amidst these changes, though, the institution of caste continues in the social dimension through caste intra-dining and intra-marriage relations.

The second point related to this is the economic strengthening of some castes in Green Revolution areas and the consequent clashes between the castes. The Green Revolution has strengthened the middle-ranking backward castes in irrigated regions. This has resulted in clashes between upper backward castes and most backward castes, and between upper backward castes and Dalits.

However, in non-irrigated, non-Green Revolution areas, the overall phenomenon has largely been the decline of entire village communities. In other words, pauperisation of entire village communities. Thus, the decline of caste occupations, decline of agriculture, lack of water for irrigation, rising wages and also migration of the rural young for education, employment and in search of an urban life have crippled the rural economies in non-Green Revolution regions.

Given the above reality, rural societies are today complex societies, rid of all their earlier presumed simplicity in form and content, and therefore deserve a careful analysis. For example, rural classes are never as obvious as we assume when we proceed to study them. Caste-class overlaps and the researcher’s own place in society make these matters complicated. However, this is neither to deny the existence of class nor caste inequalities.

But due to the overall incorporation of the rural into the larger state and market structures, economically, the sectoral issues today have become more important; and socially and politically, the influences of the larger world and incorporation into the political structures have increasingly led to the decline of the autonomy of rural communities. They have thereby added to the internal rural crisis as well as the overall crisis vis-a-vis the larger world. Farmers’ suicides are just a tip of this iceberg.

Rural and supra-rural

Here, we consider the aspects of increasing penetration of markets: input markets and output markets. This includes increasing penetration of multinational seed companies, such as Bt seeds and accompanying pesticide companies and chemical agriculture companies. Also, this process is related to the increasing penetration of financial capital.

The rural economies are today highly monetised, causing indebtedness when crops fail. There is an increasing consumer culture in rural areas as well. An added factor is the increasing mobility of rural populations and intensity of transactions between the rural communities and supra-rural social, economic and political forces situated in the urban world.

There are also increasing points and processes of interactions of cultural intensity between rural and urban communities, leading to what some call a form of ‘social urbanisation’ of rural areas. Social urbanisation leads to increasing mimicking of urban lifestyles and consumer culture in the rural areas, and increasing purchase of the ideology of urbanisation, individualism and decline of family support.

Rural areas have, in this sense, ceased to be socially rural and they have become much like individualised ‘socially urban’ places. Thus, the current rural crisis is all-encompassing and as much social and political as economic. Economic solutions such as loan waivers and crop insurance go some way in alleviation. However, the phenomenon itself is larger, and is entangled with the hopes and disappointments created by the globalisation-led development path itself.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Centre for Political Institutions, Governance and Development, ISEC, Bengaluru)

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