For centuries, across all continents, the villager has been put up as a simple bumpkin, while the town guys seemed to be both clever and empowered. The villager left for the town to acquire occupations, but in the process acquired knowledge too.
Migration from villages to towns has been happening for more than a century, not just in India but all over the world. That, indeed, is how urban habitats are set up. But such transition, for the villager migrants, also leads to huge domestic upheavals. Old homes stagnate and ultimately wither away, well before new ones are comfortably set up, which gives rise to a rootless existence in urban slums and shanties. And rural memories then remain merely remembered, they are never dynamically lived.
Why do villagers then do it? That is, get away from their centuries old legacy habitat to plunge into unknown towns?
Let me then initiate some simple, seemingly innocent questions for you….
What drives out villagers? How are urban spaces filled up? Indeed, how are town shanties and posh habitat created?
Is rural out-migration unavoidable? Inevitable? Maybe even required?
And if required, can the movement of villagers towards the urbanised world be regulated ? By whom ? And for whose benefit ?
Finally, a fully loaded question…do the rich and empowered in villages ever abandon their rural habitat for the towns?
The question of what ails the villages is in fact closely intertwined with each of the questions listed out above. Indeed, “ailing villages” could be the package answer to these questions.
In human terms, it is the control over land, capital and labour that decides who will stay on, who will leave the villages. As noted sociologist Andre Beteille put it way back in 1969, this control determines who will or can avail of the opportunities that arise in the villages itself.
Facts and figures of the rural-urban sectors tell us something specific about migration from the villages to the towns. While urban population since Independence grew from 60 million to 377 million by 2011, a huge six fold jump., the rural population’s rise, from 298 million to 742 million, was less than a three fold jump. Similarly, while urban settlements jumped from 2843 to 7,935, a little over double in this period, the number of rural settlements in this period creeped up from around 6 lakhs to only 640,867.
Impatience with rural problems
Clearly, while the urban economy, due to various degrees of modernisation and industrialisation, was showing positive signs of growth, benefits of such urban growth indisputably kept trickling down to villagers-turned-workers, and thus preventing them from sliding down to a beggarly existence in their new, urban habitat.
Resultantly, rural backwardness also became a crystallised intellectual and popular perception. For centuries, across all continents, the villager has been put up as a simple bumpkin, while the town guys seemed to be both clever and empowered. The villager left for the town to acquire occupations, but in the process acquired knowledge too.
As noted educationist Prof Krishna Kumar said it so well in the EPW in 2014, “for the village, there is just one way to liberate …and that is to develop into a town, according to the agenda of evolutionist modernity”. What is more, he further lamented that “many well-placed modernisers today convey an unmistakable impatience with rural problems”.
What then are the rural problems that lead to out-migration? Primary amongst such problems would be financial. If rural jobs outside agriculture are almost nil, and if the rural economy itself (populated by two-thirds of the national population) has a very low growth rate (less than 4 per cent, and hence contributing to less than one-fifth of our national GDP), it is but natural to see such an inevitable and endless journey towards towns. The most blunt example is the Garhwal region, where villages first saw women taking to holding the plough (historically, a man’s burdensome privilege) to now villages emptying themselves, to turn into “ghost” villages.
Secondly, for decades, we have seen and felt how infrastructural facilities like healthcare and schools in villages compare abysmally with towns largely because the urban lure is irresistible for good teachers, doctors, engineers etc.
As a shiny example, the IRMA (Institute of Rural Management at Anand) was started by Gujarat Dairy Federation/AMUL/National Dairy Development Board largely because village issues were quite outside the horizons of the famous and much-vaunted IIMs and IITs.
The success of IRMA also signifies the key to rural problems. And that is if the best of teaching facilities are created in villages to focus on rural issues, then rural economy can indeed grow well (look at the success of AMUL.
Modernising, diversifying, reforming
So to return to the questions outlined at the beginning. If infrastructure is created by factories in rural areas, if facilities are available in villages to provide adequate health care and schools, unplanned rural out-migration can surely be managed well. Thereby even the villages where two-thirds of India lives can catch up with the towns and increase its share of the national GDP.
Modernising, diversifying, reforming agriculture, horticulture, aquaculture, dairying through a good mixture of gradation awareness and improved marketing, buttressed by infusion of much-needed capital, can do wonders to improve the rural economy. That, along with a policy of incentivising both rural industries as well as locating modern industries in rural areas, would surely keep the villager happily tied to his much loved and totally familiar village world. Such rural development would automatically lead to creation of better health care and teaching facilities.
One modern industry which will succeed in villages is food processing, because the raw materiel is already there. Further, other non-agricultural industries would get a boost because the work force is already there.
In a simple, catch-all phrase, a policy of “village first” approach to future development would help the rural economy, would give villagers a dignified way out of unplanned, unfocused, and a “blind” movement towards towns. If the rural economy grows in a positive way, national GDP and national income would both grow, with a per capita improvement for all.
Of course, such a good turn would first need a “village look” to future planning and governmental action. Above all, it would also require all stakeholders to look upon villages with pride, not a place to flee from.
Alok Sinha is a former Additional Secretary Agriculture, Government of India, and retired CMD of the gargantuan Food Corporation of India. He has spent more than half his IAS career in various rural sectors.
As a Founder of VillageNama, he can be contacted at: