Arjun Kumar, Ritika Gupta, Simi Mehta, Nishi Verma, Sakshi Sharda

Rural development is a complex and slow process of undertaking a diverse range of activities for the welfare of the masses who are deprived of the luxury and comfort of developed cities. It requires a great amount of coordination between various sectors, with the impact of the external environment posing a challenge due to its tendency to change rapidly. 

To delve deeper into the issues in Rural Transformation, Center for Human Dignity and Development (CHDD) at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute and Center for Communication, Development, and Studies (CDECS), Jaipur organized a special talk titled “The Rural Question: Issues in Rural Transformation in India” as a part of the special series #CohesiveDevelopment.

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The chair and moderator, Prof Sunil Ray, Advisor at Centre for Development Communication and Studies (CDECS) started the session by shedding light on the importance of challenging the paradigm to find a solution and stop being a victim of educational imperialism through active research efforts.

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Prof H.S Shylendra, Professor of Economics at Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) highlighted the white revolution in Gujarat and Dr. Verghese Kurien’s crucial role in Operation Flood by starting an institution, training professionals to work for the rural sector with empathy, and contribute to their well-being. He also shed light on how the present impact of Covid-19 on various sectors of the economy is nothing but a reflection of what already prevailed and hence focused on the need to ponder upon some basic issues that plague the country.

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Reverse Migration

Prof Shylendra started his presentation with the heart-rending scenes of Reverse Migration that resulted from the initial Covid driven lockdown imposed by the Indian Government in March 2020. Niti Aayog, in its three-year developmental action plan document, emphasized the blurred boundaries between Rural and Urban areas in recent times, with the rural landscape transforming completely and hence resulting in a more integrated economy.

Prof Shylendra highlighted that this is merely a false narration of the blurred rural-urban boundaries, devoid of any clear understanding of the dichotomy. Thus, Covid-19 induced reverse migration exposed not only this false narration but also the basic fault lines that still lie in Rural Transformation. If India would have been an integrated economy, then the rural-urban migration wouldn’t have occurred in the first place.

Covid-19 induced reverse migration exposed not only the false narration of blurred Rural-Urban boundaries but also the basic fault lines that still lies in Rural Transformation.

Prof Shylendra made use of some statistics to elucidate the clear dichotomy between Rural and Urban areas, underlining major issues in rural areas such as farmer suicides, fragmented landholdings, higher dependency on agriculture, and low share of agriculture income to GDP along with low growth rate of agriculture and allied sectors as compared to manufacturing and service sector over the last two decades.

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This gloomy scenario in rural areas is the reason why people are forced to migrate to urban areas, pushing rural workers to get exploited at the hands of the urban industrial sector, thus leading to informalization and casualization.

Comparing data from a tribal and non-tribal village in Gujarat, Prof. Shylendra further showed how migration contributes a significant proportion of income in both Tribal and Non-Tribal villages, with most of this migration being of a distressed kind and cyclical in nature. Hence, farmers lost much of this migration income (68% in tribal villages and 38% in non-tribal villages) when all activities stagnated after the Covid-induced lockdown.

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Growing Rural-Urban Disparities

Throwing light on the Rural crisis and deprivations of the rural sector on the developmental front, Prof. Shylendra showed some basic statistics on growing Rural-Urban disparities across all major parameters of Development, especially focusing on access to the internet facilities and hence the digital education divide resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. He also underlined the disparities that exist by social groups such as poverty ratio by caste or literacy rate by gender.

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Double Deficit Challenge

Hence, many of the rural structures and problems continue to prevail and the rural transformation that has been expected either in the Lewisian-type structural transformation or in the classical Marxian kind transformation is not happening. Given the complexity of rural issues in our country, we, therefore, need a broader framework. Building upon the agrarian framework, Prof Shylendra used a broader analytical framework called “Rural Question” and highlighted its double deficit challenge- one on the developmental front which has got to do with livelihood and other on the transformational front i.e., one of attaining the socio-economic change as visualized under the policy.

Developmental Deficit implies the persistence of poverty and deprivation. All the developmental interventions including the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) have had a limited impact on rural development. Poverty, inequality, poor living standards, etc. continue to widen the rural-urban gaps.

Transformational Deficit, on the other hand, implies the persistence of many social and economic structures such as caste system, bondage, gender inequalities which hinder rural transformation. It persists in 4 broad areas of transformation- Lewisian Structural Transformation of shifting the labor to resolve the dichotomy of traditional and modern sectors as industrialization is highly inadequate to absorb the large chunk of labor in India and hence resulting in Jobless growth.

Agrarian Question Framework by Marxian Scholars which visualizes transition of pre-capitalist formations into Capitalist mode absorbing peasantry and labor through primitive accumulation. Though capitalism has made inroads in varying degrees in agriculture in India, it has lacked dynamism for any radical shift; Social Inequality Framework (of Dr. Ambedkar) in terms of annihilating the historical caste system as Dr. Ambedkar saw Caste as one of the major stumbling blocks in progress; Rural Governance Deficit which visualizes participation of women and weaker sections in the rural local government and has the scope to make panchayats become instruments of grassroots planning and development and hence, revive the rural economy.

Though capitalism has made inroads in varying degree in agriculture in India, but it has lacked dynamism for any radical shift

Policy Recommendations

Prof Shylendra concluded his presentation by emphasizing the importance of Rural questions both in developmental and transformational Challenges. The way forward, therefore, given the complexity and intersectionality is challenging and a pending long-term resolution would require a socialist and capitalist approach. He also suggested 5-6 policy reforms to transform the rural sector such as land reforms, the revival of panchayats in a true constitutional way, addressing inequalities, higher public investment in agricultural development, more planned approach for the growth of the non-farm sector of the labor-intensive kind, and the need to adopt more autonomous development.

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Intersectionality of Women Empowerment and Development

Dr. Anamika Priya Darshini, Lead, Research, Sakshamaa: Initiative for What Works, Centre for Catalyzing Change further carried the discussion forward by placing focus on the idea of empowerment and how it has de-politicized a lot of women’s issues.

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She also shared a finding from her study on women panchayat workers from Bihar which is about the play of intersection between development and empowerment and how people are trying to perpetuate the conventional patriarchal model of development within the rural framework.

She also pointed out the limited media coverage on rural India and raised a question on how a common citizen can be made aware of the concurrent challenges that exist in rural areas. She further highlighted the importance of speaking on the basic essential issues of our country as India is lagging on many developmental aspects such as hunger, gender equality, human development indicators, GDP, and so on and thus asked for suggestions on how to put forth the idea of double deficit in front of the larger audience.

Prof Shylendra responded by underlining the importance of elaborating on the practicality of his tentative solutions and acknowledged the existence of challenges in making a real difference in Rural India.

Non- Accessibility of Health-care Services

Dr. Papia Raj, Associate Professor, Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Patna highlighted the region-specific nature of development policies and the need to rethink and look beyond the various existing theories of development that are restricted to industrialization in this Covid situation. For a cohesive development, she pointed out the importance of incorporating health in the developmental framework as there is a vicious cycle between poverty and ill health.

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Pointing to the reverse-migration trend, Dr. Papia shed light on the non-accessibility of healthcare services for the migrant laborers who were returning home in the lockdown. She talked about physical, economic, and social accessibility as people from lower castes do not want to go to an upper-caste health provider in rural areas due to the social dynamics at play.

She further added a new dimension of healthcare apart from livelihood to the developmental deficit concept put forward by Prof. Shylendra as the pandemic has very well laid out the importance of treating health as an important asset and investing in it as a pathway to sustainable development as opposed to hollow development that has been focused on for the past few decades.

To break the vicious cycle between poverty and ill health, there is a need to incorporate the concept of healthcare into the development paradigm.

Prof Shylendra then explained the livelihood crisis concept which has resulted from constrained inflows of income and wages for the rural households and higher outflows under neo-liberalism including higher health expenditure.

Poor Implementation of Rural Development Programmes

Questions were also invited from the audience. Dr. Upender brought everybody’s attention to the far end of development which we are not able to reach and how it is the availability of funds and not the practicality which drives people in charge of development discourse to carry on development programs. The narrow result-oriented approach of development professionals makes them lose focus on creating a system that works in a self-sustainable way. Also, the execution of the development programs merits a relook as it is not reaching the target audience.

Prof. Shylendra added an example of Operation Flood and how Dr. Kurien did not want the bureaucracy to get involved in its implementation as it is not fit to implement any specialized program and is not concerned with the target group and the mission of a program. He further pointed out that rural development programs need committed professionals who have worked and gained experience in a particular domain.

Pertinent Questions

Prof Dinesh then underlined the need to revive a well-tested sustainable diversified agriculture and allied sector portfolio particularly in central India where reverse migration occurred the most.

Dr. Arjun further raised a question on How China has been able to bring Rural Transformation in the past two three decades to which Prof Shylendra responded by highlighting the collectivized property in China unlike in India which has given access to food security to a significant extent and a calibrated shift to handle the surplus labor which is not possible in the Indian scenario.

Dr. Leela asked about the method to formalize the agrarian economy to ensure that farm laborers get their rights and Dr. Arjun added further asked whether PM Kisan Yojana and PM Garib Kalyan Yojana needs to be extended to ensure universal basic income and ways to mitigate any livelihood losses. Another question was asked on strategy for tourism development in rural areas after the pandemic while keeping in mind the ecological consideration.

On the formalization of agriculture, Prof Shylendra stressed the importance of farmers’ collectivization to improve their organizational strength and hence bargaining power. In terms of the laborers, there is again a need for labor unions and other such organizations to organize themselves and ensure their living and bargaining conditions are improved, especially in a post-pandemic world with costs going up on the trajectory and companies looking forward to cutting wages to maximize profits. 

He also pointed out the need to extend the PMKY and PMGKY to ensure that the unorganized sector workers do not get exploited. On the rural-tourism model, Prof Shylendra argued that we will need to rethink the entire rural-tourism model as it will collapse with the pandemic and the lurking fear associated with it.

Concluding Remarks

Prof. Sunil Ray gave the concluding remarks by stating the need to challenge the fundamentals and focusing on the structure of the rural development system. To complete the analytical framework and study the central question of rural development, he further stressed the need to link it with politics and fractured democracy as it plays a crucial role in the development programs.

He also demanded a re-look at the link between the Lewisian model of surplus-labor absorption and the farm laws in India. He also argued that development is cohesive in method and approach as against being individual or fragmented. Highlighting the social quantum entanglement theory which talks about the integration of people, he stressed on the need to reflect upon whether it is different from methodological individualism.

Acknowledgment: Chhavi Jain is a Research Intern at IMPRI

Youtube Video: The Rural Question: Issues in Rural Transformation in India.