Why India’s Villages Matter: Challenges and Possibilities

The IMPRI Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS) organized the book release of ‘Remembering India’s Villages’ edited by Santosh K. Singh followed by a panel discussion on ‘Why India’s Villages Matter- Challenges and Possibilities’ on 7th October 2021. The discussion was organized under the #WebPolicyTalk series The State of Villages- #IRuralRealities.

The discussion had an esteemed panel of eminent professors and scholars consisting of Professor Surinder Jodhka, Professor of Sociology, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, Professor Santosh Singh, Chandigarh-based Academic and Commentator; Formerly Founder Faculty, Ambedkar University Delhi, Dr. Mekhala Krishnamurthy, Associate Professor of Sociology & Social Anthropology, Ashoka University, Sonepat, Professor Manish Thakur, Professor, Public Policy and Management, Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Calcutta, Kolkata.

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Historical Background

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Professor Surinder Jodhka, chair of the discussion, expressed his gratitude to the IMPRI team, the panelists, and all the contributors to the book titled ‘Remembering India’s Villages’. He pointed out how the title of the book itself implied that the Indian Villages have been forgotten. Indian villages however continue to be a significant component of Indian society and to some extent, 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 begin 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 M.N. Srinivas had been studying in the 1940s and 1950s. At that time, the rural area was a microcosm of India, it was like a case study. Studying Indian villages could help one in understanding India.

In the 1990s, the cultural imagination of India began to take shape. The middle class had represented India in some sense even before the 1990s but from that decade onwards, the middle class essentially became India. Universities started laying more focus on technology-related courses than the social sciences. Even today, it is possible to find a book on the Indian Economy without a chapter on Agriculture even though it was and continues to be a major sector of the Indian economy.

The real India is reflected in the comparative analysis of the different sectors. While the service sector has been booming up, followed by the manufacturing sector, the agriculture sector has been going down. Agriculture, however, is just one component of rural life.

Remembering the villages would require delving into various aspects such as why and in what ways the villages were forgotten. Prof Jhodka then talked about how the book covered several such aspects and why the panel needed to go beyond remembering and move to revisioning rural India. Moving forward, he introduced the editor of the book, Professor Santosh Singh, and the other panelists.

The Need for the Book

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Professor Santosh Singh, the editor of the book then took over the floor and thanked the panelists, contributors, participants, and the IMPRI team for putting together the event. He talked about the trajectory of change in the idea of rural over decades. He highlighted how in the 1980s there was a special interest in the villages of India.

As the introductory chapter of his book identifies a lapse in the revival of rural areas. Even though the 1990s were more about a new and changing India, about globalization, the idea of rural did come up but as a crisis. A large number of suicides were reported from areas that were supposed to lie in the Green Revolution belt of India.

From hay days of the ’70s when village studies took the centre stage and all sociologists and anthropologists had at least one village to their name for sure to the gradual disappearance of rural in the subsequent decades. Urban was seen as the future of India and the rural got relegated in the background. From Prof Singh’s experience, not a lot of people are interested in studying rural India. He believed that his book would create a budge and remind people about village India, giving them the attention that they need and deserve.

He then went on to discuss a very important question- Why do the Indian villages matter? 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. As per Prof Singh, rural and urban are always viewed as bipolar islands, two completely different ideas but 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 the urban areas and the rural areas do not provide that possibility. When things change in urban areas, they are comprehended in a positive way but when changes occur in rural areas it is viewed as disappearance.

He talked about an interesting observation of his, the urban to rural migration during the pandemic. If rural areas are placed below the urban areas while doing a comparative analysis, then what factor drives people back home at the time of crisis? Perhaps it is the sense of assurance, maybe something else. Prof. Singh emphasized the need to conduct proper research on the same and look at villages through a diverse set of lens.

A Fresh Perspective

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Professor 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. The idea of village has been subjected to multiple sorts of ruptures with the state on one hand and the market on the other.

He made an interesting remark that 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 call of their ‘maati’ or sense of belongingness. We have conspired to make villages into places of despondency and despair, places that do not inspire people.

Globalization and Urbanization

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Dr. Mekhala Krishnamurthy recounted incidents from the time when she engaged with people from rural areas during her field research. The notion that village has a particular sense of interconnectedness, intimacy, moral economy, interdependence is often used by globalization and urban sites to produce a sense of interconnectedness. 

She went on to talk about how the village has always been more than agriculture and agriculture has always been more than 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 the village and dispersed relationships.

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 that the idea of village itself has done. He also expounded upon how he is not so enthused with the idea of belongingness, when someone goes back to the village it is not necessarily because of the innate inherent call of the ‘maati’.

Millions of Indians rely upon a portfolio of livelihoods, compelling a large number of them to give up the village. They work in cities and then go back during festivals. To this, Dr. Mekhala added that 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. It is up to us where we want to root ourselves and redefine.


Prof Surinder Jhodka carried the conversation forward by adding that even the migrants who live in the urban areas never really leave their villages, they come back, they do not get ‘urbanized’. Going back to the remarks he made in the beginning about revisioning the village, he talked about how imperative it is to think about questions like what is a village? How many villages are there in India?

Rural needs to be thought about in plural. Even developed countries like the United Kingdom or the United States are rural. Thinking in terms of diversities of settlement patterns rather than binaries of rural and urban empirically and theoretically can take us further to think of village through the idea of change and modernity.

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 these villages for centuries and will continue to live there. Villages are not going anywhere, we just need to approach them differently, and Prof Santosh Singh’s book is a reminder of the same. We need to discuss the villages along with the cities. One by one all the panelists expressed gratitude and finally, Dr. Arjun Kumar, Director of IMPRI thanked the panelists for participating in the discussion and sharing their valuable insights.

Acknowledgment: Sneha Bisht is a Research Intern at IMPRI

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