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Indian Villages

Gilbert Etienne


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1While India has become an emerging country with considerable economic and social achievements, including rising middle classes, poverty remains a severe issue in large parts of the country, especially in a number of rural areas. Recently there have been indignant reactions, including Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s, in response to estimates indicating a sizeable number of stunted and malnourished children. Such estimates are questionable, as will be seen in this book, but the issue of malnutrition and poor health remains very serious. During my latest surveys, I observed in several villages that poverty is retreating even among landless Dalit peasants, but I also came across villagers who possessed only one shabby set of clothes, and lived in quasi empty huts.

2Such contrasts were more prominent in 1947. India, at the time, was one of the most advanced countries coming out of foreign rule. It was the tenth largest industrial power in the world in absolute figures. It enjoyed dynamic banking and trading centres, many of which were run by Indians. Some rural areas had become quite prosperous, thanks to irrigation canals built by the British. There were bright elites in all fields. In 1950, in the corridors of the Planning Commission you would rarely encounter a foreign adviser, as could have been seen in most Asian countries at that time, including Soviet experts in China.

3Nevertheless, India was also infamous for its acute poverty, hunger, very low literacy, its rigid caste system and its “holy cows”. Today, although poverty has been considerably reduced, along with other social weaknesses including castes relations, these contrasts still exist.


4This book is not intended for senior researchers in agricultural economy but for the layman. There is a growing expansion of middle classes born, educated and living in cities. It results in a huge gap between these new classes and villages, their ways of life. The present technical issues, the future of the farmers is less and less known by the new classes.

5As shown in these village studies, complaints of poor infrastructure came out already in the 1950s and one still waits for a thorough orientation of the rural policy as well as an emphasis on correction of a number of practical agricultural techniques, which the growth of agriculture, particularly more emphasis on bio agriculture. The next steps in agriculture development will be much more complex, costly and time consuming than the Green Revolution of the 1960s. Huge marketing issues need to be improved since at the moment about 1/3 of fruit and vegetables are lost after harvest.

6The major aim of this book is to show what has happened and what is happening in areas representative of the diversity of India in terms of geography. The surveys attempt to assess, mostly through repeated field studies in the same villages, variations such as the differences between areas fit for the Green Revolution and districts that are unfit. The historical background, local caste patterns, as well as political and economic issues are no less important to this inquiry. Out of these surveys emerge the next possible steps for rural areas; such steps are bound to be more complex, more expensive and time consuming than the introduction of the Green Revolution.


7I first landed in India in November 1952 as a student from the Institute of Oriental Civilizations and Languages in Paris. Until 1963, I had cumulatively spent about three years in the country over various occasions. At that time I was observing the broad trends of the economy, including agriculture, through numerous journeys.

8In 1963 I decided to study agriculture and the rural scene at the grass roots level by surveying several villages, having a look at local administration and at the impact of the development policy pursued by the central and the state governments.

9The selection of villages gives a fair sample of the three major categories of regions in India, except the Himalayas: irrigated plains in the Northwest and in the Southeastern deltas; the Eastern plains and their large untapped potential of irrigation; and peninsular India with its often weak and uncertain rains, low potential for irrigation and wide tracts with poor and eroded soils.

10The first survey took nine months in 1963/64. Some more villages, especially in rainfed areas of the peninsula, were added to the original ones in subsequent rounds in 1978/79, 1985/86, 1992/93 and 2002. For each round, except the last one, I came with my family from Europe in my own car and used it to tour the country. In between these dates, I occasionally visited some of the villages. Between 2002 and 2008 I added surveys of Mayurbhanj district in Orissa and those from revisits to Khandoi. From 2010 to 2012, I relied on information supplied to me on Khandoi, Kila Ulur, Mayurbhanj and Bihar.

11Knowing Hindi, I only needed interpreters in the non-Hindi speaking areas. During the first round, I stayed with my family in the villages, except in Kila Ulur. For the following rounds, I commuted every day to “my” village from the district guesthouse, except in Khandoi where I lived repeatedly.

12It would not have been reasonable to concentrate only on agro-economics. One requires a basic knowledge of social and political factors in order to understand the issues faced by villagers and the prevailing class and caste relations and their links with poverty, particularly concerning the Dalits.

13The third part of the book is based on the synthesis of my field studies and on a number of books and reports, and deals with national issues; economic reforms and agricultural policies; anti-poverty projects; a number of most regrettable controversies; and finally, the next steps for a possible future for villagers.


14There have been considerable achievements in the economy and in rural society, which include agricultural growth, improvements in rural infrastructures, and poverty alleviation, especially in Green Revolution districts. Yet, alarm bells are ringing due to the slowdown of agricultural growth and, more recently, of the whole economy. About 50% of the working population still subsist on agriculture, which accounts for 15% of the GDP. As for the rate of urbanisation, it has only reached 31.2% of the population according the 2011 census. Such data emphasize the great importance of agriculture and of the rural economy as compared to other emerging countries that have higher urbanization rates and fewer workers dependent on agriculture. In comparison, 37% of China’s working labour force is engaged in agriculture and the urban population is 52%, while in Indonesia the figures are 50% and 42% respectively. The importance of agriculture in India is also salient from a social point of view, since poverty is usually more acute in villages than in cities.

15Finally, the growing gap between urban elites and villagers referred to in this book is not particular to India. It is common to other countries in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, two continents where the number of poor and undernourished peasants is still quite high.


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