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Indian Villages

Gilbert Etienne

Part II – The Green Revolution and After

Chapter 5 – In the Eastern Plains

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1Except in West Bengal, the eastern plains have faced slow growth for several decades. In Bihar, it accompanies one of the fastest population growth rates in India: between 2001 and 2011, it was 25.17% compared to 17.6% for the whole country. Towns absorb only 11% of the population versus 31% (the national average). The average state density has reached 1,107 persons per sq km. Although population pressure is less acute in the plains of Orissa, poverty remains severe. The state has become deficit in food grains, while it enjoyed a surplus in the 1950s.

In Muzaffarpur

2When returning to Bihar and Muzaffarpur in the fall of 1978, the urge and enthusiasm for irrigation prevailing in 1967 had vanished. Progress in the prevention of floods and excess water was also stunted. In Pilkhi, 7 private TWs have been installed with a command area of 5 ha each. They rely on diesel because electricity supply is erratic. The maintenance of engines is difficult because there are not enough workshops around. As for the state TW, which covers 80 to 100 ha, it is occasionally out of order, sometimes even for a few weeks. As in Khandoi, the operator of the TW requests a bakshish from non-influential farmers. Thus, out of 370 ha that are cultivated, not even one-half is completely irrigated and that too not always adequately. Because of lack of consolidation of holdings, owners of TWs must dig different borings to shift the engine from one plot to the other. Electricity supply remains very poor. Recently there was a breakdown for a whole month because 230 m of wire had been cut and robbed for sale in the bazaar.

3One counts 3 tractor owners and a fair number of buggies on tyres. With HYV paddy, chemical fertilizers and good irrigation, cultivators harvest 2,300 to 3,000 kg/ha. Rainfed paddy yield remains at around 1,500 kg/ha when it does not fall to 1,000 kg/ha or less in low lands suffering from excess water. Under such conditions, paddy cannot be transplanted and is sown broadcast, often a floating variety, which grows with rising water. One stem may reach up to 1 m. Wheat acreage has increased with good farmers achieving yields of 2,000 to 2,500 kg/ha with adequate irrigation and some chemical fertilizers, while others only manage 1,200 kg/ha (unirrigated wheat was 500 kg/ha in the 1960s).

4High-caste landowners, and even small ones, remain faithful to the taboo on ploughing. Women, even Dalits, do not work as paid labourers. As for ancillary jobs, petty trade, transport and small industries, they are not expanding much in such a sluggish economy. Some small landowners manage decently. Kaplewas is a young man, married with one child so far. Out of his 0.25 ha, he devotes some plots to tobacco, which fetches a high price. He also grows pulses, which, though providing a low yield, give a good return. He sells part of the milk supplied by his buffalo. Smart and outspoken, he says: “The landlords eat and we work.” A Yadav (a rising OBC caste) just about manages with half a hectare and by taking up diverse odd jobs. Among landlords, some of them do fairly well, while others are still neglecting their crops.

5The Dalits’ lot is not improving. As was the case before, they complain of bad treatment from the twice-borns, but they may, in addition, face clashes with Yadavs and Kurmis, who at the same time have conflicts with the high-castes.

6The progress recorded until 2002 is not striking. The state TW is hardly functioning, and one counts 22 private TWs with oil engines, covering around 125 ha out of a cultivated area of 370 ha, even though there is enough irrigation potential for 90% of the area, if not more. Irrigated yields of paddy have hardly increased since the 1970s and there is no change for rainfed paddy. Irrigated wheat has done a little better, reaching 2,500 to 3,000 kg/ha versus 2,000–2,500 kg/ha. HYV hybrid maize, a new crop, cultivated in the rabi on 50 ha, delivers a very good yield of 4,000 to 5,000 kg/ha. Small irrigated and well-tended plots are expanding their outputs with chillies, tobacco, vegetables and some mango and lichi trees, all of which give a much higher return than cereals. The lack of drainage, as before, prevents the use of 25 ha or allows only very poor yields. The number of shops is increasing. Tractors and buses become more common and some landlords have even bought a car.

7Muzzafarpur is well known for its litchis, but it is hardly possible to boost its growth due to lack of cold storage. Traders were telling me that, since the period for plucking fruit is short, you absolutely need cold storage. The lack of electricity cannot be remedied by using diesel generators, which would be too costly.

8At last, high-caste small landowners have broken their taboo on ploughing. There are, at the same time, more women working as agricultural paid labourers, partly as a consequence of male out-migrations.

9During my visits in 1978, 1985, and 1992, I recorded constant complaints by the Dalits, mostly Chamars and Dusads: “The mota (fat people) sit idle, while we do all the work.” The word dabao came up often. Once, when I was interviewing some Chamars, young Bhumihars in spotless clean dhotis and kurtas, passing by leisurely on their bicycles, stopped and made ironic comments about the foreigner speaking to Chamars. I poured on them my choicest Hindi abuses. They did not even react, which made me still angrier. In 2002, I felt that the situation was not as bad, but this impression needed to be confirmed. Caste barriers remain as they have been for so long.

10In all my surveys, I found that slow economic growth and growing population pressure resulted in daily agricultural wages being about half of those found in Green Revolution districts. In 2002, it was Rs 30 compared to Rs 60 in Khandoi. Job opportunities in the ancillary sector are limited. Outlets in Muzaffarpur were relatively limited. Not many people go and work in Punjab, as was the case for people in many parts of Bihar.

11Most Dusads and Chamars live in huts with thatched roofs which cannot withstand very strong monsoons. Many huts are nearly empty, with perhaps a charpai, some earthen pots for storing water, and a few odd clothes, if any. Several people own only one set of clothes, those they are wearing, like this group of landless Muslims complaining about their unchanging poverty.

12Here and there, some Dalits have risen above the poverty line thanks to their ability and possibly because of some luck. Ram Chandra Paswan, a Dusad, is proud of his two crossbred cows and one desi (local) cow. He sells milk, driving around on his old second-hand scooter and works as an agricultural labourer. One of his sons, a painter working with a contractor in Delhi, sends home some money. The other son managed to save money for opening a fair price shop selling subsidised grain to BPL people. He says, unknowingly with a Weberian touch, “I do not drink and I do not eat meat in order to save as much money as possible.” He adds that his conduct is unlike the behaviour of the other Dusads, whom he criticises.

13Another Dusad, 45 years old, is no less enterprising. After some years at school, he left for Patna, then Delhi, and Calcutta. In 1986 he went to Haryana for paddy cultivation. It was a tough job of 10 hours per day. Using his savings of Rs 800 per month, he bought two cows after returning home, from which he sells part of the milk supplied. He carries it with other farmers’ milk on his bicycle. He received a homestead from the government, which makes him free from the landlord from whom he previously rented a plot for his house. Along with his neighbour, he benefits from a hand pump installed, like others, by the government. After having had two sons, he uses condoms, another sign of his astuteness. The two boys go to school decently dressed. One of them even wears a watch. Unfortunately, such success stories are far from representing the dominant trend.

14Wherever one looks, one sees all kinds of obstacles to faster progress that could favour the poor in particular: lack of public money, even more serious than here in many other states; a shaky law and order situation; caste tensions, although they seem worse in south Bihar; and delays of all kinds. Complaints about ghus (corruption, bribery) in Bihar are even more widespread than in UP. The poor often suffer more than the upper castes and upper classes. “Qanun (the law) is for the rich. We have to use ghus,” said a Chamar. Lack of electricity, and adulterated fertilizers, often come up in conversations.

15In spite of all these defects, agriculture is no longer semi-static. Between 1991 and 2001, rainfed paddy has grown from 1,000–1,500 to 1,500–2,000 kg/ha, and, under the best monsoon, irrigated paddy yield has risen from 2,000 to 2,500–3,000 kg/ha. Such increases are not spectacular in villages bearing a density of more than 1,000 persons per sq km, and having shrinking land holdings - except for some landlords, and a large number of landless peasants. On the other hand, there are more kitchen gardens with vegetables, tobacco, and potatoes giving good return. Crossbred cows begin to be noticed.

16Trade between Muzzaffarpur and Pilkhi is expanding with an increasing traffic of trucks and motorcycles. In the village, one counts 8 cars belonging to landlords and 80 motorcycles, along with some semi-durable goods.

17The local health centre lacks drugs. The middle school has only six teachers and no headmaster. People below the poverty line, when we saw them, had been waiting for their rations of rice for the last five months.

18Lack of commitment on the part of the political leadership, and administrative weaknesses because of political interference are also to be found in UP, but their negative impact on development is worse in Bihar since the latter state is less developed. Bihar needs enormous public investments, which are the responsibility of the State. Also, it has not enjoyed the benefits of the consolidation of land holdings. Other complex historical and socio-political factors have also contributed to this state of affairs.

Bihar, 2002 to 2012

19After 15 years of misrule under Laloo Prasad Yadav and his wife, the governance of Bihar has substantially improved with of Nitish Kumar (a Kurmi) coming to power as Chief Minister. This followed the state elections of 2005 after which he was re-elected in 2010. The law and order situation has improved. Investments in education, health, roads, construction in Patna, and for trade are coming in, leading to the improving growth of the state GDP. On the other hand, such changes are slow to percolate down to villages.

20Nitish Kumar is rightly paying much attention to electricity. Bihar requires 2,500 MW. 1,700 MW have been sanctioned, but it still needs to get more than 700–800 MW. It seems doubtful that, even with additional 700 MW by 2015, the shortage will fall. At present the per capita consumption per year amounts to 122 kW versus 780 kW, the national average (Business India, 18-3-2012).

21Gerry and Janine Rodgers, who have done much research work in Bihar’s villages since 1969, have done new work in 2009–2012 with some Indian colleagues which brings out the latest trends in the rural economy, a number of them being quite positive (Datta, Rodgers, and Singh 2012). Out-migrations keep on growing. Temporary work like paddy cultivation in Punjab, all kinds of unskilled jobs in local cities, which often require commuting from their village, or men working in major towns and sending home their savings to maintain their families in the village, where they return for one or two months per year, can be noted. Landless agricultural workers and small landowners are not the only ones to migrate, usually for unskilled work. Among landlords, there are also more people settling in urban areas as government officials, teachers, and businessmen. The Rodgers give cases of villages where 44% of the families have at least one member outside, while others have as much as 82%.

22As a result, local agricultural wages tend to increase, reaching Rs 80 per day in a number of villages. This means that the gap between agricultural wages in Bihar and advanced areas has been relatively reduced, though it still remains high: wages in Khandoi in 2012 ranged from Rs 150 to 160. Masons in Bihar earned around Rs 200 versus Rs 300 in Khandoi. There are cases where it is difficult to hire labour. “To sum up, migration allows households to diversify their livelihood strategies, with one foot in the village and another foot in the city.” (Rogers 2012). It contributes significantly to better living conditions or towards less poor ones. The population of the state has reached 104 million in the 2011 census. Migrations to other states may amount to 10 million, including temporary and permanent workers. Other migrations occur within Bihar itself. The impact of migration has a significant impact on castes relations. “Attached labour has all but disappeared … These new opportunities have sounded the death-knell of semi-feudal mechanisms of control” (Rodgers 2012).

23The Rodgers surveyed two villages, a more advanced one in Nalanda district and one in Madhubani, not too far from Muzaffarpur. In addition to out-migrations, local non-agricultural activities are growing: construction of brick houses, of roads, as well as petty trade. Tractors and power tillers are becoming widespread although one still sees bullocks being used for ploughing. In the advanced village, there are more new houses, hand pumps for drinking water, retail shops and four flourmills. Upon reaching the village in 2008, one found that electricity was available for 5 hours a day until 2011 when the transformer was burnt. It was still not repaired one year later. Most of the land is irrigated by TWs. HYVs with chemical fertilizers give 3,250 kg/ha for paddy and 2,760 kg/ha for wheat. While encouraging, these yields still need to be increased bearing in mind that population density per sq km was already 1,132 in 2001.

24The agricultural record of the other village is less promising. While irrigation is progressing, similar yields of paddy and wheat are around 2,200 kg/ha. These weaknesses are compensated, to some extent, by a higher rate of out-migrations. In both villages, mobile phones, motorcycles and other durable goods are increasing.

25To sum up, the very careful survey by the Rodgers and their Indian colleagues confirms the great importance of out-migrations, their economic and social impact on living conditions of rich as well as poor farmers. Even if agriculture is not moving fast as yet, the economic reforms promoted by Nitish Kumar and his government should, helped by the remittances of migrants, gradually percolate down to villages.

In Puri District, Orissa

26When I first visited Orissa in 1954, even the main highways were not asphalted. Life was entirely traditional. Due to a relatively low population density, compared to those in the Ganges Basin, agricultural production was able to meet the needs of the people. The state enjoyed a small surplus of rice to sell outside. This changed in the following decades. With faster population growth, the state faced a deficit in food grains. On the road to Puri the traffic was very moderate: bullock carts, some buses and trucks, hardly any cars, and every here and there a Sadhu could be seen walking towards the holy city. Apart from during the great religious ceremonies, the holy city was not very animated.

27In 1978, I started my enquiries in Brahmagiri Block, East of Puri, near the sea. After driving 20 km on the district road, we drove another 5 km as far as Chandiput. The area was very isolated. It had poor roads and no electricity. Many low-lying fields in this region suffer from excess water even during a normal monsoon. Either no paddy can be grown here, or it is a floating variety sown broadcast, yielding 500 kg/ha. On higher ground, rainfed transplanted paddy gives 1,000-1,500 kg/ha, using old varieties with no chemical fertilisers. Pulses are grown on some plots during the rabi. Shops are rare. Animal husbandry is poor. Casuarina, coconut and banana trees, along with river fish bring in some additional income. The limited economic growth is being undercut by population growth, and consequently even landowners who own a few hectares are facing increasing difficulties.

28As for the town of Puri, until the 1970s, it could neither attract enough workers nor stimulate the supply of agricultural commodities, even during the great pilgrimage festival. During my subsequent visits, I found that the basic hydraulic constraints have not been significantly removed. There is practically no drainage system. By 2002, 51 low-lift pumps (pumps on rivers) had been installed in Brahmagiri block, but only 33 are in working condition. Out of 20,000 ha, 8,400 ha consist of low lands. Over the past 24 years, since I first began visiting the area, there has been little noticeable increase in agricultural yields, except on the limited irrigated plots, which produce about 2,000 kg/ha of paddy.

29Ancillary activities have made some headway under the growing pull of Puri and the demands emanating from the city’s expansion, as increasing numbers of pilgrims and tourists, both local and foreign, are visiting the town. This means increased sales of coconuts, bananas, and fish. Roads traffic has grown with more and more trucks, buses, and motorcycles. Tea stalls now even sell Coca-Cola. Some low lands had been converted into prawn ponds by local contractors in the late 1990s. Refrigerated trucks and cold-storage facilities are being used. In 2002, these new jobs provided comparatively high wages of Rs 70–80 per day for employment under hard working conditions. Such new activities, though welcome, still remain far too limited to have a deep impact on the livelihood of large numbers of poor people. However, it must be emphasised that extreme poverty is less acute here than it is in Bihar. Population density, which was low until the 1950s, is still lower today than it is in the Ganges basin (350–500 persons per sq km in 2001 in the former versus 1,000 or more in the latter), meaning that, even with low agricultural yields, poverty may be less severe. In addition, vegetables, trees (like casuarina, coconut, and banana), and fish play a comparatively more important role in the local economy than they do in Bihar.

30I regularly visit a hamlet of Doms (Dalits, population 40) whose living conditions were – and continue to remain – bearable. Children are well dressed and go to school. Men and women are lively. They pursue several activities: their traditional occupation is making bamboo baskets, which they sell in Puri. They catch and sell fish; collect casuarina wood near the sea; they own some banana and coconut trees; and they also work as agricultural labourers, earning Rs 30–40 per day in 2002, an amount similar to the wage rate in Bihar.

31On the whole, in 1992, they enjoyed a better quality of life. One of them had started raising goats and had recently bought a TV set. In 2002, some households complained of facing difficulties and leading a stagnant life. The owner of the TV set had to sell it following trouble with his goat business, but he still keeps two bicycles for his family.

32In the next hamlet live several Dhobi families. Since 1978, their standard of living has improved slightly. They now perform more small odd jobs, such as collecting wood, engaging in petty trade, and catching fish. However, they are worried because the upper castes have stopped using their services for washing their clothes. In the main village of Chandiput, there is no car, no motorcycle, and no telephone. Small landowners complain of the lack of progress and development.

33Pipli is on the highway connecting Bhubaneswar and Puri. In 1954, it was a big sleepy village. Within the last three decades, it became a small lively town. The number of tourists and pilgrims to Puri has been increasing. Tea stalls and all kinds of shops are proliferating. Very attractive handicraft shops have become more numerous and more prominent.

34Large areas of Pipli block have suffered historically from excess water, even during a normal monsoon, because of lack of drainage. Hence, these areas are either uncultivable during the monsoon or they produce a poor quality of floating rice. This situation has not improved much over the past forty years. Since the 1970s, medium and high lands have benefited from the canals flowing from the Hirakud dam upstream on the Mahanadi River. Yields of irrigated paddy in the monsoon reach 2,500–3,000 kg/ha in the kharif, a fairly good yield, aided by new seeds and chemical fertilizers, and around 3,500 kg/ha in the rabi. Yields of rainfed paddy remain around 1,000–1,300 kg/ha, or even as low as 600 kg/ha, in the low lands. Some tube wells and low-lift pumps supplement canal irrigation, which promotes the cultivation of vegetables and fruits. Demand for these products is high in the holy city and they give a high return.

35While a number of medium-scale landowners were better off than they used to be, the progress of the Dalits had been uneven. In 2002, the average daily agricultural wages amounted to Rs 40. In Raghurajpur village, not far from Puri, the Kelajats (Dalits) were extremely poor. A number of them owned only one set of clothes. Many women did not wear a choli. The children were half-naked and dirty. Many of them did not go to school. There was no electricity and no telephone. The villagers complained of not receiving even cheap rations of rice that were due to BPL people. In another village, the Bohis (Dalits) were even more vocal about their miserable living conditions, which were worsening. Although acute misery may have been less in Orissa than it was in Bihar, with wages being slightly higher and the population density being lower, the number of people below the poverty line was still high.

36When looking at the plain area around Puri, there had, nevertheless, been clear progress of irrigated paddy in the 1980s when the deficit was replaced by a temporary small surplus. This was largely due to the unusual progress of extension services under the leadership of the deputy agricultural director, G.S. Naik - a man of great calibre, who was well qualified in agronomy with much experience and energy. I accompanied him in his frequent visits to villages, talking to farmers in a friendly manner and going out in the muddy paddy fields to check the number of hills of paddy. After retiring he was engaged by the World Bank. He had the honour of getting a full-page write-up in The Economist!

37In my 1985/1986 round I noticed that, in a number of districts the agricultural staff was improving on the whole. However, the case of Puri remained exceptional. It demonstrates, once more, the impact of outstanding personalities on development, a remark that may look like a platitude even though it is often forgotten.

38Major issues, however, are beyond a few talented men. Large-scale drainage, improved canal networks, more tube wells and low-lift pumps would help in expanding the area under irrigation and in encouraging double cropping, thus leading to considerable increases in yields. There is also much room to push the cultivation of vegetables, orchards, and coconut trees. The growing influx of pilgrims and tourists, both local and foreign, to Puri and Konarak has widened the scope for services like hotels of all kinds and transport. The demand for food products (fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, and fish) and the sale of handicrafts could increase further and faster. All these factors need to be encouraged in order to accelerate poverty alleviation, particularly in the case of the Dalits.

The Impact of the Services Sector

39We briefly referred to the impact of Benares’ expansion on villages in its proximity. The changes in Puri district are no less striking. The semi sleeping city, except during religious festivals, has grown considerably since the 1970s. Until those days, you had only one decent hotel, dating from the British era, called the South Eastern Railway Hotel, facing the sea. Now there are dozens of new hotels, from five stars to small ones, along with restaurants and luxurious villas stretching on the beach for several kilometres. In the town bazars, fruit, vegetables, and fish are taking a large part of the main avenues, opposite to all kinds of local handicrafts.

40Even more remarkable is the site of the famous Sun Temple in Konarak (dating from the thirteenth century) close to Pipli. In 1954 and 1964, I was alone here and there was not even a guard. Some children were looking after their goats. In 1971, there were a few tourists and a guard who prevented me from climbing the temple, as I used to do to take pictures on the higher galleries of the beautiful celestial nymphs playing music for the Sun God.

41In 2006, the temple is surrounded by a fence with a gate and sales of tickets are being carried out for entry. Huge crowds, mostly Indian tourists, walk around. Between the temple and the sea, the beach is covered by a long line of hotels, restaurants, and multiple handicrafts shops selling pottery, leather goods, jewellery, fine traditional paintings, and textiles. Some of them are traditional, and some are new devices. A parking place accommodates a large number of buses and private cars. It would be interesting to study the impact of tourism on local development in detail. It seems that every year, about 100 million Indian tourists travel within the whole country. This represents a clear example of the growth of the services sector and its contribution to the rural and urban economies, another typical aspect of the growing society of consumption and its socio-economic benefits.


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