Version classiqueVersion mobile

Indian Villages

Gilbert Etienne

Part III – The All India Rural Picture and the Future

Chapter 9 – Progress and Obstacles

Texte intégral

1The village surveys confirm, on the whole, both successes and weaknesses of the agricultural policy since the initial steps taken with the First Five Years Plan 1951-1956. While tackling these issues at the all India level, one must bear in mind – it is often forgotten – that nature or geography widens or restricts the margin of human possibilities. It is no less important to take into account the historical background of various parts of India. We then come across man-made successes or failures, changes in traditions and living conditions, class and caste relations, and Adivasis’ issues.

Physical Constraints

2Wide areas of peninsular India are not, and will not be, able to sustain a Green Revolution due to lack of sufficient irrigation to compensate for poor and/or erratic rainfall. This is obvious in arid zones, as in western Rajasthan, and in wide areas of the central part of the peninsula. In the North East corner the rainfall is higher, but it is not sufficient to promote HVY paddy without irrigation. As for irrigation, we have seen its limitations.

3Then one must assess the soil. As seen in Mayurbhanj, one can curb the declining trend of soils, which were already poor in the past, but one cannot transform them into rich alluvial fields. And this is true everywhere in the world. The world champions in wheat produce 10 t/ha in the plains of La Beauce in France, where soils are exceptionally rich. Elsewhere, also in fertile soils applying the same techniques, West European farmers raise 5 to 7 t/ha. The data collected in Mayurbhanj – showing up to 1,000 kg/ha of millet and 2,000 kg/ha, or rarely 2,500 kg/ha, of paddy – are very near the upper limits, which can be reached by rainfed crops through bio agriculture on such soils. Besides, in many places, there is no double cropping in the dry season, except some low yield pulses.

4At the all India level, much greater efforts are undoubtedly possible. One should promote more watershed projects, although they are complex and often costly. They may increase yields but in a limited manner. One big outlet, which should be stimulated more by state governments and extension services, focuses on orchards. We have seen their success and the high income they supply on poor barren soils, owing to simple but very carefully applied techniques. The same can be said of kitchen gardens dependent on wells.

5Nature can also be generous, as observed in the alluvial plains, which allowed the first phase of progress with canal irrigation introduced by the British, followed by the Green Revolution. It, however, is up to men to make full use of these natural assets. As observed, this has not been the case so far in the eastern plains for many reasons: technical ones like rivers flowing below the surface of the fields in British days, preventing gravity canals, as in Punjab or coastal Andhra – an obstacle which now can be overcome by low-lift pumps on rivers banks. Then, after independence, there were shortcomings in irrigation policy, which will be referred to in the next chapter.

Man-Made Successes and Weaknesses

6Before dealing with independent India, it may be appropriate to remember the success story of the Indus Basin under the British, based on certain key ingredients: a very favourable physical milieu; good soils with plenty of irrigation potential thanks to the rivers; and a fine peasantry in Punjab made up of agricultural castes, including Sikh, Hindu and Muslim Jats, and Arains (Muslims). Then there has been a high density of remarkable senior officers: pioneers like the Lawrence brothers, John Nicholson, R. Montgomery, and Alfred Lyall. Later on, in the twentieth century, there were Sir Malcolm Darling and Sir Penderel Moon. Before the Second World War, some, later eminent, Indian ICS officers begin to be noticed: B. K. Nehru, starting his career on a camel in Punjab, and Agha Abdul Hamid, a Muslim Punjabi, later on a Pakistani. The latter was the head of Lyallpur district in 1947, which was one of the few districts spared from riots and killings thanks to Hamid’s courage and ability. In Sind, one could come across equally promising and bright Indian ICS officers like A. D. Gorwala and H. M. Patel. In addition, districts were relatively small (around 2,000 sq km), meaning that they were much better managed than the enormous districts of Bengal.

7Undoubtedly, there were negative sides like the weight of landlords favoured by the British; social practices like small girls’ infanticide among Jats and Rajputs, because the cost of marriage is supported by the girl’s family (Darling 1947, 51), and hardships endured due to indebtedness and moneylenders.

8As we have seen (Chapter 3), the Green Revolution fits well with the ingredients of success: thorough political commitment, efficient and dedicated ICS/IAS officers, favourable physical milieu, good agricultural castes, and robust foreign assistance. The Green Revolution improved living conditions for the rich and the poor, landowners as well as landless people. The following steps in development policies have been less straightforward, often lacking a sense of priorities, and have not paid enough attention to the rural world in terms of policy and public investments (see next chapter).

Varying Farmers’ Behaviours

9Our friends in Khandoi were quite outspoken when saying, “Purbi log dhile hain” (The Easterners are lazy and easy going). Although such judgment may be too blunt, we have seen the gaps between traditional agricultural castes and others observing the taboo on ploughing and manual work. Such differences can be found since ancient times in many countries. They may last long, but they may also change. In India, even the best experts could not have convinced Brahmins and Thakurs to hold the plough in the 1950s/60s, but the passing of time and “compulsion” as they say, led them to break the taboo.

10Plenty of other differences are found in such a huge country. Why, for instance, during the Raj, were new industries concentrated among the tiny minority of Parsis, Gujrati trading castes, and Marwaris? Since several decades, a large number of other communities have become no less prominent in industry: Brahmins, Sikhs and Hindu Punjabis, a number of Rajputs, several merchant castes, and even OBCs.

11Connected to the behaviour of caste is the historical background. This became very clear as the Green Revolution followed the steps of the British in irrigated areas. One of the more striking cases is that of Gujrat, which has been open to the outside world, foreign trade, and traditional industries for thousands of years. This early start has had some impact on its fast expansion in agriculture, industry and foreign trade in the present. It is equally significant to note that one half of the motels in the USA are run by Gujratis (Dhingra 2012). It is even more striking to see that Gujrati merchants have broken the monopoly of Jews on diamond trade in Antwerp, where one can also see a Jain and a Hindu temple now.

12In brief, one comes across all kinds of behaviours. There are communities that are more inclined to change than others, while the changes themselves can either be slow or more rapid. In addition to caste, classes also enter the picture. We have seen how Kurmis and Yadavs are asserting themselves vis-à-vis the twice-borns, both in economic and political terms. One could say the same about the Kallars. In terms of changing rural power, it is also remarkable to see Brahmins leaving villages after selling their land in order to settle in cities, as observed in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.

The Advent of the Society of Consumption

13The establishment of the society of consumption is not confined to cities and is appearing in advanced villages as well: cars and motorcycles, better housing, better dress, more varied food, alcohol and soft drinks. Mechanisation of agricultural work, rice and flour mills and gas cylinders for cooking make the lives of men and women less difficult than they had been fifty years ago. The elder peasants grumble that their sons wearing jeans, t-shirts and canvass shoes have become “soft”. Many among the younger generation wish to leave their villages to get jobs in town.

14These changes remind us of Western societies after the Second World War. In Western Europe, as elsewhere, life was hard in the nineteenth century and during the first part of the following century. Working hours came down to 10 hours per day only around 1900. At that time very few girls were found in universities. Only a thin layer of the upper classes enjoyed comfortable houses or apartments with bathrooms, refrigerators, a car, and regular holidays in the mountains or on the sea shore.

15This picture changed drastically in the three decades following 1945 and the end of the war, something the French economist Jean Fourastié (1979) called Les Trente Glorieuses (The Thirty Glorious Years, title of his book). There was considerable economic and social progress during this time: a clear reduction in income disparities, establishment of social insurances, better housing, food and dress. Bathrooms and refrigerators became common, like telephones and washing machines. Entertainment, going to restaurants, cars for nearly every couple, and large numbers of people travelling for summer and winter holidays, along with falling class differences, could all be noticed.

16Many traditions, within the society, were visibly shaken: rising number of divorces (considered socially reprehensible until 1950), independence of working women, plenty of girl students, sexual freedom before marriage, recognition – though later – of homosexuals, and a reduction of religious beliefs and practices. One must add that, since the mid-1970s, economic and social progress has vacillated with renewed sharp inequalities and defective financial and economic policies which culminated in the dramatic crisis which has been affecting Western countries since 2008.

17A number of features of the society of consumption begin to be noticed in India and in China. Divorces are appearing in cities of both countries. On campuses of universities, boy and girl friends have become common sights along with blue jeans and even mini skirts. Both countries have adopted the decriminalization of homosexuality, although the persons concerned may still hide their behaviours.

18While there are similarities in the advent of the society of consumption between the West and emerging countries, differences remain. The starting point for the Chinese and Indian economies in the 1980s was much lower than the level of European economies in 1950 after the reconstruction following the war. Their population growth rates were much lower than the rates in Asia. On the other hand, the growth rate of the economy is much higher in China and even India than in Europe of the Trente Glorieuses: 6 to 9% in India, 8 to 10% in China versus 4% in Europe.

19To compare the changes let us take Khandoi, a typical advanced village, and a village in France described by Jean Fourastié (1979).

Table 3: Changes in Douelle (France) 1946–1975

Douelle (Quercy)



Total population



Farmers and agricultural workers



Non agricultural workers



Life expectancy (years)



Use of chemical fertilizers

Very little


Number of tractors



Number of cars



Number of radio sets



TV sets



20In 1946, practically nobody was undernourished but options for food were dull: bread, vegetable soup, pork from the farm, enough milk for children and home made cheese and not much fruit. Dress was old fashioned but sufficient and women were aging rapidly. Only four households had running water until 1946 ­- which was when all houses were fitted with one tap through the public distribution system. In 1975, out of 243 households, more than 230 enjoyed modern comforts, proper bathrooms with W.C., cold and hot water, and 210 had refrigerators while 180 had washing machines. Most houses were new or rebuilt. On the road one could count ten cars per day in 1939 and 600 in 1950. In the seventies, a number of people had gone for holidays to Africa, Rome or USA (Fourastié 1979).

Table 4: Changes in Khandoi (India) 1963–2003

Khandoi (Bulandshahr)



Total population



Working population

Mostly in agriculture

Some reduction

Non-agricultural workers



Yields of wheat, kg/ha



Number of tractors


All agricultural work doneby tractor

Number of cars



Number of motorcycles


More than 100



Plenty of cellular phones

TV sets



Cooking with gas cylinder





10% of households

Modern toilets


A few

21As we have seen, all mud walls have been replaced by brick houses. All lanes are paved and there are a fair number of hand pumps now. Nutrition has improved. Animal husbandry has progressed considerably. The traditional dress of men is disappearing in favour of trousers and modern shirts. Women wear full colour saris, and use lipstick, powder and nail varnish.

22The two villages have a number of similarities coupled with serious differences: the eradication of poverty was quasi complete in Douelle, unlike in Khandoi today, because the living conditions of the former at the start were higher and the population growth had been much slower.

Dalits and Other Castes

23What has been observed in our villages fits well with the global picture of inter-caste relations all over India. There are improvements in relations between Dalits and other castes, as seen in Khandoi where, since several decades, Jativs are allowed to sit on the same cot next to Brahmins and Jats. In Kila Ulur and Manchala, Dalits and dominant castes have rather smooth relations. The socio-economic progress of Dalits is clearly connected with the overall progress in their area: “Now we live a civilized life,” a Paraiyar was already telling me back in 1978.

24One must nevertheless add a non-economic dimension: the lowest castes within the Dalit hierarchy may draw fewer benefits from the overall growth of the area. Living conditions of the Bhangis in Khandoi have improved less than the Jativs’, and they still squat at the feet of Brahmins and Jats. The case of the Musahars is still worse. As seen in Nahiyan, unlike the Chamars, they have been practically left out of the process of growth. They are paid even less than others, a fact that is heard of in other places also. In the village of Raipara (UP), Musahar children do not go to school. They work in brick factories and their parents cannot get jobs under the Employment Guarantee Scheme, MGNREGA (The Economist, 8-9-2012).

25The rank of the Dalit castes in the past may also influence their present conditions of living. The Mahars, a superior Dalit caste since a long time, are a typical example. They were already rising in Eksal before the opening up and progress of the economy. One must consider the impact of the dominant castes versus others. The dabao (pressure, abuse) exerted by the twice-borns upon the Dalits could be perceived in Bihar and parts of UP, and probably elsewhere. In slow moving areas, the Dalits cannot help being poorer than the higher castes, as observed in Jharkhand and Orissa.

26Economic progress does not always curb abuses and violent clashes. In 2002, five Dalits were killed in the rich state of Haryana, following incidents related to the slaughter and killing of a cow (Frontline, 22-11-2002). Another clash also happened in Haryana between Jats who were unhappy to see rising Balmikis, a Dalit caste. On the pretext that a Balmiki dog was barking, they attacked the hamlet of the Balkmikis, looted it, set fire to twelve houses, and two people had been burnt alive (Economic and Political Weekly, 30-7-2011). In 2002, Dalits were prevented from breaking temple taboo at Chakwara village, 70 km of Jaipur (Indian Express, 21-9-2002). We have seen that the Kallars near Madurai were much less open to the Paraiyars than the Kallars of Kila Ulur. In the district of Ramanathapuram, Tamil Nadu, 6 Dalits were killed in a clash with the dominant caste (Economic & Political Weekly, 5-11-2011). The latest report on The State of Implementation of SCs and STs reveals that the cases of violence against SC/STs are increasing. UP accounted for 19.2% of total crimes: 6,242 out of 32,712 (The Hindu, 19-5-2012).

27On the other hand, education of Dalits has clearly improved over the years, partly because of the reservations policy for education and government employment. Politically, the weight of Dalits is increasing thanks to their sheer numbers as voters. Several of them become influential politicians. UP for instance, has recently been ruled by a lady, Mayawati who is a Chamar. One must, however, add that differences in status and rivalries between Dalit castes weaken their ability to increase their weight in politics and in the economy.

28It is not easy to draw a definite balance sheet between positive and negative factors concerning the Dalits, but one thing is clear: after nearly one century of efforts, which started with Mahatma Gandhi, caste distinctions, though diminishing, are still alive. Why is it so? A full-fledged answer is beyond the ability of this writer and the scope of this book. One can mention the weight of deeply rooted traditions and the vested interests of certain upper castes refusing to make room for rising Dalits. One must also admit that social changes in Hindu society as a whole are made more complex than in other civilisations, because of the combination of caste and class. The hierarchy and differences within castes belonging to the four varnas, or to the Dalits, prevent or hinder large-scale movements for change as in usual class struggles.

29As an instance, let us take the case of marriage, which is an important factor of social change where rules remain strict, especially in villages. All over the world, rules concerning marriages can be quite conservative. In the West, it is only after the Second World War that interclasses love marriages became widespread, appearing alongside the society of consumption and rising middle classes. Now, in plenty of marriages either the groom or the bride belongs to the ancient upper bourgeoisie and the other belongs to the new post-1945 rising middle classes. Nevertheless one may add that even today in France, in some restricted high-class circles including aristocrats, parents organise so-called rallies – parties where their children in their twenties meet one another, in the, often fulfilled, hope that such meetings will lead to marriage. Oddly enough, the Maheshwaris (a merchant caste from Rajasthan) have adopted a rather similar practice through parichai sammelan. It is a kind of fair where only potential couples of their caste can meet. If the boy and the girl are keen to marry, both parents step in to conclude the marriage (Véronique Pache Huber 2002, 287)

The Adivasis

30As we have seen, the Adivasis (about 8% of the population) constitute a very heterogeneous group of tribes. The Santals, the Gonds and others are rather integrated within Indian society: exchanges of goods with Hindus, use of their agricultural techniques, occasionally worshipping the same gods, and through the progress of education. The tribes isolated in hilly jungles follow a different pattern of life, largely dependent on the forest, and practice jhum, i.e. burning and shifting cultivation, and worshipping the forces of nature (animists).

31Both types of tribes do not show gender inequalities typical in Hindu traditions. Young people have intimate sexual relations before marriage, which is decided by the future couple. Divorce is free. All people enjoy alcohol, which is a part of their festivals. Sex and drinks were looked down upon by the British influenced by Victorian Puritanism. Later these views were adopted by Indians who followed Mahatma Gandhi (See Guha 1999) and we have come across such prevailing prejudices in some of our villages.

32Adivasis in isolated areas have occasionally been victims of abuses from Hindus. The Raj affected several areas. The Forest Department had frequent clashes with the tribes in order to prevent them from using forest resources. Then, at the end of the nineteenth century came mines of coal, iron ore, bauxite and manganese, with most of them being concentrated in tribal areas. People were deprived of their land or poorly compensated. Hindu moneylenders appeared and exploited some people. Not much was done after independence to uplift such tribes, in terms of development.

33The first violent incidents executed by communist militants in 1967 in Naxalbari district, West Bengal, were suppressed, but other disturbances appeared. In 1984, I was prevented from visiting villages in Gadshiroli district, Maharashtra, for “security” reasons. Gradually, Maoist militants started operating mostly, though not exclusively, in isolated tribal belts from West Bengal to Telangana in Andhra Pradesh, even including pockets further south. Since around 2000, the Maoists exploit the fears of the Adivasis concerning big mining projects, as well as steel and aluminium plants running into billions of dollars, proposed by POSCO, a South Korean steel company, Arcelor Mittal and Tata. Until now, the governments of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa and the companies involved have been unable to reach agreements acceptable to all the parties including the local tribes. In 2010, Manmohan Singh, the PM, declared that it was “the biggest internal security threat”. Since then, police forces have met with some success, but several areas remain under the control of the Maoists where a rather large part of the population seems to favour them and their assistance (Times of India, 28-9-2011).

34Jairam Ramesh, Cabinet minister for rural development, summarized the issues as follows: “There is no dignity for tribals… following decades of neglect… We have produced a situation where the Maoists fill the vacuum” (The Economist, 3-12-2011).

35The solution of these conflicts through development programmes is not easy. First, it is necessary to train some officers who would be in charge of isolated tribes - men of high calibre, unlike the small officials whom we met. In addition to mental qualifications that avoid prejudices on “Savages, womanizing and drinking,” they will need good legs for walking 10 to 20 km until roads are built in the interior.

36The jhum system is not primitive in a derogatory sense, but beyond certain densities of population it leads to soils exhaustion because of the reduced time afforded to fallow. When necessary, the introduction of the plough and terraced fields cannot be avoided in order to promote agriculture and then come horticulture and vegetables. Relations between the tribals and the Forest Department need adjustments. Health and education have, of course to follow.

The Size of India

37Countries like India or China are not simply bigger than France or Thailand; they belong to a particular category of countries. How is one to rule and control such huge territories that are so heavily populated? Even with decentralisation, thanks to states, India’s development remains complex. In the 1960s, the alert minister of agriculture in Malaysia (at that time peninsular only) could visit each district every year, something impossible in India with its 466 districts. How could one adequately cover 638,000 villages through extension services? Laws and regulations decided in Delhi – and it is the same in China – are not easily implemented or respected away from the capital. In both countries for instance, rules about environment are often overlooked in villages and even cities. The peasants of China had an old saying, also valid in the case of India, “The sky is high and the emperor far away.”


38In 1963, while walking around Khandoi, from time-to-time an old peasant who took me for an English man, told me: “Tumhara raj bara achcha tha” (Your rule was very good) referring to corruption under the current administration. This statement was unfair because small corruption did exist under the British: the bakshish to the patwari (village accountant), to the policeman, and to some small district officials (Wiser 1963). The institutions created or expanded after independence to promote agriculture, irrigation, electricity, cooperative credit, health and education opened new channels for corruption. The amounts involved in each case may be not large, but they keep on increasing. We have seen bakshish remitted to the state TW operator. Village teachers complain that to cash their salary at the local bank a tip is needed. Application for credit to dig a TW, all too often, requires a bribe. It is the same in case of subsidized houses for the poor. As will be seen below, corruption is not lacking in other projects for helping the poor.

39At the national level, big cases of abuses and corruption appeared during the Second World War as a consequence of rationing of essential commodities, occasionally on short supply, and of large orders of industrial goods for the army. In 1947, Dr Radhakrishnan, the future President of the Republic, declared: “Unless we destroy corruption in high places, root out every trace of nepotism, we will not be able to raise the standard of efficiency in administration and production”. In 1964, the Santhaman Committee Report condemning “the failure of integrity” was issued (for these two quotations, see S.S. Gill 1998, 46.) In his book published in 1981, B. K. Nehru, an outstanding former ICS officer, referred to “the cancer of corruption” (63). In 2001, Prime Minister Vajpayee also mentions “the propagation of a real cancer”. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh often condemned corruption since he came to power in 2004. Enquiry commissions and legal measures have not had much impact so far, something compounded by the very slow pace of the judiciary. However, new laws are being introduced in 2012, following large-scale public complaints and demonstrations in several cities.

40At the district and the state levels, beyond petty corruption, leakage and big corruption have been growing, concerning electricity, public irrigation, and contracts under the Public Food Distribution System (see next chapter). Then there have been the big “affairs” at the national level, running into the equivalent of millions if not billions of dollars. In addition to politicians and businessmen, these may involve, in the states and at the centre, senior IAS officers – something unheard of in the 1960s.

41Since the end of 2010, following the accumulation of big scandals, public opinion, especially in the cities, has become very vocal. Even some “holy” men are getting involved and asking for tough sanctions. This led to some arrests and some new legislation, but one cannot be certain that corruption and leakage are really declining. New cases appeared once again in 2012.

42As in China, considerable leakage and corruption have not prevented economic development and social progress, but the billions of dollars, which vanish every year, if properly used, could accelerate poverty alleviation, provide better education and health, and help improve infrastructure. In his speech on Independence Day, August 15, 2012, The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, repeated his plea “to reduce corruption” and referred to the new anti-corruption bills already passed by the Lok Sabha.

43While reviewing these negative aspects of development in developing countries, we must remember our own past. Plenty of corruption and other abuses of power accompanied the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America until the beginning of the twentieth century. Even today so-called “affairs” are not so rare in the West.

44In Western Europe, the Industrial Revolution first occurred by the end of the 18th century and in the nineteenth century and involved deep shadows, corruption, leakage, counterfeit goods, poor working conditions, and slums. Then there was a gap until the post World War II-era when Western Europe entered the society of consumption as referred to above. Now in emerging countries like China and India both currents occur at the same time, which makes basic socio-economic issues more complex.


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search