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Indian Villages

Gilbert Etienne


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1As hinted in Chapter 9, Western Europe went through two distinct phases of development since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It really came out of poverty in the thirty years after the Second World War with the advent of the society of consumption; however, in recent years poverty has re-emerged with the economic difficulties on both sides of the Atlantic.

2In India and China, the scene is much more complex because the Industrial Revolution and the society of consumption are growing nearly simultaneously. India faces, at the same time, the abuses and shadows of our Industrial Revolution along with the advantages of the society of consumption. Corruption and other malpractices common to China and India remind us of our own past, this is why we are ill placed to sermonise Indians or Chinese. Moreover, corruption is far from having disappeared in our countries nowadays.

3Two other factors make India’s development more complex. First, population growth there has been much faster than ours. Second, the standards of living in Western Europe in 1950, after the reconstruction following the end of the war, were much higher than in Asia now or twenty years ago. Poverty was not lacking, but misery was limited. Most people had enough to eat, unlike a number of Indians today. These conflicting currents make the tasks of the political leadership far from simple.

4Beyond these basic points, the challenges in agriculture and the rural economy as a whole are crystal clear thanks to a number of official reports, surveys, and scholars’ works which are referred to in this book. That is why boosting agriculture, as intended in the Twelfth Five Year Plan, is, above all, a question of implementation, or to have things “delivered” as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared in his address from the Red Fort on 15 August 2004.

5The second question refers to the mobilisation of public funds for the rural economy. A reduction of leakage and corruption, of questionable expenditures in social schemes and subsidies could help. Already in 2004, when he took the finance portfolio, P. Chidambaran declared: “The money is there, it is the misuse of money, it is the wrong use of money which is hurting us” (NDTV, 30-5-2004).

6The third point concerns the commitment of the urban elites. We have seen how wrong it is to talk of a “second Green Revolution,” because the next steps reviewed in the previous chapter will be much more costly, complex and time consuming. What remains indispensable is the spirit of the men who were behind the Green Revolution. As Rakesh Mohan, then deputy director of the Reserve Bank, declared: “Agriculture needs a new mission comparable to the Green Revolution” (Mohan 2006). It is in this perspective that the gap between urban elites and villagers could be an obstacle to such a commitment.

7Fourth, the leadership of the Congress Party is weakened by the coalition it is directing. After months of uncertainty, the Prime Minister has launched a new set of most welcome economic reforms but his difficulties are not over. If the BJP wins the next elections in 2014, his leadership may also not be strong enough.

8Fifth, even when taking into account that Gujarat has always been an advanced state – following its opening to the world 2000 years ago and based on the ability of its business castes and of its farmers, like the Pattidars – such success is remarkable even if it is exaggerated by the local authorities. In addition to many new industries, why is it the sole state, which has implemented such a comprehensive and efficient agricultural and rural policy? Since 2001, Narendra Modi (BJP), an able and strong personality, has been Chief Minister but under whose rule 2000 Muslims were massacred in 2002.

9Sixth, how can one explain that repeated criticisms and warnings, over several decades, have had so little effect on development policy, be it on technical issues, the shortcomings in irrigation and power supply, extension services and research, or the extremely frequent transfers of IAS officers and, consequently, the necessity to strengthen district administration and the role of the District Magistrate?

10Looking at world history, irrespective of the civilizations and the epochs, a strong and able bureaucracy has helped outstanding leaders to run their country: mandarins under great emperors of China, mansabdars under Akbar, and French senior bureaucrats assisting Bonaparte (1799–1804) in the reconstruction and creation of new institutions after the French Revolution.

11Even under less outstanding rulers, civil servants can play a big role, as seen under the rather weak French Fourth Republic 1946–1958. I had the privilege of knowing some of them, and they reminded me of several ICS/IAS officers in terms of commitment, competences and integrity.

12Praising the bureaucracy looks quite politically incorrect nowadays in Western countries and in the eyes of many Indians. In fact, one should, at the same time, fight against rightist sectarians who believe in nothing but the private sector and the leftist sectarians who believe in nothing but the state. In spite of some dubious elements, the IAS officers, especially those directly recruited, remain at a high standard. Competitive examinations are conducted without manipulations. In their probation period, the young officers acquire a good grasp of rural issues. We have seen in this book some examples of their roles, be it for the introduction of the Green Revolution or as heads of districts. One could add a number of officers in the secretariat of states or in Delhi.

13Finally, one has to revert to the size of the country. I wonder whether the gap or distance between the best and the worst off people is not wider than in other countries. One could quote the following extremes. In 1964, in Rourkela, the roof of a rolling mill, one of the most modern in Asia, collapsed and severely damaged the equipment following a rather normal rain. One had simply neglected to remove the iron dust accumulated on the roof for years.

14At the other extreme, let us mention the Kumbh Mela, the famous festival at Allahabad, occurring every twelve years, something mentioned by the Chinese pilgrim Hyuan Tsang as far back as the seventh century. During one month, pilgrims have a dip in the Ganges. The highest number of people comes on the most auspicious day of the festival. In 1954, the first festival after independence, there came 5 million Hindus on that auspicious day. There was a stampede, which led to 500 fatalities. For the next Kumbh Mela in 1966, the government appointed a senior ICS officer as Kumbh Mela Commissioner. He organised huge parking places for bullock carts and buses and mobile barriers to canalise people, with towers from which to supervise the movements of the crowd. On the auspicious day, during 24 hours, 7 million people had their bath on the riverbank, which is 2.5 km long, without any incident. The number of pilgrims kept on increasing, reaching 17 million in 2001 on the auspicious day and more so in 2013, each time without incidents. Such a performance is unique in the world. The next largest gathering of people occurred in New York in 1969, to celebrate the return of the cosmonauts from the moon, but the crowd was spread along many streets and it only amounted to 4 million people.

15In spite of all the stories of endemic corruption, venal politicians, sycophantic civil servants, there are still political leaders, administrators, scholars, and business people in India whose vision and calibre can help improve the fight against poverty and boost the overall development of the country. As we have seen, there have been some improvements in agricultural development since 2007. An acceleration of the process belongs to the art of the possible, but it is not certain that it will occur. The Indians would often say: “we always muddle through” without major positive or negative changes. Dramatic crises should be avoided thanks to the level already reached by agriculture, some progress going on and also due to the food grain reserves achieved. However, a big question remains open: will it be possible to alleviate rural poverty faster, especially in non-Green Revolution villages? Perhaps, it is more an issue of will than of material means.


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