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Rural reality

Print edition : Nov 05, 2010 T+T-

A meticulous study of the agrarian relations in three villages.

ONE of our senior sociologists once drew my attention to the distinction between economics and other social sciences. Other social sciences sociology and anthropology, for instance he said, pay a great deal of attention to gathering primary data and interpreting them, whereas economics relies on secondary data for its analysis. This is, to a large extent, a fair observation, though in the early days of the science economists too had to resort to their own individual observations as there was very little secondary data to deal with. But when statistics about trade and more so about national income and related aspects became readily available, economists largely abandoned gathering primary data, concentrating instead on secondary data.

The emphasis then shifted also to macro-analysis. For the moment we shall overlook the fact that a great deal of contemporary economics of high theory does not require any empirical basis at all. Logical derivations based on untested and, indeed, untestable, assumptions glorified as axiomatic postulates are the basis of some of the prestigious branches of the science of economics today.

In our country, there has been another tradition in economics. In the early years of the 20th century, Gilbert Slater from the United Kingdom arrived in Madras (now Chennai) to become professor in the Economics Department of the University of Madras. He was shocked to see that the economics that was being taught was Alfred Marshall's Principles of Economics, which was one of the earliest textbooks to be written explicitly for classroom use, but was based on the economic realities prevailing then in Britain. In order to make sure that Indian students learned economics based on their own life environment, Slater sent out his students to their own villages to gather information on living conditions, occupational patterns and related aspects. The villages surveyed by these students in the second decade of the 20th century have come to be known as the Slater villages (although when the studies were put together and published in 1918, Slater had given the title Some South Indian Villages). Interestingly, some of these villages, especially those in Tamil Nadu, have been resurveyed periodically, providing fascinating accounts of almost a century of transformation in them. (For the latest of such resurveys of one of the Slater villages, interested readers may look at Land, Labour and Caste Politics in Rural Tamil Nadu in the 20th Century: Iruvelpattu (1916-2008) in Economic and Political Weekly, July 31-August 6, 2010.)

SLATER TRADITION

The volume edited by V.K. Ramachandran, Vikas Rawal and Madhura Swaminathan belongs very much to what may be called the Slater Tradition. It is a socio-economic survey of three villages in Andhra Pradesh. One of them, Ananthavaram in Guntur district, the lead village in the study, so to say, is indeed a resurvey, a follow-up of a study conducted by P. Sundarayya (the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader) in 1974. The other two are Bukkacherala in Anantapur district and Kothapalle in Karimnagar district. The rationale of selecting these villages, the methodology of the surveys and a brief account of the rural scene in Andhra Pradesh are provided in the early sections. The study was sponsored by the Foundation for Agrarian Studies and forms part of a seven-year project examining the emerging changes in agrarian relations in various States.

With so much of economics now being expressed in value terms, it is so easy to forget that, basically, the subject matter of economics is an important dimension of human relationships. Even agrarian studies tend to be on outputs and inputs, costs and prices, and possibly on employment and incomes as well. All these contribute to an understanding of agriculture as an activity and perhaps even reveal some aspects of human behaviour and welfare. But to get an idea of the structured nature of human relationships, it is important to understand the nature of interaction between groups, landlords and labourers, for instance, or owners and tenants. A simple procedure to trace these would be to consider who owns what, who does what and who gets what.

The present study focusses on these issues, going into considerable detail about each of them. And, considering the fact that relationships in villages are dominated by the caste factor, the study pays attention to this aspect as well. By careful processing of the data, the complex interweaving of the class and caste factors in determining the levels of living, social standing and power structure in the villages has been brought out, indicating that at the lowest level it is not easy to carve out the economy or economic relationships from the rest of social relationships.

The findings are revealing, though not surprising to those who are familiar with our rural areas. The wet Ananthavaram (A for short) village, where almost 80 per cent of the cultivated area was irrigated by the waters of the Krishna river, paddy cultivation dominates, with maize and black gram taken up during the rabi season. Of the two dry villages, Bukkacherala (B) specialised in groundnut production, while in Kothapalle (K), income-generating activity was largely non-agricultural and agriculture had become most diversified. In terms of agricultural technology also, A was the most conservative, with only some 15 households out of a total of over 660 possessing any modern implements (tractors, power tillers, borewells, sprayers, harvest and post-harvest implements), while in B, 28 out of 292 households had tube wells and some 25 had other modern implements.

Ownership of land and other assets showed distinctly different patterns too. Less than 5 per cent of the households in A owned over 40 per cent of the land while 65 per cent did not have any land at all. In B, 14 per cent of households claimed 40 per cent of land and 15 per cent of households was landless; in K the top 10 per cent of households accounted for 50 per cent of land and 47 per cent of households had no land. Asset (land, houses, implements, animals and consumer durables, among other things, but excluding financial assets) distribution showed the highest inequality in A, followed by K and B. With poor households dominating, the average household and per capita incomes were low in all three villages. Thirty-two per cent of the population in A and 44 per cent each in B and K lived below the official poverty line.

Capitalist farming (farming undertaken as a business to make profits, frequently leasing land and depending almost completely on hired labour) has become prominent, especially in B and K. This has been the major departure in the three villages, as also in many other parts of rural India, with major socio-economic consequences usually a shift from food crops to cash crops, changes in agricultural technology, commercial leasing of land on fixed rent, replacement of wages in kind by wages in cash and greater market transactions. The peasant class (those who use owned land and substantially own labour also in cultivation) tends to get differentiated as a result, the better-off ones moving up to become capitalist farmers and the lower ones becoming landless, still involved with agricultural activities or completely moving out of them. Although the survey was conducted at one time, in the processing of the data the scholars have made it possible to gain some glimpses of the dynamics of rural transformation as well.

As in most other parts of the country, especially in the rural areas, the situation of Dalits in the surveyed villages was far worse than that of others. The average per capita income of Dalits in A was only 25 per cent of that of others. The corresponding figures for B and K were 45 per cent and 39 per cent respectively. The worst off in A was the small community of 16 Muslim households.

On the broader social issues, the study says: Andhra Pradesh is a State rich in natural resources, but abysmally poor in its record of providing free and universal school education to the children of its villages.

The surveys substantiate this observation. In all three villages surveyed, literacy levels were low and the gender gap was quite pronounced. Illiteracy was particularly noted among members of the manual worker households. Social discrimination and deprivation were also quite prominent, with Adivasi and Dalit households left far behind in terms of literacy. Even in the 6 to 14 age group, school attendance was not universal, the gender difference was quite palpable and the drop-out rate substantial.

The volume contains much more meticulously gathered information and insights derived from them. The significance of such studies is not that the units dealt with (the villages in this volume) are representative of the larger whole, the rural scene in the country: even the three show considerable differences. Rather, by scanning at the lowest level they capture the intricate interconnections that are the essence of that abstraction called the economy, thereby leading to a better understanding of its internal functioning. While general readers may be more interested in the findings, the methodology adopted will be of help to advanced students of economics to design their own explorations.