India lives in its villages. Though this romantic notion has not changed much, with rural India still accounting for roughly three-fourths of the country’s population, the village itself has changed much over the years.
Village studies has been central to our understanding of many of the concepts used in modern social sciences. For sociologists and anthropologists, the village has often been the object of research not only because it is the lowest level of administrative unit but also the smallest political and social unit. Sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists have often used the technique of village studies where the village itself is the object of research, unlike economists who have used village studies mostly as a site for research.
This has partly to do with the research objective—such as caste, class and social relations which are centred on the village and can only be observed through studying the village as an object. For economists, it is the administrative unit of the village which facilitates easy validation of quantitative estimates but also the nature of economic relations—notably tenancy, credit and labour, which are easily understood in the closed context of a village economy.
India not only has a statistical system that is comparable with the best in the world, it also has a large number of village studies starting from the pre independence days (for example, the Gilbert Slater villages in Tamil Nadu). Some of these have now been resurveyed, some have been used to get insights for formulating and understanding economic theories and some have been used to validate our existing knowledge of the various actors in the closed set-up of a village.
This tradition of village studies is back in fashion, with a large number of village studies under way. While some of them are resurveys of old villages—which is crucial in providing a historical perspective on development—some are new studies, with particular areas of interest, including places such as Vidarbha and Telangana where there have been a number of instances of farmer suicides.
But what can we learn from village studies that is not already available from secondary sources?
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An obvious question is whether findings from one village out of the 600,000 villages in India are good enough to generalize on issues confronting economic theory or development policy. This has often been the bone of contention, particularly if two village studies contradict each other in their findings on similar issues. Needless to say, such differences will arise because villages are not homogeneous entities. But more often than not, such differences also come up because of the personal involvement of researchers, the objectives and, most importantly, the instruments of research.
So, what can we learn from village studies?
It is definitely not to reproduce secondary data, which is already available. Secondary data has its limitation and is certainly incapable of capturing some variables, for example, tenancy. The objective of using quantitative aggregates is to provide a context in which the insights on the functioning of markets, interaction of various agents and factors and the dynamism of these over time have been studied.
These are challenging times for the world because of the financial crisis aggravating in the new year. And despite the claims of the financial mandarins, one must admit the shortcomings of economic theory in dealing with the situation. This is not only true for the fast changing world of finance and global capitalism, but also for the village economies. The world in the past one year has seen food and commodity prices spiralling up, only to see them take a nosedive in a six month span. The food crisis and riots have given way to the financial crisis, not because the vulnerabilities of the rural economies of the developing world have been fully mitigated but because of the enormity of the financial crisis, which is spreading like a wildfire. The vulnerabilities have become even more gruesome despite the falling prices and, in some cases, because of the falling prices.
It is this changing nature of the village economy which needs careful study. The village is no more a self-contained closed economy with overdependence on agriculture and limited interaction with the outside world. The village and neighbouring towns and metropolitan centres are now a continuum and the village is no more isolated from the vagaries of the financial markets of London or New York.
Agriculture accounts for less than one-fifth of the Indian economy. Even within rural areas, agriculture now contributes only about half of the economy. What makes studying village economies challenging is the way they are getting integrated into the neighbouring and distant urban areas through non-farm employment, migration, spread of telecommunications and remittances. This is also true from the developmental perspective where the village is also the terrain on which development policies are tested. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is one example of this. Hopefully, some of the studies underway will enrich our understanding of the changing nature of village economies.
Himanshu is assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi. Farm Truths looks at issues in agriculture and runs on alternate Wednesdays. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org