Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Village life in India

People sometimes describe India as undergoing an economic miracle in the past twenty years.  After decades of indolent economic growth following independence, a number of sectors of the economy have taken off with high rates of growth and increasing income.  Deepak Lal addresses this assumption in "An Indian Economic Miracle?" (link).  Here is the crucial graph from Lal's paper:

As the graph indicates, starting in roughly 1980, both GDP and GDP per capita increased at a rising rate, greatly exceeding the disparaging "Hindu rate of growth" of the 1950s and 1960s.  Lal's paper is worth reading.  But the overall impression is that India is finally moving forward -- an impression reinforced by some of Tom Friedman's comments in The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century.

However, this impression is very misleading with respect to India's rural population; or so V. K. Ramachandran at the Indian Statistical Institute argues.  (Here is an interview I conducted with Ramachandran in 2008.)  Ramachandran and his collaborator, Madhura Swaminathan, have pursued an important program of research on village India under the rubric of the Foundation for Agrarian Studies (link).  They and their research teams have conducted a series of village studies over the past ten years that shed detailed light on the economic, social, and caste circumstances of rural India; and the picture they find does not conform to the idea of an "economic miracle."  Instead, they find patterns of social inequality and social domination that are continuing and increasing; patterns of landlessness that have worsened in the past decade or so; and levels of poverty that continue to challenge the idea of a fully developed human life for many hundreds of millions of Indian rural people.

A recent publication summarizes their studies of several villages in Andhra Pradesh (Socio-Economic Surveys of Three Villages in Andhra Pradesh: A Study of Agrarian Relations), and it is worth reading in detail.  This book synthesizes the detailed surveys conducted in three villages in 2005-06.  The authors describe the goals of the Project on Agrarian Relations in India in these terms: to study and analyse ...
  • village-level production, production systems and livelihoods, and the socio-economic characteristics of different strata of the rural population;
  • sectional deprivation in rural India, particularly with regard to the Dalit and Scheduled Tribe populations, women, specific minorities and the income-poor; and
  • the state of basic village amenities and the access of rural people to the facilities of modern life. (1)
Here are the three villages included in the survey (Bukkacherla, Ananthavaram, Kothapalle):

View Andhra Pradesh in a larger map

The villages are small, ranging from 292 households (Bukacherla) to 667 households (Ananthavaram).  Here is a zoom view of Kothapalle village (372 households):

And here is Ananthavaram:

The surveys attempt to capture the important social and economic characteristics of the villages, including population, agricultural practices, social class composition, and caste composition.  Class and caste are particularly important characteristics in the analysis.  The researchers classify households as "landlord -- big capitalist farmer -- manual worker -- peasant -- other" (chapter 2). Here is how this classification works out for Kothapalle village:
  • landlord / big capitalist farmer 1%
  • capitalist farmer / rich peasant 9%
  • peasant: middle 13%
  • peasant: poor 5%
  • hired manual worker  44%
  • artisan and work at traditional caste calling 1%                   
  • business activity 8%
  • rents / moneylending 1%
  • salaried person 11%           
  • remittance/pension 5%
In other words, about 50% of households are in socially disadvantaged positions (poor peasants, landless workers, and artisans).

Here is a snapshot of the three villages extracted from the study with respect to several important socioeconomic characteristics: percent scheduled classes and tribes, percent landlord and capitalist farmer, percent poor peasant and hired laborer, land ownership Gini coefficient, household income Gini coefficient, medial household income as percent of poverty budget, and percent female literacy for persons seven years or older.

Several things are apparent from this summary.  First, the distributions of land and household income are very unequal in all three villages, with a Gini coefficient of .86 for land distribution in Ananthavaram.  The Gini coefficients for the distribution of income hover around .60 for all three villages -- a very high degree of income inequality by international standards (link, link)).  And it is interesting to notice that Ananthavaram village enjoys the highest median household income and highest female literacy, but simultaneously the highest degree of inequality of property and income and the highest percentage of scheduled castes and tribes.

Second, all three villages represent a high degree of poverty among households.  The income bar represents median household income as a percentage of a household poverty budget of 21,304 Rs.  The median household in Bukkacheria falls short of this budget -- as do the 50% of households below the median, implying a poverty rate of more than 50%.  The median household in Kothapalle is slightly higher than the poverty budget, and only Ananthavaram has a median income significantly higher than the poverty budget (120%).  So the poverty rate ranges between 40% and 55% in all three villages -- very high.

Third, female literacy is often regarded as an important measure of overall human development in a poor region or country; and the rates observed by these surveys are quite low (42-47%), with a substantial gap to the rates for male literacy.  Likewise, there are substantial variations in literacy across castes.  Female literacy in Bukkacherla village is 43% for all households but is 28% for Dalit households; 37% for "backward class" households; and 53% for "other caste" households (160).  In other words, the literacy rate for Dalit women is about half that of "other caste" women.

Put the point another way: these village surveys do not support the idea that social progress is occurring rapidly and broadly in India.  Rather, these particular villages support the idea that inequalities in rural India are extensive and possibly increasing; that poverty is widespread; that class and caste continue to determine life prospects; and that human development is impeded by these conditions of inequality and poverty.

It is interesting to consider the question of representativeness that this volume raises.  The studies provide data for only three out of thousands of villages in one Indian state.  So it is productive to ask whether the findings provided here are "typical" of rural Andhra Pradesh -- let alone other parts of India.  Ramachandran and Swaminathan have surveyed villages in a number of states, and will continue the project into the future.  Plainly, it is important to bring these micro-studies into relation with other larger-scope studies in order to assess the degree to which these developments are typical of rural India.  The authors do a good job of trying to make these connections using national and state social data sources; plainly, both methods are needed in order to arrive at justified conclusions about the state of Indian agrarian society.

Second, it is interesting to read this report as an exercise in empirical Marxist economics.  The studies are highly empirical and data-rich.  At the same time, the categories of analysis are drawn from Marxist economics: exploitation, class analysis, productive relations, and social relations of domination, extraction, and control.  The report provides a powerful illustration of the analytical value of a Marxian sociology and political economy in this context; relations of power, privilege, and property plainly have a determining role in the processes of social change in rural India today.

(For the interested reader, Ramachandran's Wage Labour and Unfreedom in Agriculture: An Indian Case Study is an important contribution to the political economy of India.)

(Thanks to Vikas Rawal for corrections on the locations of the villages and images of Kothapalle and Ananthavaram.)


Siyuan Song said...

The huge unequality might explain not only the fast ecnomic growth, but also the accumulated social conflict in India, although the aspect of social conflict was not mentioned in the essay. Considering the structure of industrialization, economic unequality could contribute to the fast growth industrialization, but result in further economic disparity, which inevitably leads to more social unequality in India.

Siddharth said...

It is an interesting read but it isn't surprising, that there is a lot of income and social disparity. I wonder if there is any backing to the claim that the situation is not getting better, though. It is certainly true that the degree of social hierarchy - the caste and class systems are worse than many other countries, but I would assume, at least from my own personal experiences, that the situation is improving significantly.

In fact, the issue of caste is more complicated than most people appreciate. Consider, for example, that the incumbent government in the state of Rajasthan was thrown out of power when a dominant caste in the state wanted to become "the untouchables"! Yes, that's right, the caste wanted to be classified as the Dalits and the government refused. Caste hierarchy runs both ways and is seldom the traditional simple "exploitation" as is looked upon.

Seeing from my own personal experiences, both in my native village and the cities that I grew up in, the relevance of caste is decreasing in all areas and parts of the country. The cities have the concept of caste almost only because of the government reservations (similar to affirmative action but again, more complicated!) Unless obvious from a name, in most cities, you would never know the caste of, say, a friend.