Review of Surinder S. Jodhka’s The Indian Village: Invisible India

A sociologist shines a light on India’s villages and points out that they need active policy engagement on local governance, livelihoods and women’s empowerment

December 08, 2023 09:01 am | Updated December 12, 2023 03:44 pm IST

Three great public intellectuals of the 20th century regarded the Indian village in very different ways. Mahatma Gandhi said unforgettably that the soul of India lived in its villages. For him, the Indian village was an ideal of self-rule and cooperation: “My idea of village swaraj is that it is a complete republic, independent of its neighbours for its own vital wants, and yet interdependent for many others in which dependence is a necessity.”

For the moderniser Jawaharlal Nehru, on the other hand, the Indian village represented the old Indian social structure. Indeed, speaking about the new city of Chandigarh, he proposed a break with the past: “Let this be a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past — an expression of the nation’s faith in the future... not in terms of rules and regulations laid down by our ancestors.”

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar regarded the village as marked by the presence of intractable and oppressive social structures. “What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?” he asked.

In his new book, The Indian Village, sociologist Surinder Jodhka points out that the Indian village is not only a lived reality, but also an idea. It was the colonial imagination that first constructed India as a land of tiny, untouched, impermeable village republics frozen in time — a narrative that was deliberately constructed to justify the project of imperialism. A section of Indian nationalists found it useful to build on this idea of India as an ocean of villages but sharing a cultural unity. After independence, a linear narrative of social change, development, and economic growth began to be created which seemed to lead inevitably towards urbanisation. In the 1990s, with economic liberalisation, the village began to slip off the radar of public discourse.

If at all, the growing Indian middle class began to reminisce self-indulgently about the “lost village” of their childhood. Jodhka describes an encounter with a retired Indian bureaucrat at the India International Centre in New Delhi. The gentleman laments that the village of his childhood is not what it used to be. This is the nostalgia of privilege, of a member of a previously dominant group commenting on the gradual empowerment of non-dominant castes.

Propping up urban life

Jodhka reminds us, and we saw powerfully during the pandemic, that the village is deeply connected to urban life. It offers a supply of poorly paid labour to literally build the cities and keep the so-called cauldrons of economic growth blazing. It also provides a retreat from growing urban hazards such as poor air quality. For those who live in rural India, migration to urban centres has offered some alternative, however imperfect, to exploitation by the old oppressive social structures in the village. Remittances by migrant workers from cities in southern and western India, like Bengaluru and Mumbai, provide valuable financial support for families back in the hinterland.

Jodhka emphasises that “the village” itself is no single thing but diverse. Anthropologist Bernard Cohn has categorised Indian villages in different parts of the country in terms of “nucleated” settlements, “hamleted” villages, and dispersed settlements.

Historically, cities evolved almost simultaneously with village settlements. Settled agriculture led to the creation of surplus which, along with the manufacture of tools, enabled the creation of an elite that did not have to perform physical farm labour, enjoyed leisure, and could live at a distance from the site of food production and engage in other activities. Like anywhere else in the world, India has for long been made up of villages and towns. Jodhka points out that at the start of the 19th century, by one estimate, India had over 17 million people living in towns and cities, while the total population of Great Britain in 1801 was only 10.5 million.

Today, while agriculture contributes only 4% of the world’s GDP, the world still has the highest ever rural population in history. In Europe, the urban population overtook the rural population as late as 1970; as for the urban population of the world, it overtook the rural population only in 2007. Even then, there were around 3.4 billion people living in rural parts of the world, as opposed to 1.4 billion in 1900.

Facile binaries

Unpacking the conventional narrative of a hierarchy of urban settlements gradually consuming the rural, Jodhka questions these facile binaries, pointing out that behind the terms poor/rural and rich/urban hide the deep inequalities that sit cheek by jowl with shiny towering urban complexes. As a percentage of total population, India’s rural population has declined from 80% in 1960 to 65% in 2021; yet in absolute terms, India’s rural population is larger than the total population of any other country other than China. Migration out of the village or non-farm expansion of livelihoods cannot be the only trajectory; more than half of India’s population still depends upon agriculture.

Rural India will continue to grow substantially. It therefore deserves active policy engagement. This is the thirtieth year of the 73rd Constitution Amendment, which took the audacious step of creating elected local governments at village level across the country. India has more than 250,000 gram panchayats. They have demonstrated their ability to lead on the ground during COVID. There are 10 million women’s self-help groups. Important policy interventions already exist: the rural employment guarantee scheme, public provisioning of rural childcare, decentralised health screening, and the setting up of rural libraries as knowledge centres. It is time to focus on the needs of rural India and to strengthen local governance, livelihoods, women’s empowerment, and the inclusion of marginalised groups.

The Indian Village: Rural Lives in the 21st Century; Surinder S. Jodhka, Aleph, ₹799.

The reviewer is in the IAS.

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