Indian Society : A Primarily Rural Society
Indian society is primarily a rural society where 67 per cent of the total population lives in rural areas (2001 Census). People living in the rural society make their living from agriculture or related occupations making agricultural land the most important productive resource for them. For them, agriculture is not just a form of livelihood, but also a way of life.
Agriculture and Culture
There is a close connection between agriculture and culture. The culture and social structure in rural India are closely tied with the agricultural and the agrarian way of life. The nature and practice of agriculture varies from region to region. These variations are reflected in the different regional cultures for example, the New Year festivals in different regions of India such as Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Bihu in Assam, Baisakhi in Punjab and Ugadi in Karnataka. These festivals are celebrated as the new harvest season and mark the beginning of the main agricultural season.
Agriculture is the single most important source of livelihood for the majority of rural population. Apart from agriculture many activities that support agriculture and village life are also sources of livelihood for people in rural India. A large number of artisans such as potters, carpenters, weavers, ironsmiths and goldsmiths are found in rural areas.
Rural life also supported many other specialists and craft persons such as story-tellers, astrologers, priests, water distributors and oil pressers. The diversity of occupations in rural India was reflected in the caste system, which in most regions included specialist and ‘service’ castes such as washermen, potters and goldsmiths.
Although, some of these traditional occupations have declined yet the increasing interconnections of the rural and urban economies have led to many diverse occupations.
Many people living in rural areas are employed in or have livelihood based in, rural non-farm activities. For instance, there are rural residents employed in government services like Postal and Education Departments, factory workers or in the army who earn their living through non-agricultural activities.
Agrarian Structure : Caste and Class in Rural India
Agrarian structure refers to the structure or distribution of landholdings. Indian rural society is marked by different social and agrarian structures. Herein, agricultural land is the single most important resource and form of property, but it is not equally distributed. In some parts of India some people hold majority of land and some people own a small plot, there are also people who don’t own any land at all.
As the rural society is based on the agrarian structure, access to land shapes the rural class structure. It determines the roles that an individual plays in the agricultural production.
Types of Landholdings
Based on the role that one plays in the agricultural production, the rural structure involves various types of landholdings. These are as follows:
(a) Medium and Large Landowners : They own a sufficient amount of land from which they get large incomes by virtue of cultivation.
(b) Agricultural Labourers : They have no land of their own and they work for others. They are more often than not paid below the statutory minimum wages and earn very little. Their employment is also insecure and they do not work for most of the days of the year.
(c) Tenants are the cultivators who lease their land from landowners. They have lower incomes than owner cultivators as they have to pay the landowner a share of their profit, often as much as 50 to 70 per cent as rent.
(d) Women are usually excluded from ownership of land in most regions of India because of the patrilineal kinship systems and the mode of inheritance. Although according to the law, women are supposed to have an equal share of family property, in reality they have limited rights and only some access to land.
Caste and Class Structure in Rural India
Because of the various types of landholding, the agrarian caste based rural society can be understood in terms of class structure. In rural areas, caste and class are intermingled in a complex relationship.
This relationship is not always straightforward. We might expect that higher castes have more lad and higher incomes. This may be true but not exactly. For instance, in most rural areas the higher castes, the Brahmins, are not major landowners and so they fall outside the agrarian structure.
Any rural society generally includes the following groups:
In every rural region, there are majorly one or two landowning castes, these castes according to MN Srinivas are called dominant caste. The dominant castes are the most economically and politically powerful groups who dominate local society. Some dominant groups include:
- Jats and Rajputs of Uttar Pradesh
- Vokkaligas and Lingayats in Karnataka
- Kammas and Reddis in Andhra Pradesh
- Jat Sikhs in Punjab
- Bumihars of Northern Bihar
These dominant groups generally belong to middle or upper castes.
Scheduled Caste or Tribes or Other Backward Castes
A rural society also includes the marginal farmers and landless people who belong to lower caste groups, who in other words belongs to the Scheduled Castes or Tribes or Other Backward Classes. They along with the former ‘untouchables’ or ‘dalits’ provide agricultural labour to dominant landowning groups. This labour force allowed the landowners to cultivate the land intensively and get higher returns.
In many regions of India, ‘proprietary caste’ own most of the resources and can command labour to work for them. The concept of begar or free labour, wherein members of lower caste had to provide free labour for a fixed number of days pre year to village zamindar or landlord or had been prevalent in many parts of Northern India.
Similarly, lack of resources, and dependence on the landed class for economic, social and political support, led many poor labourers to be tied into ‘hereditary’ labour relationships such as Halpati System in Gujarat and the Jeeta System in Karnataka. Although these practices are banned legally, yet they continue to exist in many areas.
One thing to be noted here that the rough correspondence between the caste and class means that typically the upper and middle castes also had the best access to land and resources, and hence to power and privilege.
The Impact of Land Reforms
The agrarian structure has changed enormously over time, from the pre-colonial to the colonial and after independence. While the dominant castes were cultivating castes in the pre-colonial period, they were not the direct owners of land. The cultivated land was controlled by ruling groups such as the local kings or zamindars who were politically powerful in their areas and generally belonged to Kshtriya or other high castes. The peasants or cultivators who worked on the land had to hand over a substantial portion of the produce to them as rent.
Land Reforms in Colonial Period
When the Britishers colonised India, the ruled through local zamindars. The Britishers not just granted property rights but also have more powers to zamindars to have control over land than they had before.
They also imposed heavy land revenue (taxes) on agriculture, which led zamindars to extract as much produce or money as the could from the cultivators. One result of such land revenue administration was that the agricultural production stagnated or declined as peasants fled from oppressive landlords and frequent famines and wars decimated the population.
Some areas in India were administered through the zamindari system, while in other areas under direct British rule had raiyatwari system. It raiyatwari system, the cultivators rather than the zamindars were responsible for paying the tax.
Therefore in his system, the burden of taxation was less and cultivators had more incentive to invest in agriculture. As a result, these areas became relatively more productive and prosperous.
Land Reforms in Independent India
The policy makers under the leadership of Nehru focused on agrarian reforms and industrialisation for planned development in independent India. The agriculture sector in India was in bad shape. Country was marked by low productivity , dependence on imported food grains and intense poverty of a large section of the rural population.
The planners wanted to bring changes in the agrarian structure to improve the condition of agriculture. They felt that a major reform in the agrarian structure, especially in the landholding system and the distribution of land, was necessary if agriculture were to progress.
So, they came-up with land reforms to solve these problems as well as to ensure social justice. The reforms which were carried out in 1950s to the 1970s were:
(a) Abolition of Zamindari System : It removed the layer of intermediaries who stood between the cultivators and the state. It improved the position of actual land-holders and cultivators at the local level and weakened the economic and political power of zamindars. However, zamindari abolition did not wipe out landlordism and the sharecropping systems continued in many areas.
(b) Tenancy Reforms : Tenancy abolition and regulation acts were passed to outlaw tenancy altogether or to regulate rents to give some security to the tenants. In most states, these laws were never implemented vey effectively, yet in states like West Bengal and Kerala it led to radical restructuring of the agrarian structure giving land rights to tenants.
(c) Land Ceilings Act : These laws imposed an upper limit on the amount of land that a family could own. The ceiling varies from region to region, depending on kind of land, its productivity etc. Very productive land has a low ceiling while unproductive dry land has higher ceiling limit.
According to these acts, the state is supposed to identify and take possession of surplus land (above the ceiling limit) held by each household and redistribute it to landless families and households such as to SCs and STs.
In some areas it was successful, but not so in some others. There were many loopholes in the act which allowed landlords to own surplus land. Such landlords depended on ‘benami transfer’ through which they divided the land among relatives, servants and others. In some places, some rich farmers actually divorced their wives (but continued to live with them). This allowed them to keep control over the land.
The agrarian structure varies greatly across India and the progress of land reforms is also uneven across the states. It can can be said that the agrarian structure, although it has changed substantially colonial times to the present remains highly unequal. This structure put constraint on agricultural productivity. Land reforms are necessary not only to boost agricultural but also to eradicate poverty and bring social justice in rural areas.
Green Revolution and its Social Consequences
Green Revolution was a government programme of agricultural modernisation. It was funded by international agencies that was based on providing High-Yielding Variety (HIV) or hybrid seeds alongwith pesticides, fertilizers and other inputs to , farmers. In India , it is led by the Indian agricultural scientists MS Swaminathan.
First Phase of Green Revolution
Green Revolution was initiated in 1960s and 1970s mainly in the areas having assured irrigation as the new seeds and methods of cultivation needed sufficient amount of water. It was mainly targeted at the wheat and rice-growing areas.
As a result only certain regions such as Punjab, Western Uttar Pradesh, coastal Andhra Pradesh and parts of Tamil Nadu received its package.
Positive Consequences of First Phase
Green Revolution of 1960s and 1970s brought many positive consequences to Indian farmers and agriculture, such as:
(a) There was sharp increase in the agricultural productivity due to introduction of new technology.
(b) Indian gained self-sufficiency in foodgrain production for the first time.
(c) With Green Revolution crops were highly profitable which allowed farmers to earn more money.
(d) Employment and wages for agricultural workers increased in many region as the demand of labour increased.
Negative Consequences of First Phase
Green Revolution also had many negative consequences in Indian agrarian society such as:
(a) Small and marginal farmers could not benefit from Green Revolution, as they could not buy expensive new seeds and technology. It was mainly medium or the large farmers who were able to benefit from new technology.
Only those agriculturists or farmers who are able to produce surplus for the market were able to benefit from Green Revolution. Subsistence agriculturists peasants (those who produce primarily for themselves and are unable to produce for the market) did not get any benefit.
(b) It created and increased inequalities in rural society. In many cases it led to the displacement of many tenant-cultivators as the land was taken back from them when the agriculture became more profitable for the landowners.
(c) Many service caste groups were displaced due to introduction of machines in agriculture such as tractors, threshers, harvesters, etc.
(d) The migration from rural to urban areas increased as many people became unemployed.
(e) Differentiation of Indian rural society took place due to Green Revolution. The rich grew richer while the poor became poor.
Second Phase of Green Revolution
The second phase of Green Revolution is currently being introduced in the dry and semi-arid regions of India. In these areas, there has been a significant shift from dry to wet (irrigated) cultivators, along with changes in the cropping pattern and types of crops grown.
The second phase of Green Revolution aided the first phase of Green Revolution in its positive effects. At the same time, it also added to the negative outcomes of Green Revolution. These included:
(a) Instead of increasing livelihood security, the increasing commercialisation and dependence on market led to an increase in livelihood security, as now farmers depend on markets for income.
(b) There is an increased risk on farmers as they switched from multi-crop system to mono-crop system.
(c) It also brought regional inequalities in India as Green Revolution was mainly concentrated in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh. Other regions of India could not reap the benefits of Green Revolution and thus remains stagnated. Agriculture in states such as Bihar and in Eastern Uttar Pradesh and in dry regions such as Telengana are relatively underdeveloped.
(d) Some regions also continue to have ‘feudal’ agrarian structure, a system in which castes owning land and landlords maintain power over the lower castes, landless workers and small cultivators.
(e) Various kinds of violence such as inter-caste violence have risen due to sharp caste and class inequalities and exploitative labour relations.
(f) With the use of ‘scientific’ framing methods, it is thought that conditions of Indian farmer will improve. But the fact is that Indian farmers have been cultivating the land for centuries, much before the advent of green Revolution. They have very deep and extensive traditional knowledge about the land they till and the crops they sow. Much of this knowledge, like many traditional varieties of seeds that were developed over the centuries by farmers, is being lost as hybrid, high productive and genetically modified varieties of seeds are being promoted.
(g) Many rural people themselves believe that hybrid varieties are less healthy than traditional ones. In the view of the negative environmental and social impact of modern methods of cultivation that have been observed, scientists as well as farmers suggest as return to traditional , more organic seeds and methods of cultivators.
Transformations in Rural Society After Independence
Many changes took place in the nature of social relations in rural areas in the post-independence period, especially those affected by Green Revolution. Some of these are:
(a) Increase in the use of agricultural labour as cultivation became more intensive.
(b) Shift in payment mode from kind (grain) to cash.
(c) A loosening of traditional bonds or hereditary relationships between farmers/landowners and agricultural workers.
(d) Rise of a class of ‘free’ wage labourers.
The shift in relationship between landlords and agricultural workers was described by sociologist Jan Breman as a shift from ‘patronage to exploitation’.
These changes took place in areas where agriculture was becoming more commercialised. This is indicative of a transition to capitalist agruculture.
As cultivation is becoming more commercialised, rural areas are now getting integrated into a wider economy. This process increased the flow of money into villages and expanded opportunities for business and employment.
The process of transformation described above began in the colonial period . In the 19th century large tracts of land in many regions of Maharashtra were given over to cotton cultivation and cotton farmers became directly linked to the world market. However, the pace and spread of change rapidly increased after independence as the government promoted modern methods of cultivation and attempted to modernise the rural economy.
The state also invested in the development of rural infrastructure such as irrigation facilities, roads and electricity , and on the provision of agricultural inputs including credit through banks and cooperatives.
The recently launched Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojna is an effort of the Indian government in providing the necessary-uninterrupted power supply to rural India. The overall outcome of these efforts at ‘rural development’ was not only to transform the rural economy and agriculture but also the agrarian structure and rural society itself.
Alterations in Rural Social Structure
The rural social structure was altered by agricultural development in the 1960s and the 1970s through various ways. Some of them are:
(a) Enrichment of the medium and large farmers who adopted new technologies.
(b) In several agriculturally rich regions, such as coastal Andhra Pradesh, Western Uttar Pradesh and Central Gujarat, well-to-d0 farmers belonging to the dominant castes began to invest their profits from agriculture in other types of business ventures.
(c) This process of diversification gave rise to a new entrepreneurial groups that moved from rural areas to growing towns of these developing regions, giving rise to new regional elites that became economically and politically dominant.
(d) The spread of higher education, especially private professional colleges, in rural and semi-urban areas, allowed the new rural elites to educate their children-many of whom then joined professional organisations or white collar occupations or started business.
Thus, in areas of rapid agricultural development there has been a consolidation of the old landed or cultivating groups, who have transformed themselves into a dynamic entrepreneurial , rural-urban dominant class.
But in other regions such as Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the lack of effective land reforms, political mobilisation and redistributive measures has led to relatively few changes in the agrarian structure and in the life condition of most of the people.
On the other hand, the state such as Kerala have undergone a different process of development , in which political mobilisation, redistributive measures and linkages to external economy (primarily the Gulf countries) have brought about a substantial change in rural countryside.
The rural areas in Kerala is a mixed economy that integrates some agriculture with a wide network of retail sales and services and where a large number of families are dependent on remittances from abroad.
Circulation of Labour
With commercialization of agriculture there was large scale seasonal migration of labour in post independence India. This was due to various reasons as given below:
(a) Breaking of traditional bonds of patronage between labourers/tenants and landlords.
(b) Increasing demand for labour and higher wages.
(c) Inequalities in rural areas from the mid 1990s, which have forced people to combine multiple occupation for sustenance.
Migrant workers came mainly from drought prone and less productive regions and they go to work for part of the year on farms in Punjab and Haryana or on brick kilns in UP or construction sites in New Delhi or Bangalore. Jan Breman termed these migrant labourers as footloose labour.
Berman’s study shows that these workers do not have many rights, they have no freedom and often work below minimum wage.
Wealthy farmers often prefer migrant workers for harvesting and other such intensive operations, rather than the local working class, because the are more easily exploited and can be paid lower wages.
It has resulted into a peculiar pattern in some areas where local landless labourers move out of their own village to look for work during the peak agricultural seasons, while migrant workers are brought in from other areas to work on the local farms. This pattern is found especially in sugarcane growing areas. Migration and lack of job security have created very poor working and living conditions for these workers.
Effect of Large Scale Circulation of Labour
The large scale circulation of labour has had many significant effects on rural society, in both receiving and supply regions.
(a) Cultivation has become a female task, as male family members spend much of the year working outside of their village.
(b) Women are also emerging as the main source of agricultural labour, leading to ‘feminisation of agriculture labour force’.
(c) The women are more insecure because they receive low wages than men for similar work.
(d) Women were also not seen in official statistics as earners and workers. While women work on land as landless labour and cultivator, the prevailing patriarchal system and other cultural practices privilege male rights, and exclude women from land ownership.
Globalisation, Liberalisation and Rural Society
Rural society were deeply impacted by the policy of liberalisation since 1980s. Liberalisation require participation in WTO (World Trade Organisation) regime and opening up of Indian economy for free trade. As a result, Indian farmers are competing in global markets for many items as many foreign products are imported in our country.
Globalisation of Agriculture
Integration of Indian agriculture in global markets has effects on rural society. In regions such as Punjab and Karnataka, farmers enter into contracts with MNCs (Mulit-National Companies) to grow crops such as tomatoes and potatoes which the companies then buy from them for processing or export.
In ‘contract farming’ system the company identifies the crops to be grown, provides the seeds and after inputs as well as technical knowhow and often also the working capital. The farmers in return are assured of a market because the company guarantees that it will purchase the produce at a pre-determined fixed price.
Contract farming is quite common now in the production of specialised items such as cut flowers, fruits like grapes, pomegranates, figs, cotton and oilseeds. Contract farming provides financial security to farmers, but it can lead to greater insecurity as farmers become dependent on these companies for their livelihood.
Contract farming has sociological significance in that it disengages many people from the production process and makes their own traditional knowledge of agriculture irrelevant. It focuses on export oriented products such as flowers and gherkins which means that agricultural land is diverted away from foodgrain production.
It also caters primarily to the production of elite items, and because it generally requires high doses of fertilisers and pesticides, it is often not ecologically sustainable.
MNCs as Agents
The more widespread aspects of globalisation of agriculture is the entry of multinationals into the sector as sellers of agricultural inputs such as seeds, pesticides and fertilisers. Over the las decade or so the government has scaled down its agricultural development programme.
The ‘agricultural extension’ agents have been replaced in the villages by agents of seeds, fertiliser and pesticides companies. The agents are often the only source of information for farmers about new seeds or cultivation practice, while they are interested in selling their products.
It has led to the increased dependence of farmers on costly fertilisers and pesticides and had ultimately reduced their profits. Due to this most of the farmers are into debt and an ecological crisis had risen in rural areas.
Farmers in India for many centuries have faced distress due to drought, crop failure or debt. As a result, a new phenomenon of farmers’s suicide has risen.
According to sociologists, many farmers who have committed suicide were marginal farmers who were attempting to increase their productivity, primarily by practising Green Revolution methods. Unfortunately, these may be a setback due to many risk such as:
- The decrease in agricultural subsidies has led to an increase in cost of production.
- Instability of markets.
Because of them, many farmers borrow heavily in order to invest in expensive inputs and improve their inputs. The loss of crop or lack of adequate support or market price means that farmers are unable to bear the debt burden or sustain their families.
Further, the increased income requirement for marriages, dowries etc, lead the farmer to take such drastic measures. Such a matrix phenomenon is common in farmers of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra.
The pattern of farmer’s suicides point to the significant crises that the rural areas are experiencing. Agriculture for many is becoming untenable (unsustainable) and state support for agriculture has declined substantially.
Agricultural issues are also no longer key public issues and lack of mobilisation means that agriculturists are unable to form powerful pressure groups that can influence policy making in their favour. Suicides of farmers is basically associated with debt, as well as natural disasters, resulting in the failure of agriculture produce.
To combat this problem some of the schemes of the Government of India such as Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, Gram Uday Se Bharat Uday Abhiyan and National Rurban Mission help provide unified help to farmers all over the country. These schemes are also helpful to provide quality life to rural India.