Village India

UNDER the British, India was a hodgepodge of almost six hundred states embracing about thirtyimportant tribes and numerous smaller language groups. When, after independence, the central government reduced the number of states to fewer than twenty, riots and civil disobedience, and even civil war, occurred in certain tribal areas cut in two by the new state boundaries. During the initial flush of patriotic fervor followingindependence, the government acted with vigor. Military force was used where needed, but subnationalisms have continued to smolder, fanned by local politicians.

The real power in the central government is the Congress Party’s Working Committee, which has been directing the government’s economic and social programs. The Community Development program has helped a few peasants here and there, but the great bulk of India’s population is eking out an existence in the country’s hall-million villages under conditions which are not appreciably better than they were under the British.

The Community Development program, conceived by an American architect, Albert Mayer, and implemented with the help of agricultural experts and funds provided by the state of Uttar Pradesh in north-central India, was initiated in a pilot project at Etawah in 1952. Almost two Five Year Plans later, most of India has been divided into Community Development blocks, each containing from fifty to a hundred villages. The block is administered by a BDO (block development officer), primarily an administrator, not an agricultural expert, who has a staff made up of a handful of experts in agriculture, village cooperatives, and social work. The village workers, who occupy the bottom rung on the staff ladder, make their rounds of the villages on bicycles.

In many of the older blocks there are one or two, perhaps even three or tour, villages which show signs of development, and it is to these communities that the foreign visitor is taken. He may be shown a brick-covered village path, a concrete-lined drain ditch for waste water, perhaps even a small brick-and-mud schoolhouse which also serves as a meeting place for the village council.

The typical Indian village, however, is still a collection of mud huts without electric lighting, floors, chimneys, pure water, or latrines. During the monsoon, the village paths are quagmires of mud and cow dung. Caste continues almost unabated. Twenty percent of the households possess no land and live on the edge of starvation. Children are as numerous as before, and village schools (if they exist at all) are generally small unlighted rooms without books or seats. Most of the younger villagers have been inoculated against smallpox, but in other respects medical services are as primitive as they were five hundred years ago, simply because the village folk cannot afford to pay even nominal prices for the medicines dispensed at government medical centers scattered around the countryside. Tuberculosis, trachoma, and suppurative sores are almost taken for granted.

The Community Development block staff has good reason for concentrating its attention on only two or three villages. Within a few months after taking over a new block, a BDO begins to realize that he is expected to show results, at least in a couple of communities. State money is at his disposal, ranging from about $100 to as much as $400 per village. He decides that implanting new attitudes and ideas in a multitude of stubborn peasant heads is too slow a process; a concentrated flow of funds into a very small number of communities will bring visible results much more rapidly.

The stranglehold of custom

But even in the exceptional villages, progress stops when the flow of public money and the prodding of the block staff stop. In the comparatively prosperous Punjab, one official said, “We are changing villages, but we aren’t changing the villagers. We’ve been able to talk the peasants in some villages into building latrines, but after the novelty wears off, they’re all answering nature’s call in the fields, as before.”

The peasants’ reluctance to depart from custom has stymied the government’s attempts to increase food production. Here and there an Indian cultivator has been converted to the Japanese “in-line” method of planting young rice plants in rows so that the soil can be worked more easily and the yield increased, but his neighbors remain uncompromising in their loyalty to the old way. Many peasants will agree that fertilizers increase crop yields, but most of them have not been convinced that the increase will be sufficient to warrant the extra cost.

The village credit cooperatives, which were to provide the means to pay for fertilizer, seed, and water, have been a dismal failure. The law permits the establishment of a village cooperative by ten or more individuals, each putting up ten or more rupees — a minimum of about two dollars. The government will then advance a sum eight times as large as the villagers’ share.

A large number of cooperatives were established, but in most cases the individual peasants cautiously put up only the minimum amount of ten rupees, which meant that they could borrow only eighty rupees (about $17) from the cooperative. This amount covers only a small part of the villagers’ needs. For the remainder, the peasants are dependent on the baniya, or local loan shark. In many villages the baniya has been able to strangle the local credit cooperative simply by telling the individual cultivators that they cannot get funds from him if they also use the facilities of the cooperative. Once he has killed off the competition, he is in a position again to charge the traditionally exorbitant interest rates.

The ownership of land

Most Indian cultivators have holdings scattered throughout the village acreage. Time and effort could be saved if each cultivator exchanged his several bits of land for one larger piece, equal in productivity, if not in area, to the original scattered holdings. Part of the opposition to consolidation is simply the characteristic inertia of village India. Part of it is due to the smallholders’ suspicions that the more prosperous cultivators in the village would bribe the government officials into giving them the choicest parcels of land. But the failure of the state governments to push this reform is the primary reason why it has been effected only in isolated instances.

About one villager in five owns no land at all. Unless he happens to be among the fortunate few whose village is near a factory, he must make his living as an agricultural laborer. In the Chandigarh area, where a big construction program in the new Punjabi capital city has pushed up the wages paid for common labor, he may earn as much as three rupees (63 U.S. cents) a day: but in a more typical area, such as Uttar Pradesh, the usual rate is sixty-two Indian cents (13 U.S. cents) for those lucky enough to find employment.

Three fourths of the cultivators till less than five acres each. This poorer 75 percent owns only one sixth of India’s cultivated land, while at the other end of the scale, the one percent which owns forty or more acres also owns one sixth. In many villages, 20 percent of the inhabitants do not have enough to eat, even by Indian standards. Land redistribution is sorely needed.

The Indian press, especially its left wing, has been lavish in its praise of the Russian-equipped mechanized farm near Suratgarh in semi-arid Rajasthan as one of the brightest spots on the Indian agricultural horizon. It is, however, significant that, with the exception of one other state farm, in the Tarai area of Uttar Pradesh, the various state governments have refused to duplicate this experiment in the dry farming of grains.

India’s economic planners believe that the government’s limited funds can be put to better use in developing government-owned industrial enterprises, mineral extraction, transport, and irrigation. There is, then, no immediate prospect that the semiarid parts of western and southern India will be made productive through mechanization.

About 80 percent of India’s 320 million arable acres is absolutely dependent on the fickle monsoons. Sometimes the rains come early, turning entire states into huge quagmires that cannot be plowed and planted. Sometimes the rains are late, and the young rice plants wilt in the burning summer sun. Monsoon agriculture is terribly inefficient and sets narrow limits to the production gains that can be realized in the Community Development program.

The production targets of the third Five Year Plan include a 33 percent increase in grain output by 1965. This target cannot be achieved merely through gradual technological improvements, but will require radical agrarian reforms involving mechanized cultivation of semi-arid regions under government auspices and high-pressure CD leadership.

India’s third Five Year Plan

The third Five Year Plan calls for an annual capital investment of over $2 billion in industry, minerals, transport, and communications, of which state enterprises will get the lion’s share. This is about one fifteenth the anticipated annual expenditure for new plants which will be built in the United States in the next four years.

By the end of 1965, steel production is to exceed ten million tons annually. In Madhya Pradesh the Russians have built a steelworks at Bihlai; West Germans are similarly engaged at Rourkela in Orissa, while British technicians arc supervising the construction of still another government-owned steel mill at Durgapur. Coal production is to be pushed from 60 million to 97 million tons annually. Railroads and other transport facilities are to be expanded proportionally.

These production targets have been set up on the premise that $6 billion can be raised from external sources during this five-year period: $4 billion for state enterprises, $1.5 billion to meet external obligations incurred earlier, and about $600 million for private enterprise.

But India will be fortunate if half that amount is obtained. American private capital has shown a reluctance to enter an economy characterized by high taxes and dominated by favored state enterprises. Some British capital is being withdrawn, and the flow of West German funds has been short of expectations. The result is that probably only about 85 percent of the industrial gains and employment opportunities envisaged by the third Five Year Plan will be achieved.

The central government’s planning commission must by now have given in to deep despair in the face of the rising rate of unemployment. There are about 7.5 million unemployed persons in India; and another 40 million work less than half a day on the average. In the next five years 12.5 million will be added to the labor force. Taken together, these figures mean that the third Five Year Plan must provide for at least 20 million new jobs in industry and related areas if it is to meet the unemployment crisis. That is an impossible assignment. By 1975, an additional 20 million people will be needing jobs.

Here and there a politician still conjures up Gandhi’s vision of a rural economy made prosperous through village cottage industries, but responsible officials in the central and state governments no longer take this idea very seriously. Small industries would, it is true, utilize more labor for each rupee of capital investment than large industrial plants do, but unit costs of production would be much higher; so there would not be a large market for the goods which village shops could produce, such as cottons, woolens, leather goods, and matches. Power would not be available either; only about 1.5 percent of India’s villages and small towns have been electrified.

Some spinning, weaving, and sewing take place in huts here and there in villages all over India, and in some communities this sort of cottage industry is very important; but the families so occupied are almost invariably pursuing their ancestral vocation. About the only important exceptions are certain villages near Ludhiana in the Punjab, where peasant households are making bicycle spokes and rims for delivery to assembly plants in Ludhiana. In view of all these difficulties, it is clear that the Indian villagers and their children face a dismal future.