Dialogue  April-June, 2005, Volume 6  No. 4

Story of my Village and Beyond: Understanding Rural Transformation Process

Atul Sarma

Back in my village for some days in 2000, I asked myself four questions. First, was there a significant improvement in the levels of living of the people of my village over the years? Second, if there were, what were the processes that led to the outcome? Third, what lessons could one learn from the exercise? Finally, could these insights form the basis of a more general approach to rural transformation?

I intended to take a view, though not rigorously, of the inter-temporal change in the level of living of the people of my village, Hatirpithi of Chamata, which is around 90 kms away from Guwahati. Without going into the details of the exercise, I would like to indicate the initial conditions against which the exercise was made and the broad methodology adopted.

Briefly speaking, a cluster of settlements inhabited by four different caste and two religious groups in and around the village formed the study unit. Not more than 15% of the households had relatively large land holdings and the rest were small and marginal farmers or landless. Sharecropping was the dominant feature of the land tenure system. Cultivation and caste-based occupations were the main source of livelihood.

As for the broad methodology, a base line scenario in respect of a few important indicators of levels of living of the villagers around 1960 was constructed essentially from my memory recall and validated by cross checking with several better informed people. The current/terminal level scenario, i.e for the year 2000, on the corresponding indicators was drawn on the basis of the information obtained from a set of informed people in the locality.

Village Economy: Then and Now

In the base year, only paddy was grown twice- but once rather casually- in a year. Vegetables, oil seed etc. were grown mainly for self-consumption. As was then, so is now, irrigation facilities do not exist although a deep tube well was installed but remained mostly out of operation. Unlike in the base year, high yielding variety of seeds is now widely used. Perhaps for lack of irrigation facilities, fertilizer is rarely used. Land tenure system characterised by sharecropping is still prevalent. Landholdings have become smaller due to division and sub-division.

Over these four decades, demographic transition as reflected in smaller average family seems to have taken place, to a varying degree though, across different caste and religious groups. Labour force has also undergone a change in terms of rising number of literates and occupation diversification, to an extent. Such changes seem slower in the case of low caste and the Muslim community.

Educational institutions have come up within a reasonable proximity, even if the majority of them seem to be of indifferent quality. So are the health services. But the extent of utilization varies with factors such as income level and family motivation. Road conditions have improved, even if these are still kaccha. Rural electrification has reached less than 20 % of the households. Housing and sanitation has perceptibly improved particularly for the well off section.

What is striking is that the percentage of households that could not afford a couple of meals a day is now significantly low, though calorie and nutrition contents of food consumption could not be assessed. There has emerged a considerably large segment of low middle-income population over the years. Yet the rate of accumulation or productive investment in farm and/or any other activities that impart growth dynamism is slow.

These positive changes took place over a long period of four decades. These are, however, directional changes but the extent of their significance in quantitative terms could not be noted. Further, the observations based on an inter-temporal exercise as above obviously overlooked the impact on the levels of living due to seasonal fluctuations that are associated with rain fed agriculture.

Understanding the Process

What processes contributed to these positive outcomes? On the basis of close interactions with a cross section of population covering both intelligent observers and actual actors at the grass root level, it was possible to identify four broad forces that contributed to the improvement in the people’s lives.

First, the expansion of government and government promoted activities particularly since the planning era, made it possible for some villagers to get regular employment, though largely at the lower end in government and semi-government activities such as public institutions, cooperatives and schools within the locality and/or in the nearby town or in Guwahati. This section could have steady income, even if not high, in the majority of cases. Nevertheless, it impacted their consumption level and pattern.

Further, such job migrants of the initial period had one important characteristic: most of them did not shift to their place of work but remained rooted in their village homes and looked after their dependents including the education of their siblings. They also improved the conditions of living by way of constructing better houses and improving sources of drinking water. Their interactions and exposures with urban living slowly impacted the consumption pattern at their village home, too.

Second, this pattern of migration induced local level demand for newer products and services in the village itself. On the weekends or whenever they came home, they brought with them some of the commodities usually found place in the urban consumption basket. This had also a demonstration effect on their neighbours’ preferences. In the process, urban items began to enter the rural consumption basket. This, in turn, induced non-farm activities such as shops, rice husking units. A PWD road, though only a gravelled and poorly maintained one, connecting the village to Guwahati and other emerging urban centres and regular transport service facilitated the above described migration process and strengthened the market linkage.

Third, market linkage became stronger when a daily evening market instead of a bi-weekly Haat/Bazar further away from the village came into place around the bus station. It served as a regular outlet for disposable goods. The local demand mostly from salaried people with a regular stream of income, the land owning class, people engaged in more profitable activities etc. boosted the growth of non-farm activities. The daily evening market also induced people to produce whatever they could using their slender productive assets more intensively and bring to the market for sale even if not in large quantity.

Kakati Sir’s — Khagen Kakati, a B.Sc teacher of Chamata High School, (now Higher Secondary) — model farm in the fifties in close proximity to my village demonstrated the efficacy of improved method of cultivation and supplied quality seeds and seedlings of various rabi crops. That motivated big, small and even marginal farmers to adopt better seeds and new method of cultivation. The availability of a daily market acted as a booster.

But these producers later faced a new problem. With a growing number of farmers adopting improved method of cultivation particularly in regard to vegetables, a situation of excess supply occurred at times resulting in price crash as it happens in all agricultural products that do not enjoy support prices. In such situations, farmers did not receive incentive prices.

Fourth, the emergence of a cluster of non-farm establishments around the daily market spurred various demand induced services such as means of transport like rickshaws later graduated to auto-rickshaws and various repairing services such as bi-cycle, radio etc.

Learning some lessons

What do we learn from these processes of change overtime? We could find that:

           l   The rural economy of my village, perhaps of many other villages, has graduated from the stage of self-sufficiency to one of producing market surplus and economic agents such as farmers have become price sensitive.

           l   Road connectivity has facilitated the evolution of market centres and market linkages.

           l   Regular market centres together with steady stream of income of the local and migrant salaried class and dispersed farm income have given fillip to the growth of both farm and non farm activities.

           l   Access to new technology and the proper demonstration of its efficacy have induced even illiterate small and marginal farmers to adopt them and motivated them to use more productively even their small productive assets.

           l   Herd effects resulting in producing more of the same crops as in the case of vegetables by many have led to excess supply affecting realization of incentive prices.

           l   Uncertain weather conditions in the absence of adequate irrigation infrastructure, lack of land tenure reforms have impeded capital accumulation, farm investment and crop diversification in favour of high value crops.

           l   Allied activities like animal husbandry, fisheries etc. have attracted attention but have not taken off partly because of risk averse behaviour and partly because of non-availability of cattle and poultry feed in the case of animal husbandry and fingerlings in the case of fisheries.

           l   Non-availability of easy credit, market infrastructure, irrigation, timely supply of seeds and seedlings, uncertain power supply, poor road and transport and the failure of the government functionaries to connect with the economic agents like farmers have acted as major stumbling blocks to the sustained agricultural prosperity and non farm sector growth.

           l   Rural youths particularly the educated ones are averse to taking up cultivation as an occupation. More remunerative non-farm activities and urban destination in search of jobs even humble ones attract them more.

In short, reforms of land tenure, adequate and quality rural and market infrastructure, market linkage, accessibility to new technology and its demonstration, easy credit and proper interface of different agents of change could boost agricultural growth and through its multiplier effects spur the dynamic growth of non-farm activities including agro processing.

Suggesting a General Approach

Could these insights suggest a General Approach to rapid rural transformation?

To begin with, it should be recognised that the rural population can be classified into the following broad categories on the basis of the means of income generation: (i) those who own large productive rural assets in the form of land; (ii) those who have land but not of viable size — small and marginal farmers; (iii) those who do not own land and have only labour to sell – landless labour; (iv) those with skill such as carpenters and masons; (v) those who are self-employed in the non farm sector and (vi) those who are employed in government, semi-government and other establishments and earn regular stream of income and (vii) those who come under non-workers.

Viable land owning category benefit from crop loan, Kisan Credit card, KVIC, Margin Money Scheme, other micro credit and normal bank credit. Those without productive rural assets may benefit but temporarily from employment-oriented schemes such as Employment Assurance Scheme, PM’s Gram Sadak Yojana and Indira Awas Yojana. Similarly, Schemes like PMRY, SJSRY, SGSY, SHG and other special target group micro-credit schemes are meant to benefit marginal asset holders. The realisation of benefits from these schemes, even if temporarily, depends on whether the implementation actually reaches out to the target groups.

Given the dependence of an overwhelmingly large segment of the rural population on agriculture and allied activities, the development of this sector is a crucial determinant of rural transformation. The question is how to stimulate agricultural growth in a way that would strengthen linkage with non-farm activities through its feedback effects.

High growth of this sector essentially depends on three factors: shift to higher technology and to high valued crops; farm infrastructure such as irrigation, market infrastructure like cold storage facility, rural roads and availability of credit with ease and on time and market linkage that facilitates disposal of marketable surplus at incentive prices.

Proper land tenure reforms and land consolidation, on the one hand and minimisation of risk due to flood and vagaries of nature either through crop insurance and flood prevention will attract private investment in the farm sector. That will also provide the required incentive to adopt new technology and new crops. The demonstration of their efficacy and profitability will be essential as the model farm mentioned earlier, did.

This can be said in the case of other allied activities of agriculture such as fishery, animal husbandry, horticulture and forest farming. These activities are land intensive and eminently suitable for the northeastern states both for reasons of soil and demand conditions. Their growth will give fillip to the growth of rural non-farm activities. But technology adoption and market linkages are crucially important for this to happen.

Rural connectivity in terms of road and communication together with other infrastructure such as stable power supply, good schools, quality health institution, drinking water and sanitation facilitate market linkage as also non-farm income and employment.

Interface of progressive producers with technology providers, concerned government functionaries, marketing experts, development financiers such as NABARD and NEDFi and experts providing technology options for storage and preservation of different products to be followed by proper monitoring will spur growth in these activities.

With change in the composition of rural labour force in terms of having more educated members, this type of interface is eminently useful. Combined with Kyosk/internet-based computer information centre such interface workshops has the potential of unleashing the productive forces. It can spur the growth of agro processing industries such as food processing, cattle feed and poultry feed units, dairy, organic farming, forest farming, ornamental fish farming, floriculture, seed farming and organic manure.

As Dr. Jayanta Madhab, Adviser to Government of Assam observed on the opportunities of rural development with particular reference to Assam:

“The opportunities are there; the market is here; unutilised manpower is abundantly available; bank’s credit deposit ratio being low, banks are under pressure to increase lending; therefore money is available; unutilised land is available and water is plentiful”. But he did not address the question: even though all these opportunities were all there for long, why is it that the Assam economy continues to decelerate and the rural poverty is far higher than even the national average level? If we know the answer to this question, we have the key to rapid rural transformation.

In the light of what President A.P.J. Kalam stated in his convocation address at GB Pant University of Agriculture and Technology on November 17, 2003, I submit that four types of connectivity: (i) Physical connectivity in the form of road, transportation, and power; (ii) electronic connectivity in the form of reliable telecommunication, internet and information technology services (iii) knowledge connectivity in terms of technology and its demonstration in addition to good educational and training institutions and (iv) market connectivity that would ensure incentive prices to farmers and others – would impart dynamism in rural transformation in general and agricultural growth in particular.

High agricultural growth through its output, income, consumption and investment feed back effects or in technical jargon, through multiplier effects, would stir growth in non-farm activities and thus stimulate rapid rural transformation.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                         Astha Bharati