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De-ploughing the "Rural"

Urban Myths about Rural Consumption

Why does data about increasing rural consumption shock us? Urban imagination sees the rural as a static, timeless domain where people are bare-minimalists lacking in ambition, agency or entrepreneurship. However, even if agriculture is declining, the rural isn’t. The rural is getting reconstituted amidst this confusion with ambivalent trends.

Last year’s monsoon made a hasty exit, after an erratic and merely ritualistic annual appearance. Instead it has rained suicides in the countryside, signifying the acuteness of the crisis that has set on rural India. It is therefore understandable why almost all mainstream political parties are championing the cause of the rural during election rallies, even if it is in a slightly warped manner. One of the most telling and ubiquitous images in these rallies of late, has been the offering of a miniature wooden plough by the so called “kisaan netas” to their political bosses.

It is true that a large number of farmers in India still lead a marginal existence, yet one would like to argue that this symbolic appearance of the wooden plough in our largely metropolitan imagination, is at best a continuation of our romanticisation, and at worst our ignorance of the world of rural. When we think of small farmers, do we think of them ploughing with leased or rented tractors? If not, then we better get real with the rural. A recent study on farm mechanisation, done at the Central Institute of Agricultural Engineering, Bhopal, reveals that the share of human power available for carrying out varied farm operations has shrunk to a mere 5%. Four decades ago, in 1971-72, 60% of the power was provided by humans and animals: 15% by farm labourers and 45% by animals. In 1991-92, this collective share had dropped to 26% (labour accounted for 9%). Tractors have made the biggest stride, from a mere 7% to 47%.

It is not without reason that many recent images depicting rural India show men and women replacing bullocks under the yoke of the plough. While on the one hand it shows the utter distress of rural economic structure, on the other, it indicates the implausibility of keeping, maintaining and feeding of bullocks in a changed agrarian landscape. With shrinking common grazing land and short supply of family farm labor, the idea of plough as an integral component of agrarian tool kit is on the wane. Instead mechanisation has taken over, even among smaller and marginal farmers.

When, for instance, National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) data for the year 2011-12 was released a few years back, the growth rate of rural consumption which had outstripped the urban, stunned a lot of observers. In 2011-12, the total rural consumption was Rs. 12.9 lakh crore against the urban figure of Rs. 10.45 lakh crore. Between 2009-10 and 2011-2012, the urban consumption grew at 17 percent while the corresponding figure was 19 percent for the rural. The shock value of this revelation, to a great extent, stems from the manner in which the ”rural” has been produced, projected and perceived in the dominant discourse, whether academic or otherwise.

The image of ”rural” as the quintessential “inferior other” of the ”urban” is a by-product of the grand thesis of modernisation and its accompanying network of folklores and metanarratives. “Rural” became regressive, traditional, backward and unmodern. In contrast “urban” was seen as progressive, modern and developed. While rural always ”pushed”, the urban only ”pulled”. The “rural”’ produced for its subsistence, the “urban” consumed for its gratification. The world was about binaries.

At another level, the rural was romanticised as moral, pure and pristine. It was seen as harmonious and idyllic. Marx, Gandhi and others, including of course, most colonial anthropologists fell prey to the enchanting lure of a utopian construction of the Indian village as, what Charles Metcalfe called, “little republics”. Clearly, rural was seen as static and unchanging. People from rural areas were seen as bare-minimalists who lacked ambition, agency or entrepreneurship. It is precisely because of this indelible image of a villager as anything but a consumer that the NSSO data on consumption rate was received with such bewilderment. Consumption, after all, has been an integral element of the world of profanity in our discourses.

The factual background of the countryside however, tells a different story. The steep decline in the agrarian sector and the general disenchantment with the profession of farming over the years, even in the green revolution belts, has been a matter of grave concern, given that a population as huge as three fourth of a billion live in rural areas. For example a 2007 report titled “Status of Farmers who Left Farming in Punjab”, compiled by Punjab State Farmer’s Commission in collaboration with the Punjab Agriculture University concludes that every ninth farmer in the state has quit agriculture over the last 25 years. According to 2001 census reports from Punjab, nearly 2 lakh marginal and small farmers left the occupation between 1991 and 2001. Reports with similar conclusions have come from other pockets of India. 

This decline in agriculture coupled with sustained growth in urban economy because of the service sector, and combined with the boom in real estate, facilitated and hastened the exodus of landless and marginal farmers to these urban pockets. The erstwhile agriculture laborers, laced with mobile phones and a new found identity-consciousness, preferred the anonymity and caste neutral spaces that cities provided them with. The soil of the village smelled of caste and its wretched history to the young generation of the subalterns in the villages.

Agriculture was the worst hit. On many occasions, there was money, there was technology, there were landlords but there were no hands around to till the land. This general disenchantment, however, made rural people look urban-ward as never before. Importantly, it did not necessarily always mean uprooting from the village. Thanks to much improved rural infrastructure and use of motorised vehicles, people went for petty jobs in the morning to nearby towns and came back when the cows returned homes. The data on increasing trend of Rural Non-Farm Employment (RNFE) and the decline of agriculture sector bear testimony to this. Contrary to the trend in the 1980s when the agriculture sector used to contribute about two-third of the rural Net Domestic Product (NDP), studies of 2009-10 show that it is the non-farm sector that contributes about two-third of the rural NDP (Papola 2013).

The migrants, predominantly male, send cash from the city and the women in villages dot the farms leading to what is referred to as feminisation of agriculture. According to a 2010-11 Crisil research based on the data drawn from NSSO, about 70 percent of the total income of the labor force in the urban sector, mostly migrant from rural areas, is remitted to their homes in villages (Times of India 2012). The developmental emphasis of governments on rural infrastructure like roads, education and other communication networks made it possible, for instance, for a barber in a village to start a roadside salon in a nearby city rather than be a part of the exploitative jajmani system and its largely non-monetised world.

 It is not that the Horis of today, to invoke the central character from Premchand’s “Godan”, have started buying Mercedes Benzs. Instead the demand for consumer goods such as televisions, two-wheelers, mixer-grinders, fans and mobiles in the countryside have grown multifold. The difference this time perhaps is that the largely cash strapped segment now has got some cash, to not just indulge in some luxury but also to demonstrate it. The sheer volume of this category of consumers is what makes the rural market the darling of the corporate sector today. Of course, the traditionally rich strata are not far behind. The lethal charm of consumerism is secular as it does not discriminate. With old agrarian sign posts of conspicuous consumption, including sturdy pairs of bullocks in front of havelis, fading fast, the old jeeps of the zamindars have given way to sleeker and bigger Taveras and Innovas. In a field visit with my students of MPhil in Development Practice to one of the poorest pockets of the Gondi tribal region in Hosangabad district of Madhya Pradesh last year, it was a moment of some serious reality check for us to find ubiquitous television dish antennae atop the thatched houses amidst signs of poverty all around, including dilapidated traditional wooden wheels and ploughs.

In short, to understand the “rural” we need to look beyond the binaries and signposts. Our refusal to face facts amidst the soporific haze of rural utopia has made us look idiotic when faced with the realities of the rural, which is clearly not just about wooden ploughs anymore. Rural today is far more complex and dynamic and we perhaps need to invent newer conceptual tools to grasp this diversity and maltilayerity. Rural at the moment is in a flux, carrying bagful of contradictory signs, of patches of prosperity and extreme impoverishment, of promises of pesticides and suicides, of glittering dish antennae and broken wheels of bullock carts, of rack filled of soft drinks at local kirana shops and drying sources of natural drinking water. Agriculture is declining but not necessarily the rural; the rural is getting reconstituted amidst this confusion with utterly ambivalent trends.

The younger generation of Indians today refer to the idea of a village as something which has to do with their grandfathers—the “place where my grandfathers stayed’’—would be a standard response of a student in Delhi when asked about their rural links, even if they are originally from Uttarakhand, Jharkhand or even Punjab. And this is a worry, for they oversee that the rural also means their own survival, our survival. Hyping of the urban is a mirage, a dream world, that in fact needs a robust rural for its sustenance. So if you want a smart city, first invest in a smart rural. But before all this, we have to ‘’own’’ the rural as our own, and not just as a place where ‘’my forefathers lived‘’.


Papola, T.S. (2013): “Employment, Growth During the Post-Reform Period,” Indian Journal of Labor Economics, Vol 56, No 1, pp 1-14.

Times of India (2012):  “Rural Consumption Outpaces that in Cities,” 30 August, consumption outpaces that in cities Rural consumption outpaces that in cities Rural consumption outpaces that in cities



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