The Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution organized a lecture by Dipankar Gupta titled “Town and Country: the Changing Face of India Today” at the Yasser Arafat Hall on Thursday, February 21, 2013. [Audio] Dipankar Gupta is a well-known sociologist and author of “Mistaken Modernity: India between Worlds,” “The Caged Phoenix: Can India fly?” and several others.
As someone who taught sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University for many years, Dipankar Gupta had had the opportunity to undertake research on rural and small town India, particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s. He shared with us an exchange he had with a man on one of his first academic trips to a village:
Dipankar Gupta: What do you do?
Villager: I am a farmer
D G: What did you do?
Villager: Masonry, rickshaw puller…
D G: You told me you were a farmer!
Dipankar Gupta, in his own words, “grew smarter” from this experience and never again posed the same question to a farmer because, as he quickly realised, the only thing farmers actually knew was farming (leaving aside the fact that they were also doing other things).
According to Dipankar Gupta, what one may glean from published figures may not always be true and we risk having an incomplete picture of whatever it is we are learning about by relying only on published figures. This coming from a man whose talk was supplied with a sackful of statistics. The larger point he was making was, of course, not lost on us.
To illustrate the high incidence of informal labour in the formal sector, the speaker recounted for us his days in the corporate world when he was with the audit-giant, KPMG. As an academic, Dr Gupta could never imagine gaining access to factories and factory workers but as an auditor, he could gain unrestricted access. KPMG – after seeking permission from their headquarters abroad – started arriving at industrial plants unannounced. They made sure to position “nimble-footed” auditors to set up a perimeter of the plant to try to intercept factory workers. This was because by going unannounced to industrial plants, Dipankar Gupta would inevitably be a witness to factory workers heading for the hills. “Yet hundreds would run away if it was a big factory”, said Dr Gupta, as he soon realised that this was an unavoidable trait of the Indian factory.
Dipankar Gupta laid it bluntly when he said “to be rich, you need the poor. To be urban, you need the rural.” His travels across the country had convinced him that the poor in India were extreme risk takers. It isn’t hard to run into labourers from North India in South India today. This was almost non-existent two decades ago. Some of the statistics he treated us to: in 1947 agriculture constituted 66 per cent of our GDP. That figure had fallen to 53 per cent by 1960. Today, it stands at an unrecognisible 13.9 per cent. This was empirical evidence for the expulsion of India’s villagers from their villages. Thus, the man from Haryana is content working in a hosiery unit in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu rather than tending to ever-diminishing land holdings back home.
There was a time when 78 per cent of all farmers in the country were working for big landlords. The figure has fallen drastically today and, in essence, what we are seeing is the rise of the marginal farmer. However, you juxtapose that with the fact that 22-46 per cent of all manufactured goods in the country come from rural India whereas a village by definition has to have 75 per cent of all adult males engaged in agriculture or allied activities, you are flummoxed. You begin to wonder if our villages are disappearing. For the first time since we began conducting the census, urban India pipped rural India in terms of growth; India’s rural population today is 90.6 million higher than it was in 2001. The urban population is 91 million higher than it was in 2001. The earlier 22-46 per cent figure can be explained by the fact that rural non-farm employment has gone up significantly. It is as high as 63 per cent in Bihar! However, the one reason why we still believe that we have many farmers in the country (aside from the fact that a lot of rural folks in general, as illustrated at the beginning of the piece, believe they are farmers even though they may be doing a whole lot of unrelated things on the side or even full-time) is because the National Sample Survey Organisation defines a farmer’s household as “any such household which has one such person [farmer]”.
“Most [young citizens of rural India] are dying to leave villages and will be happy if they found a spot in a slum somewhere” – people will leave villages as soon as there is a message from someone in the city saying there is work available for them. This has resulted in an incremental growth in slums in the country. Slums are mushrooming not just in the metropolitan areas but in Tier II and Tier III cities and towns as well. To exemplify, Delhi has seen a 21 per cent increase in slums as opposed to Meerut which has seen a 43 per cent increase. Pune however led the tally with a mind-boggling 176 per cent rise in slums. Contrast this with the fact that 21 per cent of India’s billionaires come from the country’s small towns. Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t seem all that implausible after all. Also, one should not be surprised to find many white-collar workers in small town India. The India that is New Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore cannot lay claim to all the jobs that come with a pickup and drop facility. Hoshiarpur in Punjab has seen a 127 per cent increase in such jobs and Patiala, a little over 150 kilometres away, has seen a 64 per cent uptick.
Dipankar Gupta’s parting words to us were “[we] won’t proceed along the same old track”. India was changing and accepting this change and working with it made more sense than trying to revert to things we were doing in a past age. And as a pearl of wisdom he added (to the budding industrialists amongst us. Yes, we do have those in our peace studies programme) that it would be foolhardy to set up an industry or a factory in Delhi. “Go to small towns”, Dr Gupta proclaimed.
Listen to Dipankar Gupta’s lecture titled “Town and Country: the Changing Face of India Today,” held at Jamia on Feb. 21, 2013: