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Social progress in India?

February 7, 2008

How much social progress has India made since Independence sixty years ago? According to economist V. K. Ramachandran, not very much when it comes to life in the countryside. (Hear my interview with Ramachandran on iTunes and on my web page.) Ramachandran gives a profile of the social problems faced by India at the time of Independence — depths of income poverty, illiteracy, avoidable disease, and the worst forms of caste, class and gender oppression in the world — and then judges that, appallingly, these same problems continue in the countryside without significant change. And this failure derives from the country’s failure to solve its agrarian question. Poverty, inequality, and deprivation continue to be rampant in rural society. And this persistence derives from the failure to address the fundamental relations of property and power in the countryside. Moreover, the processes of globalization and liberalization have, if anything, intensified these problems.

Professor Ramachandran is a research professor at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, and is the author of Wage Labour and Unfreedom in Agriculture: An Indian Case Study.

What is involved in solving the agrarian question, according to Ramachandran? Ramachandran refers to these goals of agrarian transformation — freeing the countryside of landlordism; freeing the working peasantry and agricultural workers from their current fetters; guaranteeing the means of income; redistributing agricultural land; providing rural working people with house sites and homes; creating conditions for the liberation of people of oppressed castes and tribes and women; to ensure formal education; and to achieve the general democratization of life and cultural development in India. “Without that, there is no progress.”

Professor Ramachandran takes issue with the view of India that appears to be emerging in Japan and the United States — as a country with shopping malls, hi-tech companies, and rapid economic growth. These images are true of some places in India — but they have little relevance to conditions in rural India. (And the population of India continues to be at least 70% rural and agricultural.) The progress that has occurred in the countryside is meaningful — agriculture has increased its productivity significantly since 1960, and India is now grain-self-sufficient. India is no longer locked into a “ship-to-mouth” existence. But these changes in the productivity of agriculture have not been associated with changes in the basic institutions present in the countryside — what Ramachandran refers to as the “agrarian structure.” And these social relations continue to create a system that entrenches inequality and deprivation for peasants and agricultural workers. Ramachandran maintains that three “new” inequalities have emerged — inequalities between regions, inequalities between crops, and inequalities between classes. (As an expert on agricultural workers, Ramachandran is in a good position to observe what has happened for this segment of India’s rural population.)

Ramachandran is an activist-scholar, and he is involved in a large collaboration with other scholars to provide a review of conditions in villages in a growing list of states in India. Ramachandran underlines the point that there is great variation across the map of India. The goal of these studies is to provide a detailed snapshot of the social conditions in the villages — studies of the oppressed classes, tribes, and women; the state of village amenities (sewerage, clean water, roads, education). Over a number of years the goal of the research effort is to arrive at a more nuanced description of the conditions of rural life across many states in India. This research is highly valuable, since it permits disaggregation of descriptions of the countryside that are often based on aggregated data.

An interesting feature of this research project is the fact that it is deliberately linked to the activist organizations of peasants, workers, and women. The researchers consult with the agrarian activists to discover what the most important issues are — and then to focus research effort on discovering the social details associated with these issues. And Ramachandran is emphatic in saying that the rigor of scientific investigation can and should be combined with this collaboration with the activist organizations. In fact, he indicates that the organizations themselves are insistent about this point. “Don’t lose your academic rigor,” the leaders of the organizations insist.

There is a lot more in the interview. But the bottom line is that Ramachandran offers a really good example of the engaged scholar. And the kind of social research that he and his colleagues are doing is well designed to help to diagnose some of the changes and public policies that are needed in India.

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