Why India needs a rural uprising

Satya Sagar

“Today, the villages are dung heaps. Tomorrow they will be like tiny gardens of Eden where dwell highly intelligent folk whom no one can deceive or exploit”.
Mahatma Gandhi, writing in the Harijan in November 1946

Of all the dreams that Mahatma Gandhi projected for India’s future, none was shattered as cruelly as his wish to make it a nation of village republics, where self-sufficient, highly skilled rural folk would live a life of complete dignity.  Seven decades after Indian independence, the country’s villages continue to be like dung heaps, topped with toxic waste.

Today, as Indian farmers hit the streets to protest against corporate takeover of the country’s agriculture it may be a good time for them and all those who live in India’s villages to call for a complete overhaul of urban-rural relations. While their demand that the government maintain minimum support prices (MSP) for their produce and not allow entry of large corporations in farming is fine, the real battle will be to overturn India’s yawning rural-urban divide.

Failure to bring about larger structural changes to the national economy would mean accepting that rural populations are destined to remain second-class citizens, their lives and ambitions forever subordinate to that of their urban counterparts. Not giving agriculture and rural welfare their rightful place in national affairs will also take India further down the path of ecological disaster the consequences of which, with global warming already a reality, will be catastrophic.

More specifically what this means is that rural populations should stop subsidising urban development, consumption and wealth accumulation, demand higher prices for their work and turn city-centric national policy making upside down. Though the MSP is often referred to as a ‘subsidy’ provided to farmers by the Indian state, the simple truth is that farmers and agricultural labour are the ones subsidising urban populations for decades now,  by providing food at extremely low prices.

Rural Indians also routinely subsidise both the industrial and services sectors by  supplying  cheap labour, through migration.  However, as was starkly evident during the mass exodus of migrant workers from cities back to their villages, at the start of the COVID-19 induced national lockdown, nobody in power really cares whether they live or die.

On the eve of Indian independence, Gandhi’s idea of bypassing industrialisation and focusing on rural development was rejected by all those close to him, including his protégé Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. Gandhi’s insight though was born from his very astute observation of Western nations, which he pointed out had to colonise their own people or other nations in their quest for  supply of raw materials, markets and endless consumption linked to industry.

Just as Gandhi apprehended, rural Indians have been colonised by urban and industrialised India, serving only as sources of cheap food, material and labour. In return, all they have got is the chance to become low wage servants of the urban elites resulting in both humiliation and resentment, which has incidentally been tapped in recent decades by Hindu nationalists to fuel anti-minority anger and hatred.

Though 70 % of India’s population lives in the countryside towns and cities  account for more than two thirds of the Indian GDP.  With a steadily falling growth rate, the agricultural sector’s share in the country’s GDP has declined from 41.3% in 1960 to just 16 % in 2016[i] .

Inequality in wealth sharing is also clear from the fact that income of an average person in rural India is less than even half of his/her urban counterpart[ii] . While India’s growing urban centers also have large numbers of poor people, most of them are again rural folk fleeing the economic or social misery of the countryside.

Not every Indian farmer is poor of course and there is considerable inequality within the rural population too. Of all households in rural India, consumption of among the richest was 6.5 times higher than the poorest, while their income was 20 times that of the lowest class[iii] . Not surprisingly, scheduled castes and tribes in the country’s rural areas account for around 80 per cent of poor rural people, although their share in the total rural population is much smaller[iv] .

In terms of access to healthcare, education and even basic amenities, such as drinking water and sanitation, rural India stands way behind the country’s urban parts. About 54% of the rural households in India rely on groundwater sources, which is heavily contaminated by multiple pollutants compared to less than 20% urban households[v] . About 67% of rural, against about 12% urban, households still ‘indulge’ in open defecation[vi] .

On the health front, the density of allopathic physicians in urban areas was four times that of rural areas, and for nurses and midwives it was three times that of rural areas[vii] . In terms of life expectancy a rural Indian, on average, is likely to die at least 5 years younger than his urban counterpart[viii] . The average years of education of the urban worker was also 94 percent higher than the typical rural worker in 2004.

Though still patchy, the data on the great divide between rural and urban India  is more than sufficient to alarm anyone willing to look at the long-term trends in the country. For example, by 2030 it is estimated that up to 590 million people, or 40% of the Indian population will be living in cities, much higher than the current 34%[ix] . Apart from the challenge of providing all these city dwellers with jobs, food and shelter, the consequences of urbanisation in terms of damage to soil, water and air will also be horrendous.

As it is, India is expected to be one of the countries most affected by climate change, which will bring increasing stress on  natural ecosystems, agricultural output, and freshwater resources, with serious impact on availability of food and water,  energy security, and public health[x] . The poor, mainly smallholder farmers and landless agricultural workers, are expected to be hardest hit[xi] .

One of the ways in which the impact of climate change can be mitigated and also the current rural-urban divide addressed is by reversing the flow of populations from rural to urban areas. This will require substantial investments in making the Indian countryside more liveable in terms of its infrastructure and quality of basic services and by improving incomes, all unlikely to happen without a big rural uprising to bring about radical shift in the priorities of Indian policy making.

While Indian political parties typically swear by the Indian farmer to get their votes during elections, their policies when in government are uniformly biased towards welfare of cities. Though still in its infancy, the growing discontent in the farming community now could be the beginning of a new phase of struggles against the internal colonisation of those who work in agriculture.

If that happens, it will be ironical that the current  regime in power is persecuting all its critics as ‘Urban Naxals’, while itself laying  ground for a fresh Naxalite movement in rural India through its blatantly pro-corporate and elitist policies.

[ii] India’s rural-urban divide: Village worker earns less than half of city peer. 12 December 2019. Financial Express.
[iv] Dynamics of Rural Poverty in India. Save the Children.
[v] Rural-urban spatial inequality in water and sanitation facilities in India: A cross-sectional study from household to national level. Sriroop Chaudhuri, Mimi Roy. Applied Geography, Volume 85. 2017.s
[vi] ibid

Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health worker who can be reached at


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Oct 3, 2020

Satya Sagar

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