In defence of atmanirbharsil village – vocal for local

Bhaskar Majumder

Let me talk straight – time is running out and tomorrow is yet to come, if at all, following Ravan’s vani (message) to Rama. The country that is India that is Bharat practiced many principles but these were on a single pedestal that was people – that people had to live a dignified life that ultimately after centuries of human living on that trajectory came to be acknowledged in the esteemed Constitution of India – “we, the people of India...’’.

India’s economy practiced inward-looking import-substituting heavy industrialization strategy during 1956-66 following Mahalanobis that is known to all. Indian economy faced crises since mid-1960s ultimately manifested in massive borrowing from the IMF in 1981 and ultimate adoption of open-door economic policy in 1991. Some thinkers link India’s integration in the world economy since 1991 that carries not much meaning for India was founder-member of Breton Woods twins since their inception around 1944/1945. The history of India’s post-independence economy was linked with Nehru more than anybody else for his position as Prime Minister till 1964. Whatever we have and the derivatives are because of the initiatives during his period.

In my limited understanding the Nehru-Mahalanobis trajectory of growth and development contrasted that of Mahatma Gandhi – the concept of self-sufficient village economy. Now the vani (message) has come back – “vocal for local’’. By this I understand the restoration of the local economy – to begin with the village economy. I support it not because of the fact that the destination-locked migrant workers have come back to their villages but because the village economy needs restoration if the urban economy is to survive or the national economy is to survive. The reason is village economy cannot be allowed ad infinitum to supply population to add to the number and size of slums in cities. 

Let there be no confusion that “vocal for local’’ does not ignore trans-local engines of growth and vikaas (development) like roads-railways, apart from air and water. While ponds are local, rivers are not. While jungles are local, forests and mountains are not. In fact, many of the national resources are not confined to the locality – understood as a village or a cluster of villages. Also, labour and capital are not confined to any particular locality. Most of the migrations are not intra-local.

Given the above, how do we understand the locality? It is to be understood by the living of the common people at the bottom and that is not to be confused as low-level equilibrium trap. I may mention one or two domains where the local development leads to national development apart from local living of people in peace. One is rural public works best reflected in MNREGA – if it failed partially, it has to succeed. The other is Gandhian rural industries that have been allowed to die that include rural artisans. In case of MNREGA mostly public assets or utilities are produced while in case of activities by rural artisans mostly private utilities are produced.

The local economy is not to be confused with isolationism. One is direct state intervention where the very living in villages may be intimidated for land acquisition by the state for non-agricultural public purposes. The other is forced supply of labour whether or not it is understood or acknowledged; for example, now the Government of Jharkhand is sending about 1,500 labourers who will leave Dumka by a special train on 12th June, 2020 to be engaged in road construction work in border areas supervised by the Border Road Organisation (BRO), as reported. As I visited Dumka and adjoining regions long back, I presume the labourers will be Adivasis and if yes, it is repetition of uses of Adivasi labourers in difficult terrains and in mines as one found in British India. Local people thus become national labourers. Also, local labourers in border areas as construction zone may be inadequate or unwilling to be engaged in this strenuous works.

The most attractive example of uses of local labour is MNREGA where the work-zone has to be within five km. radius from the village or residence of the workers as the 2005 Act mentioned. This of course does not imply that the benefits of assets created thus will remain confined to five km. radius only. However, local is different from and more than labour in MNREGA. Whether or not understood by the urban elite, a village is a psycho-cultural space for the people born and brought up in villages that are what I understand from my childhood spent in a village in West Bengal. It had its friends-relatives-neighbours, the houses were boundary-less, it was not much understood during daytime which child lived in which house or even who their relatives were and who not and what was the nature of relations. This was the period from mid-1950s to mid-1970s in spite of economic crises and political turmoil.

The observed village has got transformed by urbanization and the imagined village has partially lost its glory for the interventions of both the corporate and the Government, the latter for doing good and the former for loot of resources. The loot is legalized for resources cannot be kept confined to any particular village or cluster of villages. The self-reliant village gradually disappeared leading to lessening confidence of people to live local for one has to earn to survive. The village economy gradually failed to retain the village-loving people.

The above got reinforced by the village-local informal credit sector where the landowning class engaged the landless class for mono-cropping season and forced them to take un-repayable loan. This forced these landless people to migrate. Local thus became inter-state national.

Precisely, the way the village-local has got entangled in the cobweb of corporate-government-moneylender leaves hardly any scope for innocent village-tied people to live local. The corporate grabs the resources, the government makes the local into state-dependency, and the moneylender sucks the labour-blood of the migrant workers who come back to repay outstanding debt. Still then the village-local come back that is recently proved for they declined to die at the destination or disappear elsewhere.

The idea of self-sufficient village community thus is a fantasy now. The idea of a hydraulic society is a distanced imagination. The village labour is innocent labour – it can be sent anywhere just as the Jharkhand labourers now sent by the Government to the border for infrastructure works – it is not known if their skill mapping has been done or if their identity has been recorded and all that. When labour is required, local disappears. Capital is hardly local.

The nation of India that is Bharat is time-distanced by more than seven decades to make village atmanirbharsil – the decline of village India was systemic. Anti-village outlook developed over time – it was in favour of leaving the village or converting the village into a town. The associated indigenous knowledge base got lost in the process.

Based on my birth in a village and visiting unnumbered villages in India, Bangladesh and Nepal and after talking to the elderly people I don’t have any doubt about the elderly-wise choice of people revealed in favour of village living. The advanced segment of the society, however, may fail the village-local for their concept of vikaas (development).

One more caution for advanced thinkers. This is not to delink from Leontief-type rural-urban economic exchanges. And village is not necessarily rural – the former is a physical-psycho-cultural space and the latter is economist’s construction. There is also no single model of living village-local – it is geographically-historically-culturally inherited and hence differentiated.                      

Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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Jun 15, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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