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The plural in rural

An integrative and interdisciplinary approach that takes in multiple aspects is required to achieve transformative change in the lives of rural communities

Three decades of growth and structural transformation have resulted in profound changes in Indian society. Despite rapid growth in small towns and cities, and accompanying changes in people’s aspirations and opportunities, the majority of the country’s population still lives in rural settlements, dependent on land and natural resources for their continued subsistence.

Small landholdings and ecological destruction threaten the viability of purely agrarian livelihoods, while the spread of education and better connectivity create new opportunities for diversification. As economic structures become increasingly dominated by the role of capital and the power of the market, it is important to remain attentive to the concerns and aspirations of communities exploited, marginalised or ignored by these transformative forces.

What the 2020 pandemic has revealed are the vulnerabilities that lie at the heart of Indian society, the insecurities of those who have been relegated to the margins of the growth experience since the 1990s. In this moment of exception, as economic activity was temporarily suspended, migrant labourers far from the safety of their erstwhile rural homes found their livelihoods denied and their humanity stripped away.

While social protection mechanisms such as MGNREGA (the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) have provided immediate relief to those able to return to their villages, the crisis has also re-emphasised the need to understand rural transformations, and to find ways to make sustainable and equitable interventions that improve agrarian lives and livelihoods.

Influences from far and wide

I have had the privilege to work with students, scholars, colleagues and decision makers over this period, studying and writing about these issues. With an initial training in economics, I am now based in the Department of Geography at Cambridge, a place that embraces interdisciplinarity, drawing on influences from across the natural sciences, social sciences and the arts and humanities to understand the close links between people and nature, and how these are changing.

Our work engages with, and is especially attentive to, the initiatives, knowledge and lived experiences of agrarian and rural communities. Equally, we work with the understanding that such communities are internally differentiated and spatially diverse.

Professor Bhaskar Vira

Professor Bhaskar Vira,
an economist-turned-geographer, heads the Department of Geography at Cambridge University, UK

Women self-help group (SHG) members at a meeting in Rudraprayag in Uttarakhand to form a federation; the Tata Trustssupport more than 5,600 SHGs, comprising 42,000-plus women, in the state through their Himmotthan Pariyojana initiative
Women self-help group (SHG) members at a meeting in Rudraprayag in Uttarakhand to form a federation; the Tata Trustssupport more than 5,600 SHGs, comprising 42,000-plus women, in the state through their Himmotthan Pariyojana initiative

Rural communities are widely accepted to be structured on the axes of class, caste, gender, ethnicity and/or religion. These manifest not only in the relations between households but also within households, especially in the case of gender. At the same time, the particular configuration of these axes varies by agro-ecological location, political and policy context, and historical developments. Our research seeks to understand the present and potential futures of rural lives and livelihoods in the light of these lived social and material realities of people.

Our work at Cambridge has developed important synergies with the activities of the Tata Trusts. In a project that focused on ecosystem services in the Himalayan region, our activities intersected with several initiatives of Trusts’ Himmotthan Pariyojana. Our project investigated the ways in which people living in and around six small towns in the western Himalayas access water through a diversity of sources, from springs to piped supply, and the sustainability challenges faced by these sources.

Through multiple and far-ranging case studies in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Nepal, our team has drawn out important lessons relevant to understanding water supply and demand-use dynamics in hill regions, as well as policy options to secure water supplies for the needs of these hill residents.

In subsequent project-related dissemination, we have held major public engagement activities (including an exhibition of photographs, Pani, Pahar), and have developed educational material on water security for use at the school level.

Over the last few months, we have engaged with the Tata Trusts’ Lakhpati Kisan initiative, a multidimensional intervention focused on improving the incomes and livelihoods of farming families in the central Indian tribal belt. This intervention complements the work that we are undertaking at Cambridge under a major funded programme, TIGR2ESS (transforming India’s green revolution by research and empowerment for sustainable food supplies).

Our flagship project focuses on ‘sustainable and transformative agrarian and rural trajectories’ (START), studying the challenges of moving towards a sustainable and equitable agricultural system across diverse agro-ecological landscapes in India.

Our research team includes colleagues from the University of Cambridge and the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, collaborating in India with ICRISAT (the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics), the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation and PRADAN. With research being undertaken across a wide variety of locations — from the coasts of Tamil Nadu and the irrigation tank sites of Telangana to forested villages in Bihar and the irrigated plains of Punjab — this project reflects on some of the most pressing political, economic and policy issues of agricultural development in India.

A couple in rural Rajasthan with an important part of their assets
A couple in rural Rajasthan with an important part of their assets

Blend of interventions

The Lakhpati Kisan initiative adopts a multi-pronged approach to addressing these challenges. It provides a range of interventions, including irrigation development; agrarian adaptation; livestock development; introduction of high-quality seeds and sapling nurseries; IT and education; improvements in water quality; and promoting community institutions.

Our analysis was based on data on the first five years of this programme (2015 to 2020) and took in baseline studies as well as trend-analysis datasheets. The overall trends suggest that participants in the programme recorded significant increases in their income over the intervention period.

Our analysis suggested some ways in which future monitoring and data collection could allow for a more rigorous approach to programme evaluation for this initiative, and also recommended the importance of gathering more qualitative, narrative evidence of the impact of the programme on the lives of participants. As part of an iterative learning process, we hope that some of our insights might be of value as this initiative goes into the next phase of implementation.

Our broader portfolio of work, informed by deep and meaningful partnerships with researchers and civil society organisations in India, suggests that there are real opportunities for donors, governments and businesses to work closely with rural communities to achieve transformative changes in their lives and livelihoods.

This requires an integrative and interdisciplinary approach, combining the need to understand and enhance production systems, while recognising the importance of ecological stability and resilience, and promoting equitable access and people’s rights.

The Naional Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has provided much-needed relief to those seeking jobs and wages
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has provided much-needed relief to those seeking jobs and wages