To a general occasional traveler and passerby, the rural landscape may appear much the same as it has looked for decades. But for folks with a discerning eye, who have worked in this space for a while, the rural picture has become so much more colorful, portraying a collage of new infrastructure, products, brands and vibrant young faces, across the diversity of India. And, as you travel through small towns, you cannot but help wonder, that indeed, winds of change are sweeping across rural India and that this transformation is evident, it is with a purpose, it is here to further and stay! If you are passionate about the hinterland, you have to rejoice that this country is on its way to living a greatly improved quality of life.
Agriculture dominates rural geography
Agriculture continues to dominate the rural geography. Technology is playing a very big role in keeping crop yields afloat and pests at bay. Tractors and smaller sizes of varied farm machinery have taken over from the historical bullock cart. Mahindra, Escorts, Tata, Kirloskar and a host of small and medium enterprises, manufacture and market farm machinery, right from tilling, seeding, weeding, spraying to harvesting. The Government agricultural departments rent these equipments out to farmers, as do many NGO’s and SHG’s. The availability of landless labor is declining, resulting in innovative mechanisation of agricultural practices. Portable and affordable machinery, for small and medium farmers, has opened vast opportunity for improved crop management. GM crops, such as BT Cotton, and hybrid seeds have brought about higher yields and less input costs. And when the politics dies down, and the voice of technology and data is heard, GM crops are most likely to find more acceptability. Rice, fruits and vegetables, soybean etc are on the GM radar.
Crop Protection products are not far behind world class technology. But, the catch is that the older generation of farmers is withering away. The family size is dwindling. Precious land along the highway is being sold to opportunistic builders and investors. So where and who is our farmer of tomorrow? Will the sons of the soil, bear the future farm mantle? Will they find enough motivation to make agriculture their main occupation or will they just lease out their generation held land tracts to contractual labour and hope for the best return, under the circumstances! Thus, size of land holdings is becoming smaller and more fragmented, making it difficult to achieve scale in crop productivity. In our mission to double food production, the real question is “where have all the farmers gone?” Is it time to question that 70 percent of our population is dependent on agriculture, when non-farm incomes are on the increase?
Transient phase for rural youth
The rural youth is passing through a transient phase. Boys and young men are under pressure to help their elders in agriculture and farming. But they are an impatient lot. They want to educate themselves, know English, wear jeans, ride a motorcycle and make an identity for themselves. Thus, they are looking to small towns and cities that offer them employment opportunity in a variety of spaces. The young girls are becoming graduates, are learning to peek outside of their homes, are getting employed in cybercafés, banks, microfinance companies, rural BPO’s, shops, in schools and colleges. Empowerment of women, through education and social change, is gaining ground, through a maze of constraints, albeit slowly but surely. The success of Project Shakti by HUL is only one example but opportunities for rural women to get employed are on the rise.. These young women want to buy brands for skincare and hair, dental and beauty care, smart modern apparel and footwear and the lucky ones get to ride a ‘scooty’ or ‘activa’. They too are becoming earning partners. Thus, families are becoming nucleus, as the emerging young population spreads its wings and flies out to explore, what lies beyond India’s 6,50,000 villages! Where are they going? Do they have a sense of direction? Is their leadership to assist? Questions to ask.
Products and services in rural India have penetrated deep and wide in a comparative sense. So national and international brands, regional and local brands, spurious and duplicate products, merrily co-exist and find equal shelf space in retail outlets. Haats and melas, agricultural fairs help companies and traders to showcase their products. The rural shops now stock pretty much of everything – FMCG, durables, two wheelers and auto, farm equipment, building materials, food and beverages, apparel and lifestyle products and agro inputs. Will manufacturers and corporate only sell to rural India? Or will they engage these populations in a two way barter process of inclusivity? Will Government always subsidise or will rural become economically self sufficient through interdependent at some stage? Rural marketing is not only about selling; indeed the role goes much beyond merely that; it means to get involved with rural communities, engage them in economic enterprises and make efforts to get them to participate in national growth forays to generate and contribute toward generation of wealth. Few business and political leaders do understand this but most would keep rural emotions at arm’s length, if that! It is difficult to weave business sense around the sub served. And yet in untangling this web, therein lie the answers.
The face of rural India is the millions of middlemen, traders, brokers, ‘artias’, distributors, dealers, retailers and the like, through whom goods and services find their way into rural households. They ensure that a Rs 5/kg potato or onion from the farm sells for Rs 60/kg or more in organised markets. They are the money lenders, the panacea for all ills of the farmer, the local credit providers – even for a sachet of shampoo; they are the influencers, the clout of local politics and the generators of wealth while mostly managing to remain outside the tax net. In some ways they are responsible for rural indebtedness. Some sell all kinds of products – a hearty mixture of genuine, duplicate and spurious – for short term gains and ensure that their loan and debt spider web is held tightly around their pulse. While these middlemen are enablers, they are also the perpetrators of harmful practices that adversely impact social and economic progress. They own most local infrastructure and play a pivot role in local politics and influences. They are friends and adversaries both. The challenge is to recast the structure and role of these middlemen so that they become positive channel partners in the rural value chain.
The vision for villages and towns of the future, as envisaged by the Government, should address in their plans, questions related to local town infrastructure, employability, environment, health, pollution, sewage, drinking water, solar and other renewable energy. Perhaps the local self government system of the old, needs to be tweaked? Maybe, the Panchayat Raj and Block development need e-governance to step in? If there is change in the offing, we must jointly, as stakeholders, plan well for the change, keeping our vision for five decades ahead and then put in place mechanisms to manage this change at all levels of administrative and economic activity. Thus self supporting towns with adjoining cluster of villages can become an efficient ‘hub and spoke’ model for future rural landscape.
Imaging rural India in 2050 is a worthwhile exercise for all concerned, if smartly planned and executed, with active participation of all States through PPP, this initiative, can become a game changer for the country. And it can help propel and give the much needed boost to different stages of India’s quest to become the future global economic super power and create for itself as a nation an enviable inclusive society.
Author: Prof CK Sabharwal, MD, Crop Health Products