Resources Research

Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

Posts Tagged ‘mandal

The slow counting of village India

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On old maps and dusty histories, our villages have formed the reliable background against which to describe empire and freedom. Many of the names in the humblest level of description found in Census 2011 can be traced back over generations.

On old maps and in dusty histories, our villages have formed the reliable background against which to describe empire and freedom. Many of the names in the humblest level of description found in Census 2011 can be traced back over generations.

M N Srinivas, the eminent sociologist who died in 1999, once wrote that a sociological study of Indian sociologists would yield interesting results. Over a century’s worth of rural enquiry, we have found that sociologists and anthropologists have been preoccupied with their discrete interests. The former consider urban planning, labour, housing, slum and informal economies, social vices, demography. The latter carefully study tribal cultures, ethnography, acculturation and cultural dynamics, evolution and ethnology.

A descriptive table from the excellent 'Rural Profiles', which appeared in the 'Eastern Anthropologist', Volume VIII, edited by D N Majumdar, 1955

A descriptive table from the excellent ‘Rural Profiles’, which appeared in the ‘Eastern Anthropologist’, Volume VIII, edited by D N Majumdar, 1955

But it is the macro-economists who have meanwhile perfected their techniques (however questionable, and most are) and who have begun to use quantitative data to understand and interpret the socio-economic problems of rural life. These problems have been studied with little or no attention paid to the cultural background, so that the inter-relations that exist between different sets of social phenomena have to a large extent been ignored (they can hardly be included in a computable general equilibrium model, can they?). From the time Srinivas’s work was charting new directions in the 1940s and 1950s, the call has been made over and again for a holistic approach, in which inter-disciplinary participation would be needed. But the macro-economic disequilibrists have thus far had the upper hand.

RG_census2011_small_map_sections_201312And so to the numbers. There are 43,264 in Rajasthan, there are 25,372 in Assam and there are 40,959 in Maharashtra. That’s the village count in these states and this count (and the way villages are dispersed in the districts based on the size of their populations) is the focus of the latest data release from Census 2011.

Acknowledging the concern of the socio-economists, can there be an ‘average’ count for district? Yes there can, but finding one has little real use especially for the district concerned. Even so, to help us better understand the way a district is (and has for most of our recorded history) been organised I have used the data to find such an ‘average’. From the set of 631 districts that have villages (the others have none, being fully urban in character) I extracted the middle 505 districts (their villages count was from 138 to 1,817) and the median is 817 – that is, 817 villages in an ‘average’ district.

Where can we find such districts? Here are twelve: Garhwa in Jharkhand with 844, Rajkot in Gujarat with 833, Parbhani in Maharashtra with 830, Barpeta in Assam with 825, Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh with 820, Ashoknagar in Madhya Pradesh with 818, Rangareddy in Andhra Pradesh with 817, Raichur in Karnataka with 815, Sitamarhi in Bihar with 808, Kota in Rajasthan with 805, Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu with 799 and Una in Himachal Pradesh with 790.

The richness of detail in careful village study. This too is from 'Rural Profiles', which appeared in the 'Eastern Anthropologist', Volume VIII, edited by D N Majumdar, 1955

The richness of detail in careful village study. This too is from ‘Rural Profiles’, which appeared in the ‘Eastern Anthropologist’, Volume VIII, edited by D N Majumdar, 1955

Although the variation in the villages count is relatively small amongst these ‘average’ twelve (the least has under 10% less than the most) the rural populations in these districts vary widely. Una has a population of 476.000 and Ashoknagar has 691,000 whereas Rajkot has 1,590,000 and Sitamarhi has 3,233,000! In the same way, there are considerable differences in the areas cultivated, the forest cover, the sort of crops cultivated, and the available agricultural labour and cultivators who bring forth the crop from the soil. As I expand on the meaning of these new figures and draw some corelations with other aspects of our district enquiry – 1,670 is the ‘average’ population of a village, for example – we will venture a little closer to the sort of holistic study that Srinivas and his colleagues had called for about six decades ago.

[The new set of data released by Census 2011 has: (1) a note on villages by population, (2) tables by district and by taluka / tahsil / block (excel file), (3) percentage of population living in villages of various population size with reference to the total rural population in 2011, (4) percentage of villages and population by class of villages in 2001 and 2011, (5) the number of villages whose populations are 10,000 and above, 2001-2011, (6) distribution of 10,000 villages of each class, all-India, and 10,000 population in each class of villages, all-India, among states and union territories.]

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India’s food price inflation in high gear

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There has been no shortage since November of news reports and analyses about the food inflation. The 19% annual rise in fact masks widespread individual urban centres’ price shocks and individual food item trends. I have tried to unpack the year-on-year ‘national’ food inflation number using data from the Ministry Of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution – Department Of Consumer Affairs (Price Monitoring Cell). My guess is that this data is an under-estimate but is useful for spotting trends.

I collected prices for the 36 cities tracked by the PM Cell, monthly from 2007 December. Based on a small basket of staples (rice, wheat, atta, tur dal, sugar, gud, tea, milk, potato, onion, salt) a crude index shows that in 33 out of 36 cities, the 24 month (07 Dec to 09 Dec) rise in prices of items in this basket is more than 24%, and that in 23 cities it is more than 50%.

Food inflation 2009 over 2007 in Indian cities

Food inflation 2009 over 2007 in Indian cities

About price increases in rural settlements I can find no organised information at all, although direct experience in western Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa tells me that a staples basket can cost up to 2-3% more than in urban areas. (Agmarknet collects and maintains detailed mandi prices for farm produce but there is no comparable effort for rural retail food staples.)

The National Sample Survey 61st Round (2004 July-2005 June) on ‘Household Consumer Expenditure in India’ put down the finding that out of every rupee that the average rural Indian spent on household consumption, 55 paise was spent on food and mainly:
18 paise was spent on cereals
8 paise on milk & milk products
6 paise on vegetables
5 paise on sugar, salt & spices
5 paise on beverages, refreshments, processed food, purchased cooked meals, etc

Of the non-food expenditure 10 paise was spent on fuel for cooking and lighting.

I have tried to maintain this weightage in my calculation, but it is really no more than a crude reckoning because I haven’t been able to spend the time to clean up the publicly available data – querying the website database of Dacnet (Dept of Agriculture and Cooperation) or FCAMin returns report formats that are terribly messy, even though they contain useful data. (Although I think there may be differences even between these for the same foods and same date ranges.)

Based on what I have seen and heard on the field in Karnataka, Goa and western Maharashtra (and learnt about Gujarat and eastern UP from others) the available food basket seems to be shrinking (the so-called ‘coarse’ cereal group is conspicuously less), and where families have young and teenaged children there is pressure to buy processed and packaged snack foods (which is really a blight in our small rural markets). There are all sorts of oddities about the form that food takes in these markets – the price of a 50 gram pack of biscuits for example (Parle Glucose is the standard) has hardly moved in the last 3-4 years yet at the same point-of-purchase end, look at the way the prices of ground wheat have moved.

Then there’s fuel and transport to account for, more about which you’ll find here. This question needs much more work in 2010 to strengthen some of the reliable data we have with updates, and to try to build in what we see and hear and sense from conversations with those who live and work in all those tahsils and talukas and blocks and mandals. I feel very strongly that we are lacking in our data the presence and impact of the many linkages that connect and influence the rural farming/labour household. Many of the measures we have have served us well but I think need to be supplemented – how to integrate the lessons and findings from the comprehensive National Family Health Survey, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the many studies into the income-providing measures of NREGA.

Even though we worry about what the rural/urban poor household must spend on, the attraction to buy mobile phones amazes me. I have met young men who earn around Rs 4,000 a month but who have bought Samsung mobile phones costing Rs 5,000! Imagine spending more than a month’s income on a phone, I asked them, but they saw nothing worrying about their expenditure. Retailers who sell mobile phones used to keep the low cost and hardy Nokia phones which 3 years ago cost around Rs 1,700-1,800 (mine is still working), but not any longer, or they work at discouraging those who ask for the relatively cheaper phones. Much more than the hundred-dollar laptop we need the thousand-rupee mobile phone.

The image is of a chart I made for the project group I work with (part of the National Agricultural Innovation Project, it’s called Agropedia and you can read more about it here). This chart helps point to some patterns (you can download the hi-res image here). I’m curious for example about Gujarat, whose grain and commodity traders have a long and murky history of hoarding. The North-Eastern cities could be insulated to some extent from the regional transport subsidy (road and rail). Cities in the Deccan are relatively better off than North Indian cities. The big difference between Chandigarh and Mandi is puzzling.

In his hugely interesting paper, ‘India And The Great Divergence: Assessing The Efficiency Of Grain Markets In 18th and 19th Century India‘, Roman Studer (University of Oxford, Discussion Papers in Economic and Social History, Number 68, November 2007) has written: “Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the grain trade in India was essentially local, while more distant markets remained fragmented. This is not to say that no grain was traded over longer distances, but the extent was very limited, as the prices from some 36 cities all over India still exhibited various characteristics of isolated markets.”

“First, annual price fluctuations were extremely high. Second, differences in price levels between markets were very pronounced and persisted until well into the nineteenth century. Third, apart from neighbouring villages or cities, price series from different markets did not show comovements at all.” Studer looked at century-old data, but we still have 36 cities to tell us about staple food retail prices! Also, the three characteristics he mentions can be seen today too.

Happy New Year!