Tuesday, Dec 26, 2023

A tale of two villages, one in UP, one in Tamil Nadu: Tracking change, over decades

Tracing change in rural India over a century through two villages, one in Tamil Nadu and the other in Uttar Pradesh.

The changing Indian villageThe construction of the Mettur dam in 1934 aided Palakurichi’s agricultural progress. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1916-17, Gilbert Slater, professor of economics at the University of Madras, surveyed five villages in present-day Tamil Nadu through his students. Each student, who was a native of that particular village, canvassed a questionnaire designed to understand the socioeconomic conditions of rural households as they existed, as opposed to textbook knowledge.

The “Slater villages” — Dusi (North Arcot), Iruvelpattu (South Arcot), Palakurichi (Thanjavur), Vadamalaipuram (Ramanathapuram) and Gangaikondan (Tirunelveli) — were resurveyed by Madras University economists led by PJ Thomas in 1936-37.

One of the five — Palakurichi, now in Kilvelur taluka of Nagapattinam district — went on to be studied again in 1964 (by Margaret Haswell from the University of Oxford), 1983 (by S Guhan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies), 2004 (by V Surjit, a PhD student at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata), and 2019 (by the Foundation for Agrarian Studies, Bengaluru).


Palakurichi is, thus, a unique Indian village studied through repeated visits by scholars over a 100-year-plus period. The only comparable example is Palanpur, a village in Bilari tehsil of Uttar Pradesh’s Moradabad district that has been surveyed every decade since Independence — in 1957-58, 1962-63, 1974-75, 1983-84, 1993, 2008-09, 2015 and 2022.

Longitudinal studies

Organisations such as the National Sample Survey Office undertake nation-wide household surveys on consumption expenditure, employment, debt, housing and amenities, health and nutrition, education and other such socioeconomic indicators. While conducted every five years or less, these are mostly cross-sectional surveys where fresh samples of villages or towns are taken each time. The idea is to collect representative data for the country, state or region as a whole at a given point in time.

Festive offer

Village studies are longitudinal. They survey the same village in depth at several points in time. The objective is not simply to go further and deeper, but also trace change in the particular village over time. One can debate if Palakurichi or Palanpur are representative of the “Indian village” and whether the findings from their longitudinal surveys can be generalised for the country or even state. Yet, data from repeated surveys involving extended periods of stay in the same village yield useful insights on the patterns of change taking place in rural India. Such micro-level information can complement the more macro picture mapped out through large-scale sample surveys.

The findings

The results of the 2019 survey of Palakurichi village have been published in a recent volume (Economic Change in the Lower Cauvery Delta: A Study of Palakurichi and Venmani, edited by Madhura Swaminathan, V Surjit and VK Ramachandran, New Delhi: Tulika Books).


Palakurichi is located in the lower Cauvery delta of the old Thanjavur region. Being irrigated by a network of canals from the Cauvery, this region has been historically the “rice bowl of South India”. The zenith of its agricultural progress was reached with the Mettur dam’s construction in 1934 and the Green Revolution — the introduction of high-yielding short-duration rice varieties that made cultivation of two crops in a single year possible —from the mid-1960s through the 1980s.

Being at the tail end of the Cauvery irrigation system, however, Palakurichi could not partake of this progress after the 1990s. By then, the reduced availability of water from the Mettur reservoir had also resulted in farmers reverting to growing a single crop of rice. Agriculture’s decline was reflected in the changing occupational structure. The 1983 survey showed 85% of Palakurichi’s workforce to be engaged in farming, whether as landlords, cultivators or labourers. That share dipped marginally to 78.6% in 2004 and sharply to 43.3% in the 2019 survey.

A similar trend of workforce diversification away from agriculture has been seen in the Palanpur surveys. Between 1957-58 and 1993, the share of the non-farm male workforce in the village rose from 7.9% to 28.6%, further accelerating to 60% in 2008-09 and 66.1% in 2015. It fell to 56% in 2022, but that was from a quick survey carried out post the Covid pandemic.


“Our later visits suggest non-farm jobs are returning again. We plan to do a new survey that will be comprehensive,” said Himanshu, associate professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is among the many economists — the list includes Nicholas Stern, Christopher Bliss, Jean Drèze and Peter Lanjouw — to have studied Palanpur over different periods.

Both Palakurichi and Palanpur testify to the “rural” in India becoming less “agricultural”. The farm sector contributed only 18.9% of the average aggregate household income for the former in 2019, while plunging from 78.3% in 1957-58 to 40.4% in 2008-09 for the latter village (detailed income estimates aren’t available from the relatively short 2015 and 2022 surveys).

Diminished dominance

A second significant revelation from the village surveys is the declining power of traditional upper caste landholders.

In the 1983 survey, the dominant Naidu community constituted 6.4% of Palakurichi’s population, but owned 86.5% of land in the village. In 2019, the latter figure was only 30.2%, even as the population of Naidus shrunk in absolute terms to 40 (out of a total 1,448), from 91 in 1983 and 147 in 1916-17. The Naidus basically rode the Green Revolution boom and invested the surpluses from that in education and other avenues, to diversify away from agriculture and even move out of the village.

A corollary to the declining Naidu dominance has been the rise of the Padayatchi or Vanniyar, a middle caste whose members owned just 4.1% of Palakurichi’s land in 1983. That share went up to 27.4% in 2019, alongside an increase in the community’s population from 83 in 1916-17 to 252 in 1983 and 279 in 2019. Even more striking are the Dalits, whose ownership of the village’s land has shot up from a mere 0.4% to 33.7% between 1983 and 2019, and their population from 430 in 1916-17 to 692 in 1983 and 877 in 2019.


A somewhat similar story emerges from Palanpur. There too, the dominant upper caste Thakurs have seen their supremacy challenged by the Murao or Maurya. This middle caste agrarian community has, over the years, accumulated land and improved its economic status through intensive cultivation of wheat, paddy, sugarcane and mentha.

Dalits have also registered some improvement, although not from access to land as much as expansion of non-farm employment opportunities, including in neighbouring towns such as Chandausi and Moradabad. In both Palakurichi and Palanpur, the worst forms of extra-economic exploitation by upper caste landlords, which defined the old agrarian regime, no longer exist.

Policy takeaways


When some communities exit agriculture, they tend to still retain their lands that are either not cultivated or given on lease to tenant farmers. These are largely oral, unwritten agreements, as landowners fear that any recorded leases make them vulnerable to lawsuits by the tenants claiming rights over the land.

The flip side to it is that the tenant-cultivator has very little incentive to invest in improvement of the leased land — through its regular leveling, keeping bunds and irrigation channels clean and weed-free, maintaining soil fertility by applying composted manure, following proper crop rotation, etc. It calls for adoption of policies to protect the interests of the landowner and encourage the lessee-cultivator to make investments that preserve, if not improve, the land’s long-term productivity.


As rural India becomes less agriculture-dependent, it is equally important to ensure that the lands under the plough now continue to be farmed as before or better. Moving surplus labour from agriculture may be desirable, but not land.

First published on: 25-12-2023 at 07:19 IST
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