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If one runs an internet search for the word “rural” in Indian undergraduate Sociology curricula, you expect to find multiple occurrences. When the result does not show a single mention of the word then it attracts the attention of an educator and teacher and raises the question as to why a word that dominated not only sociology but the syllabi of social sciences has disappeared. In the last few decades the study of the rural in the social sciences, in general, and sociology, in particular, seems to have disappeared from college and university classrooms.

“The soul of India lives in its villages,” a famous declaration by Mahatma Gandhi at the beginning of the 20th century was not merely based on population numbers or statistics but signified the centrality and profound role of villages in Indian civilization, economy, culture, and politics. The rural has been the site of many scientific discoveries in agriculture, crafts and handloom, dairying and animal husbandry, contributing to the development of the human civilization. Mahatma Gandhi, for the first time, took the fight for India’s independence to India’s villages, a move which changed the character of the freedom movement decisively.

India continues to be a predominantly rural society. According to the Census of India 2011, 69 per cent of the population in India was rural and the share was 66.5 per cent in 2017 (according to recent World Bank estimates). There are approximately 830 million people living in around 6.4 lakh villages of India today.

Historically, the village in India was considered a useful micro-social unit of study. The study of rural has always excited and invited not only sociologists and anthropologistsbut also researchers from broader social science disciplines including economics, geography, public administration, agricultural science, political science and history, for whom the study of agrarian communities and the peasantry was of a natural interest in the post-independence phase of nation building. The interest and curiosity of these social scientists resulted in a huge number of studies and published output in the form of books, village monographs, settlement pattern reports, land records, case studies, gazetteers, qualitative descriptions and listing of various regional languages, art forms, festivals, folklores, rituals, etc. The quantitative and statistical studies recorded details on local economy, occupations and livelihoods, land holdings, cost of cultivation, wages, agricultural yields, cropping pattern, and infrastructure. It is not surprising that these studies and literature which came to be known as ‘field-view’ became major sources of knowledge about Indian society, in general, and village India, in particular, and formed the basis for India’s planning for development. Various policy interventions and programmes of development were initiated based on the findings of such studies. These studies also helped develop a theoretical and conceptual understanding of the changing dynamics of the Indian countryside.

Village studies and rural enquiries continued to flourish till the 1980s but started declining in the 1990s. This development can be seen associated with the structural changes in the Indian economy and polity in the early 1990s. The new policy regime of liberalisation and associated fiscal policy that led to a reduction in state support for the agricultural sector led to a sidelining of the rural and agrarian in the national discourse. As a result, the rural and the agrarian ceased to be central to the academic and research agenda.

A new domain of research, urban studies, gained popularity and vigour and filled the gap created by the decline of rural studies. The interest in urban issues was due to the increase in the proportion of urban population, urban spill-over, emergence of new towns and urban clusters, and issues such as slums, housing, transport which surfaced due to migration to the urban centres. While estimates differ on when India is projected to be fully urban, the reality is that India has experienced one of the slowest rates of urbanization in the last century.
A major agrarian and livelihood crisis is reflected in the high numbers of farmer suicides in the rural areas. Basic indicators of human development continue to be deplorable in rural areas. Large parts of the countryside are marked by extreme levels of poverty, deprivation and destitution. For example, one-third of the rural India remains illiterate, the Census of 2011 data indicate that, out of 167.8 million rural households, 65.3 million households lived in houses without pucca roofs, 79 million in houses without pucca walls, and 106.3 million in houses without pucca floors, 143 million households lived in houses without water within the premises, a latrine, and electricity. As rural areas become locations for various CSR projects of multinationals and philanthropic activities of the urban rich, the problems of rural people are seen merely as issues of lack of ‘awareness’ or education.

The need and importance of studying villages for understanding society in a liberal education curriculum was noted by the founders of liberal education in the United States. Morris Opler of Cornell University wrote a paper in 1957 entitled ‘The Village as Our Entry into Indian Civilisation’ for a conference on "Introducing India in Liberal Education" organized at the University of Chicago on May 17 and 18 of the same year. The proceedings of the conference note that leaders in the field of liberal education are now generally agreed that a student cannot be considered liberally educated if his undergraduate studies neglect the Asian world. The conference specifically discussed the problem of the preparation and organization of materials for a general undergraduate introduction to the civilization of India.

The emerging scenario of liberal education in India should take initiatives and measures to address the current gap by incorporating and encouraging subjects related to the rural in its curriculum. Liberal education which claims to offer freedom to students to choose courses from a large number of disciplines such as Arts, Humanities, Physical and Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, Performing Arts, Media and Journalism, Marketing, Management, Business and Entrepreneurship, and Human Resource Management with significant focus on experiential learning components should be able to provide opportunities to study the ever changing and increasingly complex dynamics of the rural landscape from an interdisciplinary approach.

This is important for two reasons. The first is to meet the claim and goal of liberal education to be interdisciplinary in nature and provide students an inclusive study of the society. Secondly, given its broad and liberal mandate, liberal education has the potential to facilitate the teaching and enquiry of problems that concern an overwhelming majority of society. The potential of liberal education will remain underexplored if it doesn’t include the study of the rural in its interdisciplinary and ‘liberal’ curriculum.

Any effort to talk about Indian society will not be complete without talking about what unfolds in its countryside. Institutes of higher education should address the gap on rural studies in college and university curricula at the earliest.

- Prof. Shamsher Singh, Assistant Professor - Sociology

*Views expressed are personal.