Ruralisation: Reconceptualising India’s Civilisational Basis

Pushparaj Deshpande

gandhiIconolatry and the calcification are concomitant. In elevating people to greatness, their ideas are invariably fossilized, retaining none of their original vibrancy or radicality. As the world sings platitudes to Mahatma Gandhi on his 146th birth anniversary (02 October), it would perhaps be more meaningful to revisit his ideas, some of which offer radical alternatives to the contemporary. In light of the explosive situations in Syria, Palestine, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Greece among others, it is this author’s contention that the world needs to seriously re-examine one of Gandhi’s most misunderstood and caricatured idea, that of a nation’s civilizational path.

Redefining the nation state

Hoping that it would serve as a model for the rest of the world, Gandhi envisaged free India not as a nation-state, but as a “confederation of self-governing, self reliant and self-employed people living in village communities, deriving their right livelihood from the products of their homesteads” (emphasis added). In problematizing the idea of a nation state, he reimagined the nation as a praja (loosely defined as a community). Gandhi saw the praja as a people/nation neutral to religion, race, language and any other such peculiarities. This is remarkably similar to Aristotle’s conception of the State, which he saw as a union of families and villages, having for its end a happy, self-sufficing and honourable life. Aristotle’s objective in his ‘Politics’ was to show that the basic constituent of the polis (broadly equivalent to Gandhi’s praja) was the household. Arguing that the next stage in man’s social development was the village, he theorized the village as an association of families aimed at a higher level of self-sufficiency in maintaining human existence. Gandhi too sought to institutionalize self-sufficiency in the village community, which he argued would ultimately be connected with other such communities through a complex system of voluntary human relationships, which were based not only on economic or other relational conveniences, but also on spiritual grounds. In both the Gandhian and Aristotlean sense, a ‘State’ clearly means the body of the people, and the end of the praja/polis is not merely to co-exist, but to live a happy and fine life.

Gandhi argued that India needed a de-centralized state operating at the village level, something best described as village self-republics. Self-sufficiency and pastoralism (akin to Rousseau’s “primitive pastoralism”) were visualized as the bedrocks of these village republics, which he characterized as “ram-rajya”. Setting aside the religious connotations, Gandhi envisaged that the entire village would have the potential, through the Gram Sabhas, to govern themselves and only on occasion subordinating their decision making powers to their executive, the panchayat. Most importantly, his emphasis on ‘antyodaya’ was a means to ensure that every action was geared towards equitable and ethical development. Truly visionary, this was a social contract that had the potential to be non-exploitative, genuinely democratic and most importantly, ecologically sustainable.

Resistance to devolution of powers and Panchyati Raj

India’s founding mothers and fathers unfortunately chose to ignore  this notion of “ram-rajya” and instead opted for a resource and displacement intensive model of development pursued by a centralized government (much like the colonial state) with most powers concentrated with the union and only a few with the states. The panchyat system itself was relegated as a directive principle of state policy (article 40 of the Constitution of India).

To their credit, Nehru and much later, Rajiv Gandhi, did try hard to institutionalize panchayati raj (a term Nehru coined). However, their enthusiastic advocacy was repeatedly thwarted from within the Congress Party, a section of which has been vehemently opposed to decentralization. After Nehru’s demise, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj and Co-operation, as it was called then, was unceremoniously abolished in 1966. It was not till 2004 that a Ministry of Panchayati Raj was re-created by the erstwhile UPA Government. However, as Humphrey Appleby once wryly argued in Yes Minister, governments “always dispose of the difficult bit in the title – it does less harm there than in the text”. Despite the Ministry of Panchayati Raj’s impassioned drive to devolve functions, functionaries and funds (3Fs) to Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), the decentralization of governance is a norm followed more in the breach than the custom.

An expert committee’s report on Panchayati Raj has highlighted the significant systemic challenges and institutional bottlenecks that have rendered PRIs redundant. The report revealed that except for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and the Backward Regions Grant Fund (BRGF), none of the Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS) have devolved powers to panchayats. It lamented the routine appropriation of powers by line departments of respective States (including so called better performing states like Kerala and West Bengal) because of continued resistance to decentralization from sections of the political leadership and bureaucracy, something that was also pointed out by the second Administrative Reforms Commission. Thus, because PRIs are largely excluded from governance, the enhanced outlays in the social sector and anti-poverty programmes (which have dramatically risen from Rs. 7,500 crores in 1991-’92 to Rs. 3 lakh crores in 2011-’12) count for naught since outcomes are invariably out of sync.

Perduring character of coloniality within post-coloniality

Even more problematic are the effects of the “top down imposed” urban-industrial vision of modernity, entwined as it is with the concept of the modern Indian state, which has been consistently proselytized as a “consumable commodity1” through the paradigm of ‘development’. Given that fiscal and executive powers are not devolved to PRIs, governments tend to conceptualize development projects on a scale that naturally manages to “steamroll, flatten and secularise the diverse visions of a desirable society…into a single monolithic vision”. This “development terrorism”, as Nandy famously characterized it, invariably comes at the cost of the environment as well as finite natural resources.

While processes like globalization or urbanization or economic restructuring are not intentionally exclusionary, it is equally true that they are invariably key drivers of deprivation. It has been well documented how communities who do not fit into the homegenizing development model of the state are usually displaced and marginalized, and deprived of their self sufficient ways. Barring a few notable exceptions2, the State in India has completely overlooked traditional community based governance systems, which embodied not just decentralized governance but also decentralized development. For example, Common Pool Resources (CPRs) aided, in no small measure, in fostering self-sufficiency and economic stability. While these customary systems of community management continued to exist in various forms till the end of the 19th century, the State gradually extended control over these through the demarcation of ‘reserved’ and ‘protected’ forests and followed it up by similar arrangements in the closing years of the 19th century. These led to dramatic upheavals in the socio-economic and political fabric of India, most adversely affecting indigenous and rural communities.

Induced by provisions, pressures and incentives provided by the agencies promoting rapid economic globalisation, the State (often in collusion with vested interests) has planned and implemented several schemes and activities which also tend to (colonize) natural resources and products available through CPRs to the rural communities”. Given that the State alone has the right to determine what constitutes the public purpose, it can deprive individuals of community assets in its name (and often has). Ramanathanhas highlighted how development-induced displacement and other forms of deprivation arise from this principle. Despite the obvious havoc this top down imposed development terrorism has wreaked, policy makers continue to pursue it aggressively in an effort to ‘modernise’ India in the image of the ‘developed’ world. It wouldn’t be further from the truth to argue that India’s example “point(s) to the perduring character of coloniality within post-coloniality4.”

The myth of the systemized urban

This “bankruptcy of the dominant consciousness5” is most apparent in a 2012 Planning Commission Report that lauds urbanisation’s “positive linkages with economic growth” on one hand, while conceding that the “quality of life in our cities is poor as the majority of citizens find it difficult to avail of sustainable livelihood opportunities and basic services” on the other. Given the Committee’s (that drafted this report) mandate was limited, it understandably does not question the rationale of urbanisation or the accompanying development processes needed to actualize it, and even goes so far as to imply (with a finality suggesting that this is the only way India can, or should develop), that “growth in urban areas also creates opportunities for the rural economy and helps improve its productivity”.

This seemingly innocuous statement implicitly acknowledges the underlying assumptions widely shared across the policy spectrum, namely that rural India (and any rural based agro/ industrial activity) are at best tertiary, existing only to fuel the primary sector of India, the urban. In sync with the recommendations of a High Powered Expert Committee (that envisages investment of Rs. 39.2 lakh crores over the next 20 years in urban infrastructure), the NDA Government has not only set aside (over and above a 93 percent increase in allocations for urban development) Rs. 7,060 crores for the development of 100 new smart cities, but has also been wantonly granting environmental clearances regardless of the ecological or anthropogenic costs.

The intention to replace the rural (characterized as unorganized, polluted and deprived of resources) with the urban (characterized as a systemized, uncontaminated mega polis abundant with power and water, among other resources) is deeply flawed conceptually as well as problematic consequentially. It is widely accepted that even focused efforts like Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, Songdo in South Korea, the Living Plan-IT in Portugal and Lavasa in India are yet to produce significant socio-economic outcomes, and are both extremely expensive and mostly empty. While “the resource problem is solved by privatising resource extraction and production (ground water extraction and captive/back-up power generation)”, the poor are either un-favourably included by law, or completely excluded through other particularist means. As argued earlier, this colonization invariably comes at the cost of indigenous communities, the environment as well as finite natural resources.

Existential crisis in civilizational path

At the risk of sounding apocalyptic, it cannot be business as usual, either for India or for the rest of the world. Numerous studies have been increasingly sounding alarm bells for not just humankind, but the world as we know it. So much so, that a group of eminent scientists and experts have set up the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, whose principal aim is to gauge and prescribe policies to avoid extinction level risks. These may well concur with the conclusions of a unique independent study (HANDY) that found a distinct­­ pattern in civilisational cycles.

Citing the historical trajectories of complex and advanced civilizations like the Roman, Han, Mauryan, Mesopotamian and Gupta Empires, the study finds that the “process of rise-and collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history”. In examining the interconnected variables that contributed to these civilisational declines, the study talks about population, climate, water, agriculture and energy. The study further identifies two social phenomenon that have consistently played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse”…for “the last five thousand years”. These two social features are “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites and Masses”.

Surprisingly relevant contemporarily, the study goes on to argue that “…accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but (is) rather…controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels”. Modelling a range of different scenarios, the study points out how the Elite continue to maximize resource exploitation, and the detrimental consequences of the “environmental collapse” are borne first by the Commoners (and eventually, by the Elite themselves). It is these, more than anything else that explain how “historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory”.

Sounding a fairly stern warning, the study rejects the business as usual attitude that is currently adopted by “Elites and their supporters, who opposed making… (structural)…changes”, and instead argue that “collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonable equitable fashion”.

Perhaps one of the more compelling accounts that support this claim, Banuri and Opschoor (2007) have argued that the increasing and unchecked momentum in economic, demographic and climate change processes will result in a dramatic increase in the level of Co2e6, which this will further increase temperatures from anything between 1.6 degrees to 6.6 degrees. Mirroring the HANDY study’s findings, Banuri and Opschoor further posit that if global temperatures increase beyond a two-degree temperature line or the critical threshold, the world would witness dramatic and irreversible consequences of climate change. For those critical of this position, the Mauna Loa measurements would serve as adequate empirical evidence to warrant a serious rethink. These measurements indisputably show that the level of Co2e has risen from 317 ppm in 1959-’61 to 375 ppm in 2003 to 430 ppm Co2e in 2007. Every year, we add over three ppm of Co2e globally (and fast increasing). Banuri and Opschoor’s two-degree temperature line corresponds to 450 ppm Co2e.

Ruralisation: a means to re-conceptualize India’s civilizational basis

While the HANDY study is right in advocating the need to reduce economic inequalities, and to dramatically reduce resource consumption, it offers no roadmap of reform, for that is what is required urgently. In fact, most such studies are limited in scope precisely because they tend to focus either on technological innovations that would make resource extraction more effective, or other such piecemeal interventions, which do not really address the structural issues.

Given that most governments in India (state & union) have consistently sought to accelerate (with varying degrees of success) the pace of development, there is thus much cause for trepidation. Neither the current pace nor the model of development can support the existing socio-economic or political organization of society. Unless there is a radical re-conceptualization of our civilisational basis, there is not much scope of rectifying this.

It is this author’s contention, in stark opposition to the prevalent urban-industrial version of development (backed by the Weberian State), that it is only by establishing more co-operative, anti-hierarchical forms of socio-economic and political organization, as envisaged by Gandhi, that the paradigm of development can be re-imagined comprehensively, hopefully globally. It is in this spirit that the concept of ‘ruralisation’ is briefly explored.

Conceptually, ruralisation would entail aggressively investing in creating self-sufficient village and urban republics (with attached CPRs) like Gandhi envisaged, that would not only make the delivery of essential public services like roads, drinking water, sanitation, electricity etc. easier, but also allow for a shift to less intensive renewable resources on a scale that could actually make a positive ecological impact.

Such a radical policy shift would eventually lead to a systemic re-structuring in not just the nature of governance, but also the development paradigm. Rural-urban migration can be substantially reduced (and hopefully in time, reversed) if the State were to vigorously support PRIs to engage in small-scale localized enterprises (including both agro and industrial based activities), and in organic agriculture (that would reduce fertilizer, and hence fossil fuel use). Ultimately, this would enhance the quality and quantum of rural employment.

Energy dependence on fossil fuels can also be reduced drastically by shifting to renewable energy sources (especially solar and wind power). While solar cookers, lights and heaters could service the needs of every household (instilling self sufficiency in consumption), a local energy plant that mixes solar, wind and bio-gas (and if needed, traditional) energy sources could supply electricity for communal requirements. Rain-water harvesting, and other similar strategies could go a long way in conserving water, while the construction of houses and roads through the use of locally available materials (rather than cement, tar and other fossil fuel based materials) would also aid in reducing costs as well as carbon footprints considerably. In conjunction, these could dramatically alter the nature and scale of development.

What India could also experiment with is urban farming7, along the lines of the Cuban successes, with necessary amendments to suit local conditions. Starved by a US embargo and without essential supplies coming in from the Soviet Union post 1989, Cuba was severely affected by oil scarcity that curbed pesticide and fertilizer use, and rendered mechanized implements useless. Faced with a food crisis, the entire agricultural sector was radically overhauled to prioritize organic farming and manual labour. Today, these efforts have produced “the world’s largest working model of a semi-sustainable agriculture”, integrated into the fabric of the urban space. A good example is Havana, which alone boasts of 87,000 acres of urban agricultural land, producing enough food for every resident. If implemented well in India, this strategy of localization could well make urban areas self-sufficient (reducing farm to table time8), provide seasonal employment, reduce rural-urban migration considerably and provide ‘lungs’ to cities.


The ultimate aim of these reforms is to, as Gandhi once envisaged, revolutionize not just the prevalent model of development, but also the fabric of our civilisational being. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission characterised sustainable development as meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Seen in this light, not only is our current rate of resource appropriation inflicting irreparable socio-ecological and economic damage to the immediate, it is also severely compromising the needs of future generations. There is therefore an urgent need for drastic policy reforms at the macro level, which need to be complemented by radical systemic reforms at the micro level. Given its traditional foundations, India is uniquely poised to lead the world in affecting a civilisational change that would make development not just responsible, but also sustainable. For the sake of our collective futures, let us hope that we find it within ourselves to do so.

  1. Adapted from- Nandy, Ashis (2003): “The Romance of the State and the Fate of Dissent in the Tropics”, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
  2. The Sixth Schedule, which applies to Meghalaya and two tribal majority districts of Assam, and the customary laws in Nagaland and Mizoram, recognise community ownership in this region because of the people’s greater dependence on CPRs than in most other regions of India.
  3. Ramanathan, U. (1999): “Public Purpose: Points for Discussion”, in W. Fernandes (ed.), The Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill 1998, pp. 19–24. New Delhi: Indian Social Institute.
  4. Silverstein, Paul (2002): “Developing Historical Negatives: Race and the (Modernist) Visions of a Colonial State”, in Axel, Brian (ed.) From the Margins, Historical Anthropology and its Futures, Duke University Press, Durham.
  5. Ibid.
  6. CO2e measures all Green House Gas (GHG) emissions in relation to carbon dioxide, which is considered to have a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 1. Carbon dioxide is used as the reference GHG that all others gases get compared to; (; last accessed on 26.10.2015 at 16:24 pm).
  7. The Cuban National Group for Urban Agriculture defines urban agriculture as the production of food within the urban and peri-urban perimeter, using intensive methods, paying attention to the human-crop-animal-environment interrelationships, and taking advantage of the urban infrastructure with its stable labor force. This results in diversified production of organic crops and animals throughout the year, based on sustainable practices that allow the recycling of waste materials.
  8. Hawken, P. (2007): “Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World”, Penguin, New York.