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Rural India Ain't What It Used to Be
Alex Steffen, 16 Sep 04

Rural India is a phrase which is essentially synonymous in the media with extreme poverty. We hear more and more about the urban tech boom in India, but, by and large, the media's ideas about what's happening outside of the big cities seems pretty frozen in time. As Omkar Goswami writes, "Rural India is a huge, heterogeneous entity that many of us know little of. Consequently, we often think it as a vast tract of woefully poor people, who labour under the scorching sun with rude ploughs and emaciated bullocks."

But rural India includes hundreds of millions of people, living very different lives, and undertaking profound and rapid change. What kinds of changes? How profound? How quick?

To find out, Goswami's team mined data from the 2001 Census of India and recent National Sample Surveys, and have reported back in a piece, Changing Contours of Rural India. Among their findings:

*Over 1/3 of all rural households now have a main source of livelihood other than farming;

*An increasing percentage of households live in permanent dwellings;

*Families are investing more in the education of their children;

*19% of rural households owned TVs (other surveys I've seen have shown that radio ownership is now nearly universal, creating interesting opportunites);

* and, must stunningly to me, especially in light of microcredit's successes, over 30% of rural households had at least one bank account.

All this said, the problem ain't fixed. There is still overwhelming and appalling poverty is rural India -- and in some places it's getting worse, not better. But it's also clear the dynamic is, in many places, changing quickly.

Makes we want to know more. Some other things I'd like to hear more about:

*the extent to which rural alternative energy programs (like the barefoot solar engineers) are working;

*the extent (and implications) of rural cellphone penetration -- is it keeping up with the rest of Asia? How is it changing life? Are efforts to use mobiles to provide access to key information paying off?

*the extent of change in status and opportunities for rural women, especially young girls. Are rural Indian women in fact at the center of adoption of the Net and computers? Are family planning efforts working?
(via Suhit's excellent blog)

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Hmmm. Should we not pay at least attention to the damage all the things you're mentioning are doing to traditional and indigenous ways of life? Or should we not because it's all for the greater common good? There are widespread and massive grassroots movements against many of the developments you mention as signs of positive progress. I think we ought to at least allow the victims a voice - even if it might not fit into our paradigm of progress.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 16 Sep 04

This is one of the things that was mentioned at CARDICIS, and I honestly walked away and thought a bit before responding - because Zaid brings up a good point.

While we were meeting in St. Lucia, the point was brought up that technology should help everyone - but not define the way that they do things. We need the farmers, the poets, and all the other parts of what we consider the rural world. So how does one measure progress?

People should have choices, I agree with Zaid. But we also have to depend on individuals to make the right choices.

I think that we should be looking at how much productive people are at what they do. If we can help a farmer do his work in the fields in half the time, I suspect that the farmer will be happy. But if we make the farmer have to spend more time doing paperwork, we're creating a problem.

Posted by: Taran on 17 Sep 04



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