Evolving Society Society

The history of approaches to Rural Development in India

A historical analysis of the effects and disadvantages of developmental approaches in rural India.

By Krishna Ballabh Chaudhary

Concepts of rural, development and rural development

To understand the dimensions and approaches to rural development in India, we must understand what rural development is to Indian policy makers. Nehru, in this regard, becomes significant as he was the first prime minister who gave Indian policies a direction on which the future course of action was set. Nehru’s ideas on Gandhi’s Gram Swaraj were of retaining village autonomy, but limited to the primary sector. He had the view of promoting handicrafts and other rural industries but at the periphery. Rural India always came after the Urban area for him. Highly influenced by the colonial economy, his path was of heavy industrialisation. He wanted farmers to follow the path of industrialisation as had been followed in the west. These Nehruvian principles still guide most of Indian government policies like waving farm-loans that primarily comprise those given to the big farmers and subsidising fertilisers, pesticides and seeds needed for input etc.

According to the World Bank, rural development is “a strategy to improve the economic and social life of a specific group of people, the rural poor including small and marginal farmers, tenants and the landless”. It is a way to improve the lifestyle of the rural people. As we go through various connotations of development, it is necessary to have critical views as well. Escobar (2007) argued that development has led to the “exclusion of the knowledges, voices and concerns of those whom, paradoxically, development was supposed to serve: the poor of Asia, Africa and Latin America.” Similarly, there are many other conceptions of rural development in particular and development in general, some of them advocating for it while many questioning its ideas. However, professor Gerald Caiden of US-China institute, with research and interest in comparative and development administration, argues that ‘no one now clearly understands what development is. Economists think it is economic growth while political scientists see it as further decentralisation of governance. Administrators think it is a refinement of processing things and bureaucratization while sociologists perceive it as social change.’ So, defining rural development precisely becomes a vague task.

The attempt to define rural areas, according to Whitaker (1982)(1), dates back to 1874 when the US Bureau of Census defined it as indicating the population of a county exclusive of any cities or towns with 8,000 or more inhabitants. And since then, there have been many attempts at defining what rural means. But if one observes the trend of definitions followed, one would clearly notice that rural has always been defined in relation with the urban. Even for the latest census of India, the rural area has been defined as “All areas which are not categorized as urban areas are considered as Rural Area.” Thus rural, according to this definition which comes as corollary of the definition of Urban(2), is characterized by less than 5,000 population with a population density less than 400, and more than 25% of the male population engaged in agricultural activities. It is a separate task to discuss the languages used for our census where rural is yet defined in relative terms as it has no separate existence and is still characterized by only male population’s occupation. I’ll focus here on the dimensions and approaches to rural development.

Dimensions of rural development

For policy makers, the economic dimension of rural development is the capacity and opportunities for people of rural areas to participate in and benefit from the growth process. It includes measures to reduce income disparities among various sectors. It remained the sole focus of every major discourse on development till the 1980s. After basic needs approach – which sees development as fulfillment of basic needs of all – made its way in the discourses, social dimension also came into policy designs which encompass overall social development. Social dimension includes the development of specific groups, including poor and marginalised communities and disadvantaged sections of society, to reduce the gap on social indicators. It also includes the promotion of gender equality and provisions for social safety nets for vulnerable groups. In recent trends on developmental discourse, the political dimension has also been incorporated which includes provisions for low-income groups, women and ethnic minorities to participate in the decision-making process. This came with post-developmentalists who had critiqued the very concept of development. Though India had followed the path of decentralisation way before the proper incorporation of political dimension into the development discourse, implementations at grassroots levels were not realized until the constitutional amendment of 1992 when Panchayati Raj system, a form of local self governance, was given constitutional validity on Balwant Rai Mehta committee’s recommendations.

Very recently, triggered by global warming and other issues related to climate change, sustainable development talks have started taking round the globe. As changes through a number of peoples’ movements swept through many discourses, the development discourse was also incorporated with the ecological dimension. Adding to it, the humanitarian approaches – focusing on humanitarian principles and values – have also penetrated the academic discourses. But there is a huge gap between what ought to be and what is being practiced. Humans are not in isolation in this world, and every action has a larger consequence. This fact gets no place in the practices but remains in discourses only. There have been many efforts to change the discourse of development but the policies still are designed on the obsolete thoughts of development prioritizing economy over all other things. The governments in India have shifted from economic growth to basic needs fulfillment in recent times, and that can only count as an on-ground change in the rural development practices.

Approaches to rural development : A post-independence outlook

In India, rural development started with the Multi-purpose approach. The Independence of India came at a time when the cold war had begun. The US, to fight back USSR’s communism, wanted India in its group and thus offered Nehru economic assistance to pursue the community development program. The community development program brought in with the first five-year plan in 1952 was aimed at developing material and human resources of an area through co-operative efforts of people and the state. The areas covered under the community development program included agriculture, animal husbandry, irrigation, cooperation, village and small-scale industries, health and sanitation, education, communication and housing etc. The 1950s decade belonged to this approach. But this approach failed to bring any observable change in the lives of the people. It was felt that this happened because there wasn’t enough resources to support all the sectors in one go.

As the previous approach failed to bring in any substantial level of change in people’s lives, it was decided to focus on a few sectors of importance at that time. The colonial regime had left Indian agriculture in a dark situation. India used to be a self sufficient economy with surplus in trade. It exported a huge amount of rice, indigo, spices along with cotton and silk textiles before the British came. But due to the exploitative policies of the colonial government, India became a large importer of agricultural products at the end of the colonial regime. After the multi-purpose approach failed to observe self-sufficiency in agriculture, it became the main focus of the sectoral approach, which was adopted by the 1960s. Lal Bahadur Shastri assumed the prime minister’s office in 1964. The heavy import of food grains that too of substandard quality from the US triggered Shastri’s conscience. It was then that Shastri gave Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’s (Hail the soldier, Hail the farmer) slogan to insist a sense of capability within farmers and soldiers of the country.

But this approach failed to visualise the linkages of all sectors. The interwoven structure of the rural sectors is such that if any of them is completely ignored, the other can’t be developed in isolation. The exclusive focus on agriculture resulted in a spike in agricultural output but sectors like food processing, storage and transportation, which could further this growth,  remained in a poor state. The benefits of the green revolution were not evenly distributed across the states. Punjab, Pockets of Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu reaped the maximum benefit while regions of East India and North-East India lagged. Many projects that see their beginning in the policies adopted during these times are heavily criticized now for being against the local needs and the environment. Major dams developed to provide irrigation facilities have created more fatalities for the locals than any advancement. But, many argue that India required those dams at that time to achieve food security, which is what no nation can ignore. But for now, it’s almost a consensus that smaller dams suited to the local needs are needed instead of the big reservoirs(3).

With several sectors lagging behind severely in the 1970s, rural development was reconceptualised. It was decided that specific groups of people will be targeted under what is known as the target approach. The target was small and marginal farmers and landless agricultural labourers for whom small farmers development agency (SFDA) and marginal farmers and agricultural labourers development agency (MAFALDA) were established in 1971-72. The SFDA was later merged with the Integrated Rural Development Program (IRDP). This approach saw little success in terms of better information dissemination and structure of administration than many of the previous programs.

Another approach adopted almost simultaneously, the area development approach, emphasized upon the need to focus on ‘specific backward(4) regions’. It started in 1970s with the Area Development Programme (TADP, 1972), Hill Area Development Programme (HADP, 1974-75), Drought Prone Area Programme (DPAP, 1970), Desert Development Programme (DDP, 1977-78), and Command Area Development Programme (CADP, 1975). The major drawback of this approach was the potential dangers of disproportionate allocation of resources where a very small number of people are targeted ignoring the overall size of the country.

The target and the area development approaches dominated the decade of 1970s when Indira Gandhi gave the slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’ which translates into Remove Poverty. Again a failed attempt to conceptualise India’s poverty, which has many intertwined factors associated with it, marked the colonial attitude of the policy makers. The administrative institutions, run by bureaucrats, were involved in getting their own interests served. The obsession with power led Indira Gandhi to dismiss the state leaderships instead of further decentralising the political processes. It is true that with this many varied factors influencing the Indian population, it is best to be solved at local levels. Any centralised attempt to address all the issues is doomed to fail as it has always been.

As area development approaches seemed to fail to address the inequalities in employment opportunities, incomes and assets, several programs were launched under an integrated approach. These included Integrated Rural Development Program (IRDP), which was an amalgam of several previous programs, and other programs such as Training Rural Youth for Self-Employment (TRYSEM), Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA) and Jawahar Rozgar Yojana (JRY). This approach succeeded to some extent in eliminating poverty and uplifting the level of education and training. The major criticism of this approach is that it did not guarantee the basic needs of all. The loans available for supporting businesses were availed for consumption purposes. Many loans couldn’t be recovered due to failure in identification of the users and improper distribution of the same. It also failed to raise the living standard of people to a level where they don’t have to bother about their basic needs.

Basic needs, which is a wider visualisation incorporating social and human dimensions, aims to satisfy the consumption needs at personal as well as social levels, keeping in mind the human rights of each individual. The minimum needs program launched in 1974 was aimed at providing basic support to the poor, thus improving their lifestyle. The major criticism for this approach comes from Amartya Sen’s philosophy of capabilities approach. He argues that instead of consumption-centric programs, we should focus on building the capabilities of people. All the way till this approach, consumption-centric programs had been developed. This, Sen argued, would not get us any further. Sen’s words seem true when viewed today. As governments didn’t invest in building the capacities of individuals and communities and instead focused on providing support in their consumption, people remained dependent on various schemes of the government for their need-fulfilment.

Towards conclusion : contemporary approaches and challenges

The current approach followed by the governments and NGOs for rural development is of participatory nature. In this approach, people’s participation in the planning process is given much emphasis. “Participatory development is a process through which stakeholders can influence and share control over development initiatives, and over the decisions and resources that affect themselves” (ADB, 1996). With this philosophy, the participatory rural appraisal and rapid rural appraisal tools have become central to the planning process of rural development. Swarnajayanti Gram Swarojgar Yojna, which had replaced previous schemes like TRYSEM and IRDP, was renamed as National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) in 2011 and finally merged with Deen Dayal Upadhyay(5) – Antyodaya Yojna (DDU-AY) under the Narendra Modi led government. It is now called Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana – NRLM. Changing the name of the schemes has been a common practice and whenever a new government comes, it tries to glorify its great leaders. Meanwhile, there is a lot of malpractice in the name of Jeevika (DAY-NRLM). On ground, the Jeevika loans are misappropriated and monetary benefits do not reach to the beneficiaries. There is little to no intent to really develop people’s capabilities in fisheries, agroforestry, horticulture etc.

With much pressure from people’s movements and global community, the sustainable development approaches have also seen a place in the discourses but still remain out of practice. Even the sustainable development goals set by the United Nations in 2015 remain table discussion material. Rural development policies are struggling to meet the basic needs of people and to some extent building their capacities. But to think of all these in a sustainable way, which can escalate the costs, is a very distant thing. If the state and the central governments really want to attain SDGs, they can’t ignore more than 65% of the population residing in the rural areas(6). The local bodies including Gram Panchayats(7) require more autonomy in making decisions, more resources to support them and a greater sense of responsibility in attaining the country-wide goals.

Though there have been many transitions in the approaches and many people have been lifted out of poverty since Independence, rural development policies still strive to bring a certain basic level of living standard to all. With people increasingly becoming consumption-centric, which I believe is a result of their overwhelming rationality, the economy will always be prioritized over ecology. To this, the only way out is an ecologically sound economy. There are also discourses which say why ‘developing nations’ pay a price of what ‘developed nations’ did. So, this responsibility can be more on developed nations to help the developing nations achieve what they could previously in a sustainable way. Being a developing nation, constrained by resources, it is a huge challenge for India to bring sustainability to the process of development. But without ecology, there will be no economy and thus there is no way out. People’s participation in the policy-making process, with the right information, will go miles in bringing sustainability to the practices. For years, India’s governance has been characterized by red-tapism, corruption and indecision which needs to break now. Only if governance is people-centric, where people are a part of the larger ecology, can we expect to attain sustainable development goals.


[1] As cited in https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED296820.pdf (Page 2)

[2] For the Census of India 2011, the definition of urban area is as follows; 1. All places with a municipality, corporation, cantonment board or notified town area committee, etc. 2. All other places which satisfied the following criteria: i) A minimum population of 5,000; ii) At least 75 percent of the male main working population engaged in non-agricultural pursuits; and iii) A density of population of at least 400 persons per sq. km. (Census of India, 2011)

[3] The Race to Dam the Himalayas

[4] On the parameters of policy makers, these specific regions lagged, when compared to other regions which took the benefits of the green revolution, in terms of production capacity (both agricultural as well as industrial).

[5] Deendayal Upadhyaya was a veteran Jana Sangha leader, forerunner of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has a majority in the parliament today.

[6] The data is from 2018, according to the World Bank collection of development indicators.

[7] Gram Panchayats, also known as Village Panchayats, are the lowest level of the local self government.

Cover photograph: Market in rural India, by भारत में कृषि.

About the author

Krishna Ballabh Chaudhary is currently pursuing his bachelor’s in Social Work with specialization in rural development from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Tuljapur (Maharashtra).

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