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How India failed its rural population

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At the dawn of independence; as India recovered from the agony and aftereffects of partition and struggled hard to establish itself as an independent democracy it faced the daunting task of revamping agriculture sector riddled with out dated practices, backward technology, redundant laws and overcoming perils of severe food shortages, rising prices, rampant unemployment, extreme poverty and illiteracy and complete lack of infrastructure facilities in both rural as well as urban areas.

The path of development and progress required prudent planning, judicious use and equitable allocation of limited resources and formulating policies which focused on establishing a strong foot hold for agriculture. Moreover, in order to build a strong foundation, it was imperative to provide equal opportunities of progress to rural and urban population so as to keep them at par with each other and also to synchronise the growth process. In the last 73 years of independence umpteen policies and plans have been launched to initiate growth of the economy and to steer the country towards a new era of development.

But surprisingly even after seven decades the yawning gap between development of rural and urban areas is evidently visible. The prevailing conditions in rural areas not only present the grim reality of misery and neglect over the years but also clearly indicate the urban bias in misplaced policies and allocation of resources. The urban population has been the real beneficiary of the development efforts so far. For an agrarian economy with a massive population of 833.1 million residing in rural areas, this is a precarious situation requiring immediate and firm measures to mitigate the widening disparities existing among rural and urban populations.

In order to evaluate the glaring discrepancies in the level of development of rural and urban population, standard of living of rural and urban population has been taken as the main parameter with three strong indicators being:

  • Consumption of durable commodities

(ii)    Access or ownership of non-durable goods

(iii)   Living conditions and basic amenities available.

The first component explored for shedding light on standard of living of rural population involved the per-capita expenditure on non-durable goods like food grain consumption or other items procured for daily use. The second component examined was percentage of households owning durable commodities like mobile, T.V., Washing machine, Air conditioners, refrigerators were also taken into account along with ownership of a vehicle. Thirdly, living conditions of rural population were also examined with emphasis on basic amenities like pucca houses, piped tap water in house premises, type of fuel used for cooking and provision of electricity.                

Data Used

In order to analyse and assess the extent of disparity in development of rural and urban population ,latest data available from various census publication for the year 2011 have been used. Information and data for certain parameters was also collected from National Sample Survey Organization, pertaining to the year 2011-12. These data are summarized in the table for rural households and urban households.


Rural/Urban Disparity in Standard of Living in India


Sr. No.Standard of Living ComponentRural PopulationUrban Population
(I)Per Capita Expenditure on Non-durable Goods (Rupees)1376.722490.2945.17%
(II)Percentage of Households owning Durable Goods   
4.Washing Machine2.921.313.62%
5.Air Conditioner5.923.525.11%
6.Motor Cycle/Scooter18.437.848.68%
7.Car/Jeep etc.
(III)Living Conditions Percentage of Households Having   
1.Pucca House36.6187.4141.88%
2.Proper sewerage outlet for waste water36.7581.7744.94%
3.Piped tap water in house premises14.0254.0725.93%
4.Toilet Facilities in House Premises19.4472.5726.79%
5.LP Gas for Cooking11.4065.0317.53%
6.Electricity for lighting55.3092.659.72%

Source: (1) National Sample Survey Report, 68th Round, 2011-12.

               (2) Census of India, 2011.

A perusal of the above table clearly elucidates the stark disparity in level of development of rural and urban population. The lag in the standard of living of rural households is evident as the per capita expenditure (in rupees) on non-durable goods is almost double in urban population (2490.29) as compared to their rural counterparts (1376.72). Percentage of households owning a mobile was found to be 77.6%for rural households as against a high of 92.2%for urban population. A basic durable commodity like TV boasts a high ownership of 80.4%for urban population whereas only 49.6% of rural households were able to enjoy it. The imbalance in consumption of other basic durable goods like refrigerator (9.4%in rural population), washing machine (2.9%for rural population) and air conditioner’s (5.9% in rural areas) is also quite obvious, hence the data corroborates the theory of urban bias in development of India. Furthermore, even in ownership of vehicle for commuting rural households were found to be far behind as only 2% owned a car/jeep and only 18.4%were using a two-wheeler (motor cycle/scooter) whereas this percentage saw a four time jump for urban population with 8% population using a car/jeep and a whopping 37.8% were found to be riding a two-wheeler.

Even after six decades of Green Revolution, countless poverty alleviation schemes, Employment Guarantee Acts and various unproductive Pradhan Mantri Yojanas the upliftment of rural population has been far-fetched and misleading.

                The rural population is still desperately fending for even the basic amenities for their survival, as only a mere36.61%resides in pucca houses and a similar proportion i.e. 36.75%had proper sewage outlet for waste water. The data further exposes the deplorable living conditions of rural population as only a meagre 14.02%households have piped tap water and colossal 80.56%are still without toilet facilities, Swachh Bharat Mission being only an illusion.

                 A large percentage of rural population is still dependent on ancient fuels for cooking like firewood ,cow dung cakes etc as barely 11.40% population was found using LPG for cooking, whereas in comparison 65.03% of urban population had access to this facility .Even though ,India has 22 nuclear reactors in operation, multiple thermal power plants in every corner of the country and has also tapped wind and hydro energy to produce electricity but astonishingly even today 45% of rural population is still groping in the dark,  on the contrary a massive 92.6%are reaping the benefits of abundant electricity.

More so, the existing imbalance in the standard of living of rural and urban populations finds impetus from the rural /urban ratio calculated for the various indicators used to examine the disparities .The per capita expenditure of rural population on non-durable goods is even less than half of the amount that the urban population is spending on procuring non-durable items ,the ratio being 45.17%.Also most of the durable goods are beyond the reach of rural population as almost 80% are without refrigerator ,87% are without washing machines and 85% cannot afford an air conditioner. They are also trailing far behind even in owning a car/jeep as 75% population had no means to buy it and only around half of the rural population i.e., 52% rides a two-wheeler.

The sporadic growth of urban sector infrastructure with impressive sky scrapers, architecture marvels, countless apartments with hi-tech facilities and ever-increasing network of flyovers leaves the rural population only dreaming for a decent abode for living as only 41.88%rural population resides in a pucca house with only 44.94% having proper sewage facilities.

                Further, as only 25.93%have provision of piped tap water in their houses and only 26.79%have access to proper toilet in house premises reveals the flawed concentration and use of resources for urban population. Also, the use of LPG by only 17.53% households and absence of electricity for around 40% of rural population further elucidates the disparity between the two population of the same country.

Policy Implications

Development for any country implies equal opportunities of growth for both its rural as well as urban population. As countries evolve and progress from being predominantly agrarian to becoming industrial giants it is pertinent that rural population is taken along and the disparities between the two populations gradually merge.

Since, the 2nd World war various developed countries in the process of building their economies ensured and made conscious efforts to synchronise the growth of both rural and urban populations .As a result the meagre populations of these developed countries that still resides in the rural areas enjoys equal standards of living as their urban cousins .It is important to remember that no country can attain high levels of development if a major chunk of its population is deprived or under-privileged.

Need less to say, that the policies, plans and promises so far have been farce, fake and misleading. We need to seriously reformulate and revamp our existing projects aimed at uplifting the rural poor and make them more effective and actual. Subsidies for agriculture sector need to continue along with special emphasis on availability of cheap and easy credit, continuous supply of electricity and water and also ensuring a proper price for their produce.

In addition, we need to regulate our Public Distribution System, Employment Guarantee Scheme, Poverty alleviation measures and most importantly distribution of resources and funds needs to be more equitable and thoughtful. The trickledown effect for all the adopted policies to promote rural population should be supervised by making people and officers involved at each level responsible and accountable.

The neglect of the huge 833.1 million rural population of India is portent for the impending disaster and needs to be resolved and addressed at the earliest. It is now or never that we completely overhaul our prevailing policies and change our biased perspectives. Without the progress of our rural population, the bubble of fragile urban growth will soon burst.

Dr Harleen Shergill
PhD Economics
Freelance Author and researcher

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