The responses in villages to the prospect of urbanisation vary quite substantially across the country, from antagonism towards the prospect of urban entities taking over their land, to the desire to sell their land for urban prices. If West Bengal, with its government-changing resistance to the Nano project was a symbol of the former, Tamil Nadu, with its rapid urbanisation, is a striking example of the latter. Indeed, in some districts of Tamil Nadu the desire of the rural population to benefit from urbanisation percolates down to some unexpected levels.

On a visit to a village in Villupuram district the desire for urbanisation was made quite clear by an articulate Dalit woman sitting under a tamarind tree with a few of her relatives. She spoke of how the failure of rains had resulted in her land having to be left fallow this year. The water in the nearly dry well had been pumped out into the land around it in the hope that at least some grass would grow to feed her cattle. She went on to leave little room for doubt about her willingness to move out of agriculture at the drop of a sickle.

She had bought a light commercial vehicle (LCV) for her son who had a diploma of sorts but was unable to find a job. She was also very aware of the value of the location of her land for urbanisation. The fact that her land was a couple of kilometres away from the village, and largely dry, may have been a disadvantage in the agriculture-dominated milieu of her village. But that very distance now meant the land was closer to the highway and hence worth much more in an urban context.

For someone coming from outside the State, and an urbanite to boot, there were several aspects of the Dalit woman under the tamarind tree that were pleasantly surprising. Her ability to hold her own amongst her male relatives may not have been all that easy. One of them even complained to us, complete strangers, about how she managed to get the land only because he was away and could not assert his rights.

Beyond overcoming the barriers of gender that must have been there, she also revealed a rustic understanding of the processes of urbanisation that would have made agglomeration theorists proud. She spoke of how the neighbouring village had grown into a town and had just been made the taluk headquarters. However all the further agglomeration was taking place in the opposite direction from her village.

She was convinced that all her village needed to become a part of the local urbanisation was one factory that would alter the direction of the urban process. And she allayed all fears around land acquisition. All that was needed was to buy the land of one person and everyone else would line up to sell.

Foothold in the village

Her understanding of the process was undoubtedly expedient and not necessarily shared by others with land closer to the village centre and hence further away from the highway. But their response to a declining agriculture had in some ways an even more urban dimension to it. Many of them had picked up jobs in urban areas though they retained a foothold in the village. Those working in nearby towns commuted to their place of work even as they resided in the village.

Others travelled relatively less frequently between city and village but developed a work profile that maintained a very close link with the village. When the rains were good they would cultivate what land they had and when the rains failed they would go to the city to find what work they could. This relationship extended even to those who did not own land.

In another village in the same district we found a man who sprayed pesticides on farms for a fee. In the periods between the times when this was done he doubled as a plumber in Bengaluru. The close connection with the city also urbanised responses to local challenges. The failure of rainfall had hurt not just agriculture but also the availability of drinking water. In the first village we watched as an LCV offloaded a large number of 20 litre cans of drinking water at a shop which sold them for ₹15 a can.

Even as the Dalit woman under the tamarind tree waited for urbanisation to hit the village in a geographical sense, it had already made deep inroads into the work people, especially the younger generation, were doing, as well as their behaviour.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.

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