Rural Urbanism in Tamil Nadu
Notes on a “Slater Village”: Gangaikondan, 1916–2012
*School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, email@example.com.
†Institute for Development Alternatives, Chennai.
‡Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.
Abstract: Gangaikondan, a village outside Tirunelveli in southern Tamil Nadu, was the subject of one of the village surveys conducted by the students of Professor Gilbert Slater from the University of Madras in 1916, and re-studied in the mid-1930s, the 1950s, and 1984, and most recently by the authors in 2008. The paper presents the findings of the most recent study and traces the story of agrarian social change in the village through the 20th century, drawing on the successive surveys. At the beginning of the century Gangaikondan was dominated by Brahman landlords; by its end the most numerous Dalit/Scheduled Caste community, the Pallars, had more land in aggregate than any other single caste, though most owned only small holdings. They were also pre-eminent in the electoral panchayat institutions of the village. The agricultural economy of the village has declined fairly steadily, and it might be described as being now "post-agrarian" in the sense that only a small minority of households depend primarily upon agriculture.
Keywords: village studies, caste relations, landlords, diversification, non-farm employment.
The Madurai edition of The Hindu, on August 17, 2012, reported that the Collector in charge of Tuticorin district of Tamil Nadu had given away four power weeders in a function held at the District Collectorate. "Power weeders were given to paddy farmers," the newspaper reported, "to offset the woes of labour shortage in the present scenario."
This event nicely reflects an important part of the story of economic and social change in the village of Gangaikondan, now in Tuticorin district, through the twentieth century. The village exemplifies the kind of dispersed urbanisation that has become characteristic of Tamil Nadu, India's most urbanised state (the state's population is now 49 per cent urban, comparable with that of China). There is a sense, indeed, in which Gangaikondan might be described as being "post-agrarian." The area within the territory of the revenue village that is under cultivation has been declining over several decades and some land owners now choose to leave their land idle. The numbers of households in the village that report themselves as depending entirely on agriculture, either through cultivation or through agricultural labour, or a combination of the two, are quite small – no more than 20 per cent at the most. There are now rather few households that can sensibly be described as those of "peasants." And if once in Gangaikondan, as has been generally the case over much of India, control of land implied also control over people and their labour power, this is no longer the case. There is indeed, as The Hindu reported, a "labour shortage" in agriculture. Few men are now employed in agriculture, as most of the work of land preparation, and the harvesting and threshing of paddy, is mechanised. Men find employment, on a more or less regular basis, in a diverse range of activities outside agriculture, both locally, and sometimes outside the locality and even the region. Men from one of the small hamlets of Gangaikondan have, for example, become specialists in the construction of windmills that are used in increasing numbers over souther