16 October 2013

Modern India Compared To The New South Of The Late 19th Century

Measured by the percentage of the population that has toilets and the percentage of the population engaged in agriculture, India is at a stage of development roughly equivalent to that of the American South around 135 years ago.
Around 47% of households across India reported having a toilet in the 2011 census, up from 36% of households in 2001. . . . the regions where a majority of households have a toilet are only a few – North and North-East India, Kerala and the Western Coastal region and parts of Gujarat. In addition, coastal Andhra and Nagpur are also significant. In the rest of the country, the larger urban centres form little ‘islands’ of privilege (in this regard) as compared with the areas around them.
From Data Stories (interactive map available in source).

Access to toilets in India is roughly where it was in the American South sometime around the 1870s and 1880s.  Northern cities had widespread access to toilets decades earlier, and certainly by the early decades of the 19th century.  (Access to toilets was only a bit worse in the Roman empire than it is in India today and displayed a similar urban-rural divide.)

A passage in my daughter's AP Human Geography textbook also pointed out that a very large percentage of the population of India (if I recall correctly, 48%) are employed in agriculture (compared to 2% in the United States today).  

The American South had a similar work force composition around the 1870s and 1880s.  Historical statistics of the United States show that 55.8% of the workforce was engaged in agriculture in 1850 and 30.7% of the workforce was engaged in agriculture in 1900.  Interpolating the data points on a linear basis, the work force would have been 48% agricultural in 1861, but the Civil War and regional variation cast doubt on the accuracy of a simple linear interpolation to describe the American South.  The more heavily agricultural American South would have hit the 48% mark later and it hardly even makes sense to talk about what percentage of the population in the Confederacy was engaged in agriculture in the period from 1861-1865.

Like the American South of that time period, low speed passenger rail is still a highly important means of transportation and low level laborers have considerable geographic mobility although one place may offer little improvement relative to another in their line of work.

Like the American South of that time period, India has a substantial share of its population (Dalits former known as "untouchables" in the case of India, and newly freed slaves in the post-Civil War South), with a legacy of subhuman legal status who have recently gained legal rights that are not always secure in practice - in both cases, populations in which Christian religious affiliations are becoming more common and are becoming a vital part of this strata of society's culture.

In India today, as in the post-war American South, many formerly dominant land holders are through a variety of processes in the modernizing economy struggling to hold onto their dominant position, as much through the ordinary workings of the capitalist economy transitioning from a neo-feudal system as from formal land reforms.  "Maoist" revolutionary movements in India today are to a great extent anti-feudalists whose core demand, like that of the 40 acres and a mule freedman's movement in the post-war American South, is land reform (the American effort failed and the parallel Maoist movement in India doesn't have much greater prospects of success).

An important issue in India today, just as it was in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction American South is the struggle of the state to restrain private violence, particularly when carried out in support of traditional cultural values that are at odds with the modern statutory laws and criminal justice system formally adopted by the state.  Violence organized by local religious leaders today has similarities to Southern lynchings in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction eras in the American South which were often condoned by local white religious leaders in the South.  In both cases, that formal legal system is obviously descended from the English common law legal and political system, and a dialect of English is the language of the elites.

There are even similarities in climate.  Most of the American South, like most of India (particularly its less developed regions), is rarely freezing, is not marked by steep mountain ranges, is mostly arable, is not arid, and has seasons extreme storms that are similar in character (hurricanes in the American South, cyclones in India).

Like the United States of the late 19th century and early 20th century, modernization shows strong regional divisions.

Obviously, the analogy is a crude one that goes only so far.  The post-civil war American South didn't have jet plane service, cell phones, televisions, motor vehicles, or a sophisticated IT industry, as India does today.  India's last civil war was sixty years ago, while the New South was in the throes of recovering from the ravages of war.  But, the similarities are striking enough to suggest that the experience of the post-Civil War American South may offer some insights in to sensible development economics paths for India to choose today.

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