In a Wall Street Journal blog, Anurag Behar, explores the complex connection between rural Indians and their land within the context of sustainable development. Behar explains that because the majority of India’s population resides in the countryside and depends on land for their livelihoods, greater attention must be paid to developing knowledge and networks and improving access to physical resources. For that, development practitioners, along with the private and public sectors, need to find better ways to help educate India’s rural poor. The two are inextricably connected in rural India, a fact seldom recognized by development policies and their implementation.

Other Sphere | Anurag Behar

Through the flawless, unbroken white of February snow, driving for hours at a stretch, I would cross silent villages of a dozen or so houses every 20-odd miles. I was blessed to have a job, which let me drive around the stunningly beautiful landscapes of Sweden.That beauty never hid the extreme challenge of living in such places, where 20 degrees below zero counts as normal. And I would wonder: why do people live here?

I would ask the same question late on a May night 30 years ago, driving with my father across the dry, cracked plains of interior Chhattisgarh in an official white ambassador, unrelenting heat radiating from the land.

That question—why people live in extreme physical circumstances—has a complex answer. One critical strand of it is that people are deeply connected to the land that they live on. This connectedness is difficult for most of us city dwellers to feel. It comes from living off the land.

Outside the city, whether in Sweden or Chhattisgarh, land is livelihood. So people live (often in migrant modes) where the land is, braving all that comes along.

Sitting in an office in Bangalore or Delhi, this deep and complex dependency is hard to empathize with. Which is why we don’t easily understand that it is not possible to make “rural India” self-employable simply by “skilling” people to be plumbers or electricians. Rural India needs sustainable “livelihood” improvement. Because 72% of India is still rural, most of this livelihood is related to land. The National Sample Survey says that 89% of rural India depends on self-generated livelihood (agricultural and others), and related labour. This will no doubt change, but only over decades.

Hence, having skills and developing them are necessary, but woefully insufficient. Livelihood requires more—knowledge and networks, both social and cultural. It requires access to natural physical resources—forests, grazing lands, water sources (what I have collectively called “land”). Beyond all this, it depends on rights— legal and social.

The micro reality of this complex mesh that constitutes livelihood is determined by our macro socio-political choices. It depends on our model of development, followed consciously and unconsciously.

The inevitability of urbanization, the importance of industrialization, expansion of services, sustainable development, steady state economy, or Hind Swaraj—it doesn’t matter where our hearts and heads lie. What matters is that over 800 million Indians live off the land that they live on—a fact that won’t change much for decades to come.

This land is under pressure. Population growth in the past few decades has doubled the human burden on land. At the same time, land productivity has declined, and there are now legitimate competing uses for a declining quantum of land. The methods of agriculture and subsidies, which delivered the Green Revolution, are no longer effective, and are actually significantly degrading sustainability.

To address livelihood issues, the 10-year-old Swarnajayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana was transformed into the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) in 2009-10. A reading of its plan shows the scale and complexity that it tries to deal with. It doesn’t skirt the basic connection of livelihood to land, and to social, cultural and political dimensions.

Yet, the average Indian realism will say that some of that complexity will never be addressed with any degree of efficacy. NRLM was allocated Rs2,914 crore in the recent budget. That in no way seems to be adequate resource. Perhaps it’s not just the money, but also the approach.

NRLM still makes me hopeful, because it attempts to deal with what is necessary, but is usually an afterthought—a footnote in all the discussions on our grand pursuit of 8-9% growth rates.

Working with education in rural India, we have a ring-side view of this extremely complex issue. Livelihood affects education, and vice versa. The simplistic notions of “vocational training/education” have little use: when livelihood is so inextricably linked to land and the local milieu, apprenticeship within the family and village is the only practical vocational training. And this is usually how villages operate, though we (and they) may not call it apprenticeship. But this is the subject of another column.

The connectedness of education to livelihood, as of livelihood to land, is deep. But we either seem to miss it, because we have lost it; or ignore it, because it’s too complex to deal with. This may be a spiritual issue, but in the here and now, it is at the core of the economic well-being of well over 800 million people.

Anurag Behar is co-CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education. Comments are welcome at