Practice Question – Write short notes with a sociological perspective – Changing rural power structure. [UPSC 2012]

Approach – Introduction, What do you understand by rural power structure?, Elements and features, Factors that led to changes in rural power structure and its impacts, Conclusion. 



Sociologists use the word ‘social structure’ to refer to the inter-relationship, inter-connectedness, and inter-dependence of the different parts of society. In terms of their form, all societies have the same parts. Thus, there are groups and communities in all societies, but the nature and substance of these groups and communities differ from one society to another. For instance, an Indian village is unthinkable without the caste system, while a Chinese village does not have castes. Its units are the people of different families and occupational groups. The sense of identity that the people of different groups have is also seen at the level of the people of different families and occupational groups in Chinese villages. The inter-relationship
of the different units constitutes the structure of the society.




Caste is the fundamental principle of social organization in th Indian village. As Louis Dumont said in his work titled Homo Hierarchicus, castes are arranged in a hierarchy based on the principles of purity and impurity, which in fact give distinctiveness to the caste system, because no other system of ranking in the world makes use of these principles. The caste occupying the highest position is ritually the purest, and as one goes down the hierarchy, purity decreases while  impurity increases. Those placed at the bottom of the hierarchy, the people who at one time were called ‘untouchables’ (now they are called Harijans or Dalits) are considered to be the ‘permanent carriers of impurity’ within the idiom of the caste system. No other social system in the world incorporates the notion of ‘permanent impurity’ with such rigidity as the caste system. There may be notions of ‘temporary impurity’ (such as, impurity incurred by menstruation, death, or birth), which is overcome with the performance of rituals, but no ritual can neutralize ‘permanent impurity’.


Class is an indicator of the distribution of economic inequality in the society. The term ‘power stratification’, on the other hand, is used for inequality in terms of the decision-making ability, by which some, as Max Weber says, are able to impose their will on others and seek compliance from them. Ideally, class and power are subordinated to caste. A Brahmin, even if poor, occupies the highest position in the caste hierarchy and commands unlimited respect from other castes. At one time, the Kshatriya kings wielded power, but the Brahmin priest officiated in the ritual that accorded them legitimacy to rule. The producers of economic wealth, the merchant castes (the Vaishyas) pursue different wealth generating occupations, and are placed just above those whose jobs are principally menial, i.e. ‘to serve the other three upper castes’, as the classical texts put it. In some parts of India, there was a clear overlapping of the three ranked orders of caste, class, and power. For instance, both André Béteille and Kathleen Gough, in their respective studies of villages Sripuram and Kumbapettai, found that
the Brahmins, who numbered around four per cent of the total population of South India, owned around ninety-eight per cent of the land, which they abstained from tilling because of religious injunctions that did not allow Brahmins to touch ploughs. The Brahmins, who lived in their separate quarters called agraharam, were also in control of political power. Therefore, being a Brahmin also meant occupying the highest position in class and power hierarchies. This was an example of what after Robert Dahl one would call ‘cumulative inequality’. In this case, social status together with economic and political power are all concentrated in one group, the Brahmins.

Jajmani System

Jajmani system is considered as the backbone of rural economy and social order. It is a system of traditional occupational obligations. In rural India Jajmani system is very much linked with caste system. Etymologically, the term Jajman has been derived from the Sanskrit word Yajman, which means a person who performs a yajna. Thus if some yajna is to be performed for that the services of some Brahmins are essentially needed. It was gradually that its use was made common to everyone who hired services or to whom the services were given. It could be said that the Jajmani system is a system of distribution whereby high caste land owning families are provided services and products of various lower castes such as Khati (Carpenter), Nai (Barber), Kumhars (Potters), Lobars (Blacksmiths), Dhobi (Washer man), Sweeper (Chuhra) etc. The servicing castes are called Kamins while the castes served are called Jajmans. For services rendered the servicing castes are paid in cash or in kind (grains, fodder, clothes, animal products like milk, butter etc.) Kamin means who works for some body or services him.

Social Mobility 

A person born into a caste will always belong to it as a life-long member. In his/her future births, because of good deeds, he/she may be born into a superior caste. In other words, theoretically, upward mobility is not possible within the caste system, except for women who may move up by means of hypergamous marriages. Similarly, downward mobility results from hypogamous marriages. Economic opportunities are considerably limited in villages. Agricultural surplus is not significant either. Virtually nothing is left with the peasants after they have made the jajmani payments. Barring the big landlords, others in villages live rather precariously, often hand to mouth. Those, who have been able to move out to towns and cities for work, have been able to make some money, which they have invested in buying agricultural land, but the number of such families is not large. The point to be emphasized here is that class mobility was also non-existent in the village.


A joint family is defined as an aggregate of kinspersons who share a common residence, a common kitchen, a common purse including property, and a common set of religious objects. Generally, a joint family has a name, which in many cases is given/taken after the name of its founder. It has a depth of more than two generations. It is not uncommon to come across joint families that have members of four generations living together. Although joint families are found more in the rural than in the urban areas, where most of the families happen to be nuclear, one should not conclude that all castes in a village have the tradition of joint families. It has been observed that upper castes, which are also land owners in many cases, have a higher proportion of joint families than the lower castes, the less propertied as well as the non-propertied ones, which tend to have a higher number of nuclear families. 


The popular image of an Indian village is that it is free from conflicts and thefts. Although it is an idealized version, which of course is far being exact, there undoubtedly is a grain of truth in much of what has been and is being said about the village. In comparison with the situation in towns and cities, inter-personal conflicts are fewer in villages. The rich may not part with their wealth in favour of the poor, but they certainly display a guardian—like supportive attitude towards them. General consensus prevails with respect to the norms and values, which in any case are largely uniform and hardly contradictory, and this is one of the reasons why there are fewer cases of dissent and conflict in villages. Certainly, the hold of religion on traditional societies is greater than it is on complex societies.  

The caste leaders had social status in a village. Since caste councils were very powerful through severest sanctions, they could even ostracize defaulters from the caste. The leaders enjoyed great power over members. The village panchayats consisted of village elders from amongst all the major castes in the village. These were informal organisations. The members gathered whenever issues involving the interests of the village were to be decided. Yogendra Singh (1961) in his study of changing power structure in Uttar Pradesh villages concluded that the power system has a tendency to incline in favour of the groups which fulfill the economic expectations of the people in the village.



The face of Indian village has changed over the period of time. Houses built from mud and thatch roof has been replaced by cemented ones. Wide well lit roads have replaced the narrow lanes. Hand pumps and wells have been replaced by taps and continuous water supply. Two wheelers and four wheelers can be seen instead of bullock carts. General stores and even beauty parlours are there in the village communities. Attir of men and women has got a western influence now.

Earlier the community was governed by zamindars, upper castes and panchayats. All of them are gone now and the centralised rules have been made. After the abolition of upper caste rule, higher sections of the society had very little power left. They did not feel any advantage in living in the villages anymore and wanted to explore the urban lifestyle. The introduction of modern means of transport and communication further connected the remote societies to the bigger world and changed their thinking and mindset. People started becoming more aware of the available options in the world and wanted to explore more. The level of contentment was decreasing with the increasing exposure to the outer world. The change had started after the start of British rule in the country.

Apart from agriculture, artisans form like carpenters, weavers, potters, goldsmiths, ironsmiths etc. has formed a major part of the livelihood earners. Later, because of the increasing impact of urban sector, people are trying varied sources of income. Moreover, many artisans from rural sector are now migrating to cities for a better income. And the foreign made product has reduced the demand of hand crafted ones. So the face of rural livelihood is changing in the modern era.

Earlier, the village communities used to be self-sufficient. Each household used to produce enough food grains for their survival. Very less external aid was required and that too was fulfilled amongst them. They lived like a close knit society. Later, with the introduction of modern era, people in villages started moving to cities to earn their livelihood and as a result village economy showed a major shift. Focus on agriculture and local hand made products was undermined and industrialisation started dominating the financial structure of the village

Land reforms have brought a revolutionary change in the structure of Indian villages. Now the lands are no more the properties of zamindars and jagirdars. The farmers can earn profit on their produce now. Policies have been made to make the farmers aware about the latest developments in the field of agriculture. The commission at every level is no more a concern for the farmers. Industrialisation has created a major scope of employment and has opened the secondary sector as well for the source of employment for the rural communities. This has broadened the scope of livelihood and has helped families in increasing their income. Though more people have started migrating to the cities but that can be compensated with the economic growth of the country these labours are bringing by working in the production of goods and services.

Abolishing caste system has improved the society and its mindset. This has helped the community in getting rid of problems like untouchability. The society is progressing because of this reform and would bring a major change in its pace of development. Now the jobs are not assigned based on the caste, creed or religion of the people. In the modern era village, the skill matters the most now instead of the social status of people. The domination of upper caste has gone bringing the society to a fair level of competition based on merit. Even the weaker sections of the society would grow and in the long term and this will reduce the economic and social disparity of the country.



An Indian village is composed of endogamous units, each following its own occupation traditionally associated with its caste, locally known as jati. The number of castes a village has varies from one context to another. Large villages have more castes than small villages, but no village has all the castes. Thus, the members of one village depend upon others in their neighbourhood for various services. The Indian village was never self-sufficient as some colonial officers believed. Each village has its own dominant caste, which has very high representation in the political bodies of the village. Often, the decisions they take serve their own interests. At the local level, each caste comprises a set of families, and it has been noticed that there is a close relationship between caste and kinship. Generally the upper, propertied castes usually have joint families, whilst lower, non-propertied castes have nuclear families. With changes occurring because of urbanization and modernization, the families are becoming smaller all over India, but it does not imply that joint families have disappeared.

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