Most Indians reside in villages, where caste and class affiliations overlap. Large landholders are overwhelmingly upper caste, and smallscale farmers middle caste, while landless laborers typically belong to the lowest-ranking castes. These groups tend to form a three-level class system of stratification in rural areas, and members of the groups are drawing together within regions across caste lines in order to enhance their economic and political power. For example, since the late 1960s, some of the middle-ranking cultivating castes of northern India, spurred by competition with higher-caste landed elites, have cooperated politically in order to advance their common economic interests.v In cities, class lines adhere less obviously to caste affiliations, as vested interests strongly crosscut caste boundaries.
When looking at India as a whole, defining classes is a difficult task, rife with vague standards. According to various estimates, the upper classes include about one percent of the population, or some ten million people, encompassing wealthy property owners, industrialists, former royalty, top executives, and prosperous entrepreneurs. Slightly below them are the many millions of the upper middle class. At the other end of the scale is approximately half of India’s population, including low-level workers of many kinds, as well as hundreds of millions of extremely poor people, who endure grossly inadequate housing and education and many other economic hardships.
But the big development in India is the rapid expansion of a prosperous middle class increasingly dictating the country’s political and economic direction. [vi] Estimated at perhaps 300 million people—-more than the entire population of the United States-—this new vanguard, straddling town and countryside and all religious communities, is mobile, driven, consumer-oriented, and, to some extent, forward-looking. This group includes prosperous farmers, white-collar workers, business and professional people, military personnel, and a multitude of others, all enjoying decent homes, reasonable incomes, and educated and healthy children. Most own televisions and telephones, and many possess cars and computers. Large numbers have close ties with prosperous relatives living abroad.
Village Structure and Unity
About three-fourths of India’s people live in some 500,000 villages, where India’s most basic business—agriculture takes place. Most villages have fewer than 1,000 inhabitants, but some have as many as 5,000 people. Indian villages are often quite complex and are not isolated socially or economically. Most villages include a multiplicity of economic, caste, kinship, occupational, and even religious groups linked vertically within each settlement. Residents typically range from priests and cultivators to merchants, artisans, and laborers. Various crucial horizontal linkages connect each village with many others and with urban areas both near and far. In daily life and at colorful festivals and rituals, members of various groups provide essential goods and services for one another.
Traditionally, villages often recognized a headman and a panchayat, a council composed of important local men. Usually, disputes were adjudicated within the village, with infrequent recourse to the police or courts. Today, the government supports an elective panchayat and headman system, which is distinct from the traditional system, and, in many cases, mandates the inclusion of members who are women or very low caste. According to a schedule rotating every few years, the head of the council of a certain percentage of villages must be a woman or a Dalit. State and federal government regulations increasingly intrude into village life, diminishing traditional systems of authority. Further, dissent and competitiveness seem to have increased in many parts of rural India as a result of the expanding involvement of villagers with the wider world via travel, work, education, and television, and increased pressure on land and resources as village populations grow.