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Ways of Life
Three fourths of India's people live in villages. These settlements may contain a thousand or more households, but one hundred to several hundred families is typical. In northwestern India villages tend to have an almost urban appearance, with tightly clustered dwellings that often form parts of high-walled compounds with few windows facing the street. In the eastern and southern regions the villages are less cramped. The various castes within a village are residentially segregated. The higher and more powerful castes generally have their homes near the center of the village, while the scheduled castes and Muslims, if any, live on its outskirts. In southern India scheduled-caste hamlets half a mile or more from the main village are not uncommon.
In much of India the typical village dwelling is a modest one-story mud hut of one or several rooms. Roofs are generally flat in the dry regions and peaked in areas of heavier rainfall. Most houses have no windows, but many have a shaded veranda where social activities take place. A cubicle or a corner of the yard is set aside for the kitchen hearth, normally containing an earth stove fueled by cow dung or firewood. Furniture is scarce, indoor plumbing is virtually unknown, and electricity is uncommon. Water, brought home from wells, is stored in large clay jars, which are also used to keep perishable foods.
The family.Households often consist of more than one married couple. These joint families are usually headed by a senior male, whose wife, mother, or another related senior female assigns domestic chores to the women and girls. Generally the extended family may include his unmarried children, his younger brothers and their wives and unmarried children, his unmarried sisters, and his married sons and grandsons and their wives and unmarried children. In practice, however, brothers commonly separate and form new households soon after the death of their father.
Over most of India (though not in the south or northeast), a girl marries outside her village, usually while still in her teens. Even where a female marries within the village, she moves to the husband's household. Widow remarriage is frowned upon. Married couples display a marked preference for male children. Boys are desired not only because of their anticipated contribution to the family income but also because sons are needed to perform certain rites at a parent's cremation. Girls, on the other hand, are seen as a liability because they require expensive dowries when they are married. Various state governments have tried to discourage this practice, but often families still go into debt to provide dowries; a family with several daughters and no sons may face financial disaster. Boys are expected to help in the fields and girls in the home. The freedom that girls enjoy is restricted after they reach the age of puberty; in northern India, even among the Hindus, female seclusion is common.
The village economy.Most villagers are farmers. The majority own some land, usually in scattered parcels, but a substantial number must rent all or part of the land they farm, either for cash or for an agreed-upon share of the harvest. The amount depends on whether the cultivator or the landlord pays for seed and irrigation water, and on who provides the animals for plowing. Shares typically range from one third to one half the harvest. Many families, especially among the scheduled castes, have no land at all, and both adults and children must sell their labor to the larger farmers.
The simple tools used by most Indian farmers are generally made in the villages. Plows are wooden, with short iron tips. They furrow but do not turn the soil. Draft animals are mainly oxen in the drier regions and water buffalo in the wetter, rice-growing areas. Both cattle and water buffalo are milked, but yields are low. Transport is still largely by oxcart or buffalo cart, though the use of trucks is gaining as a result of road improvement. Tractor cultivation is rare except in Haryana and the Punjab.
Goods and services that are not available locally are obtained from nearby villages, at weekly outdoor markets, in towns and cities, and at fairs, usually held in connection with religious holidays. Payment for goods and services provided within the village may be either in cash or in kind. The latter type of payment, usually a portion of grain at the time of harvest, used to be the customary rule. Most specialized-caste families catered to a particular set of patron families, known as jajmans, with whom they were linked by hereditary ties. This jajmani system is breaking down over most of India, but patron-client alliances among various castes remain a common feature of village life.
Most villages have at least a primary school offering up to six years of instruction. Some also offer adult education classes in the evening. While few villages can support a well-trained doctor, many have practitioners of traditional medicine. Government-aided dispensaries are increasingly common.
For entertainment men join their fellow caste members or those from castes at levels close to their own to pass the evening hours smoking and chatting. Women and girls talk at the village well and may join groups to sing religious songs. Male youths sometimes form sports clubs or drama groups. Village-owned radios set up in public spaces are common, but television is rare. Traveling storytellers, musicians, acrobats, and snake charmers relieve the drabness of life, as do weddings, religious celebrations, trips to local fairs, and occasional religious pilgrimages.
Local government.Village government is in the hands of a democratically elected council, known as a panchayat, presided over by a village headman. In former days virtually all panchayat members were men of the upper castes, usually those who owned the most land. Now many states require that a certain number of women and members of scheduled castes be included. Increasingly, elections are held by secret ballot. The panchayats are expected to work closely with the government-sponsored Community Development Program, which has divided the entire country into community development blocks, averaging about a hundred villages each. Village-level workers within each block are the chief links between the government and the villagers. They bring news to the villagers of developments that might benefit them and report back the sentiments of the people.
Urban life.Approximately one fourth of all Indians live in urban places. Of these, more than half live in settlements of more than 100,000 people, officially defined as cities. The 1991 census listed 18 cities with over one million people. The three largest--Calcutta, Bombay, and Delhi (including the capital, New Delhi)--had populations of more than five million each.
Indian cities are generally poorly planned and are much more crowded than those of Europe or North America. Streets are narrow, the number of people in residential dwellings is high, and buildings with more than two stories are relatively scarce. The principal activity is retail trade, mainly carried out in small shops in specialized bazaar streets. Many shops combine a handicraft activity, often in a back room, and a sales outlet. The family of the shopkeeper normally lives just behind or above the shop.
Open spaces within larger cities and on their outskirts are likely to contain makeshift squatter settlements, occupied by recent immigrants from the countryside who have come to the city in search of employment. Many people lack any shelter at all and simply resort to sleeping in the streets, especially near railway stations where temporary day laborers are recruited each morning.
In the last few generations, many cities have spawned satellites located a considerable distance away from the densely settled cores. Some housed members of the civil administration during the period of British rule and are still known as civil lines. Others, designated as cantonments, included residences and special areas such as parade grounds set aside for the army. Since India achieved independence, many planned modern suburbs have sprung up. Modern factories, sometimes grouped in government-sponsored industrial estates, have increasingly been located outside the cities.
Like cities everywhere, those of India are centers of education, cultural activities, political ferment, and social change. In the urban setting, the caste and religious barriers that loom so large in the villages are considerably relaxed. Thus, there is somewhat more opportunity for talented individuals to rise in government, modern business, factories, and universities