Between 2001 and 2011, the number of rural habitations with population of less than 1,000 has declined sharply
On the road from the headquarters of Purnea district in east Bihar, the villages start to thin out suddenly.
It is a fertile land, the floodplains of Kosi. But the smaller villages dotting the landscape look empty.
Right next to Rupauli, the block headquarters, 221 km from Patna, rows of villages - Mateyla, Gwalpara and Mahwala - are now ghosts of their former selves, as most of their inhabitants have moved out.
"It has been happening for years around us. Entire families have moved out," said Fekan Mandal, in his 70s. He has lived in Mahwala since childhood. His children, too, have moved to the nearby larger village, Damdaha.
Data from the Census of India show between 2001 and 2011, villages with population of less than 1,000 have sharply declined across all states. People have moved to larger villages, pretty much as urban people move to more connected colonies in search of better jobs and education opportunities.
The number of uninhabited villages in India was 45,000 in the 2001 Census. That number has risen, though the 2011 Census does not provide precise numbers.
It instead shows that of the nearly 640,000 villages it had counted, over 13 per cent or 82,000, had a population size of less than 200 each.
Less than one per cent of the rural population lives in these villages and many of them are likely to fall off the inhabited map by the time the next census comes around.
A different migration: From small villages to big ones The concentration of rural population into larger ones is on account of two factors claimed Pronab Sen, the former chief statistician of India.
According to him, there is no doubt more rural areas are now connected with all-weather roads, overlaid with telecom connectivity. This means it is easier for a family to stay a bit further away from the land. "The improvement in connectivity is making it easier for them to opt the safety offered by a larger inhabitation. This makes them choose to stay in a larger village than was possible hitherto," he said.
The data corroborate his argument. In all states, from the sparsely populated Uttarakhand to the densely packed West Bengal and Bihar, the number of villages with population of above 10,000 has risen sharply.
A different migration: From small villages to big ones In Uttarakhand, there are 21 such villages, according to the 2011 data compared with 13 in 2001. In West Bengal, the number of such villages is 416 against 354 in 2001. And, in Bihar, it is almost double at 1,129 against 630.
In Kerala, though, the trend has reversed. The number of villages with a population base of 10,000 plus has come down sharply to 797 from 1,072 in 2001.
In the case of Kerala, this is because the nature of occupation of many of these villages has changed to non-agriculture overwhelmingly, which according to the census makes it impossible to keep them classified as village. The trend is becoming visible in Andhra Pradesh and Telengana, too. (The census for 2011 provides data for undivided Andhra Pradesh, as Telengana was formed only in 2014.)
"Nearly half of the rural population of India is residing in 1,15,080 villages with population more than 2,000 but less than 10,000" states a census 2011 note on the trend in the village statistics of India.
The concentration of population will expectedly have an impact on the marketing plans of companies that do business with rural India.
According to Amir Ullah Khan, a professor of economic policy at the Indian School of Business, Mohali, the concentration of larger villages makes it necessary to redraw the maxims of rural marketing, now.
"For a host of companies including e-commerce ones, the challenge of logistics has become manageable", he says. Khan also said the data also show that migration of population to mega urban areas has decidedly slowed as the villagers from the smaller hamlets are settling down for good in the larger villages instead of using them as stepping points for the next phase of movement to the urban areas.
The trend is unmistakably similar across all states. "To me this would seem there is a gradual rise of occupations based on non-agricultural income in these villages which makes them a magnet to draw in a larger population", said Rajiv Kumar, senior research fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.
This becomes evident from trawling the data. At first glance, it would seem that the decline in the number of sub-1,000 population villages has been made good by the increase in the number of villages holding population of above 1,000. In other words, it would seem that the smaller villages are paving the way for bigger villages at the same spot.
But it isn't happening that way. Data from all states show the total population inhabiting both the sub-1,000 and plus-1,000 villages has declined even if the number of habitations recording plus-1000 has risen.
Instead, what has risen is the population living in the villages with at least 2,000-plus people. In Bihar for instance, villages with population of less than 500 has come down from 23 per cent to 18 per cent. For those with population of less than 1,000, it has come down to 19 from 22 per cent.
The per cent of inhabitants has risen the fastest for the 10,000-plus villages at close to 18.5 from less than 13 per cent a decade ago. In next-door Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, the growth in population has been the most intense in the 2,000-plus villages. If it were a continuum then the intermediate-sized villages too would have recorded rising population growth.
Another reason Sen adduces for the dip in the population in small villages is because they have become more transient. He says these villages see inhabitants come in the day for the local haat or to till the land. "They disperse by the evening which is what you would expect from a more mobile population," he said.
The village structure stays on, empty. Since the Census enumerators often do not make this distinction clear, the difference between inhabited and empty villages does not come out clearly in the statistics.
It would also seem the ones further off from the roads and cities are leaking their population more to the larger cousins. The inhabitation pattern of the villages near Rupauli would bear this out. Mandal said the risk of getting stranded in the annual floods is lower in the larger villages as they are better equipped and are near the highways, which are built at higher levels.
At the all-India level, there has almost been a switch in the village population. The villages, where the population is touching 5,000 are the most significant ones by 2011 Census at close to 35 per cent. It was 32 per cent in 2001. In comparison it was the sub-500 population villages which was the most pronounced at almost 37 per cent in 2001. And all this while the number of Indian villages has not changed much; it was 639,445 in 2001 which has risen by only 6,000 to 645,856 in 2012.
Photograph: Pawan Kumar/Reuters