Village the smallest territorial, administrative and social unit standing in contrast with a mahalla or ward of a town. The term is here interchangeable with that of mouza, the lowest revenue collection unit for the government. A mouza contains the whole land for land tax, while a village denotes settlement sites and human settlement of a mouza. In this sense, a particular mouza could contain more than one village. In the great cycles of empires in South Asia two institutions are noticed existing throughout its history until recent times, emperor on the top and village at the bottom. All the imperial dynasties preceding the colonial rule are seen to have established a direct alliance with the villages which supplied imperial revenue. Obviously, a village was viewed by rulers as a crucial institution for the financial support of the empire.
From time immemorial, most people lived in villages and most villages were broadly alike socially and agriculturally. The King's men came to village to collect the dues for the sovereign, and the village people looked to the king for the protection of their lives and properties. The village was a self governing institution. For services, the village developed its own internal groups of specialists like barbers, washermen, hajjam, boatmen, bearers, cleaners, wood and metalic craftsmen. The whole inter-dependent relationship was worked out and maintained by a traditional system of custom, authority and mutual obligation.
The social scientists and historians do not disagree on the autonomous and self-subsistent nature of Bengal villages, though they do differ on the methods of internal management and other institutional aspects of villages. There are differences of opinion about the nature of the 'village community' (ganasabha). The village community as a form of self-governance and defence did not possibly work uniformly in most parts of deltic Bengal where topography, settlement and cropping pattern dictated the villages to be small in size and scattered. Thus the village community, a network of hierarchic tribunals, which is seen to have flourished in north Indian situation did not repeat in Bengal. But there is reason to believe that village settlements in the Radha and Barind tracts were fairly large and were characterised by some form of 'village community' of panchayet type. But its existence seemed to have been feeble in the Brahmaputra-Padma-Gangetic plains where village societies were spatially formed with a good deal of difference. In the deltic setting, before a village got substantially large to become a 'community', it was found to be dismantled to produce new colonies on the borders of cultivation. The nature of village settlements and village societies in the eastern Bengal districts had thus compelled the central government to keep its officials at village level to work the traditional system of exchange in kind, revenue settlement and revenue collections. Thus we find in the medieval villages of Bangladesh the existence of the state employees like patwari, qanungo, tarafdar, mazmuadar, wadadar, kutkindar, sezwal and so on, which are rarely found in the zones where village community existed. The medieval state did not normally penetrate beyond the bureaucracy of the village community. But in the relative absence of such an institution in Bengal, the state had to maintain its officials at village level.
The village officials, regulated by the zamindars, were again hereditary government agents entrusted with manifold responsibilities besides collection of land tax. The village officials and the zamindars above them were not merely rent assessors and rent collectors, but also responsible for the maintenance of peace and order in the village. All types of village disputes were settled by them with the help of the village matbars or leading elders. Besides, the works like embankments, dams, reservoirs, bridges and culverts within the limits of the village were looked after by the village people supported by the state officials. The natural calamities and epidemics were also met in the same way.
The permanent settlement (1793) altered the traditional structure of the village management almost entirely. The village became the exclusive domain of zamindars declared to be the absolute proprietors of land under the new system. Formerly, raiyats of the village were permanent possessors of land, independent as peasants, and were linked to the government through the zamindars who represented the state to the village and the village to the state. Under the zamindari system, the raiyats of the village were reduced to prajas or tenants of the proprietors. The zamindars had new arrangements to manage the affairs of the village. The officers of the zamindari kacharis often were designated as patwari, qanungo etc as before, but their function were no more the same. They were now often used as tools of oppression.
In view of the widespread agrarian unrest after the Permanent Settlement, particularly in the 1850s and 1860s, the government resolved to survey the Bengal village professionally. Formerly, there was no fixed demarcation of villages and estates. In the bandbast or settlement papers, string of villages with gross assessment were only mentioned without further details as regards rights, demarcation of individual rights. A single village was often owned by many proprietors and their respective rights were never clearly demarcated. Consequently, disputes arose frequently on boundaries of both peasant as well as of proprietary rights in land. Disputes, often leading to bloody affrays and litigation, were the inevitable results. Several surveys were undertaken with the object of resolving agrarian unrest and establishing colonial control down to village level.
The thakbast surveys of the 1840s had made sketch maps of villages and estates within the village. It was followed by a revenue survey in the 1860s and 1870s which made an attempt to demarcate the village and estate boundaries within the village professionally. The survey revealed that most villages of Bengal were owned by multiple proprietors. Their plots within the village had to be demarcated. But the most challenging job was to identify, define and demarcate the rights of raiyats and other intermediate interests in land. That awesome job was completed under the cadastral survey and settlement operations of Bengal districts beginning under the auspieces of the bengal tenancy act of 1885. The survey which began in the late 1880s ended in the late 1920s. The survey and settlement operations identified and defined the rights of interests in land in the village. A mouza map showing every details of rights plotwise was prepared for every Bengal village. Detailed record of rights showing the tree of proprietorship, tenancies, sub-tenancies and finally raiyati rights within the village were identified, recorded, attested and finally printed for preservation and reference.
The settlement pattern of villages was not uniform all over Bangladesh. Topography determines the type of village settlement. For example, villages along the big river banks are invariably linear, because land afar the river banks are low lying and subject to flooding. Villages in northern area of Bangladesh are usually nucleated around ponds and puddles. On the other hand, in the greater Bakarganj district, where land is flat and served by criss-cross creeks and canals, homesteads are normally built on the borders or centres of cropland. In the haor region of northeast Bangladesh, villages are nucleated and built on the natural levees locally known as kandas. The haor villages are very large in size because no settlement can take place beyond the levees. In the dry season, the satellite villages far from the parent villages are established at the heart of the haor beds during cropping season. After harvesting on the eve of inundation, the village structures are dismantled and transported to parent villages along with harvests. In the hilly regions, villages are small in size and built either on suitable terrain or flood-free beds of valleys.
As regards customs, manners, social structure and institutions, Bangladesh villages followed no uniform pattern. Partly for communication and partly for nature of production and distribution, villages were more or less isolated from each other and developed customs and institutions not much shared by their distant neighbours. Weights and measures, land tenure, rent structure and so on varied from district to district, even pargana to pargana. Even no single currency was acceptable in all districts. While cowrie was dominant in Sylhet, arcot rupee was current in Tippera and das masha rupee in Noakhali and Chittagong. Narayani rupee was current in Rangpur and Dinajpur, and sicca rupee in Dhaka. Thus, it's no wonder that villages would be different from each other socially and structurally. Villages were stratified hierarchically. The village zamindars and taluqdar formed the apex of the village society. Below them in status were the intermediate interests followed by grihasthas or substantial peasants. The ordinary peasants formed the base of the society. The landless sharecroppers and agricultural labourers constituted the lowest strata in the social hierarchy. The social gradation was long enough in the villages of the Sundarbans region where new villages were set up through clearings. Several layers of intermediate interests called madhyasvatvas stood between the zamindars and actual cultivators.
Changes in the structure of the village society began to take place from the beginning of the 20th century. The jute economy, industrialisation, improving communication and most importantly the transferability of land at peasant levels led to the rise of an agrarian middle class below the zamindar class. The agrarian middle class of the village was accompanied by several other trends, such as, growing insolvency of the land owning class, increasing merginalisation of peasantry and agricultural indebtedness. These phenomena had been operative in leveling the village social structure which was finally accomplished by the east bengal state acquisition and tenancy act, 1950 under which all rent receiving interests from the highest zamindars to the lowest intermediate interests were abolished, and peasant proprietorship was established. This measure had significantly changed the social and production relations of the village. The changing structure of the village obtained new dimensions from the extraordinary growth of population from the 1950s, changes in the farming technology, spread of education, rapid urbanisation and most importantly capital investment in land.
In the process, the village land began to be concentrated in the hands of a few capitalist peasants of the village. The problem of landlessness and merginalisation of peasantry, a direct outcome of the operation of capital in land control, are now the most glaring feature of the village society and economy. According to the latest statistics released by various agencies including the government, large majority of village in most parts of Bangladesh are now either landless or highly merginalised. For survival, these people are now adopting several strategies including out-migration to cities, taking to non-farm activities within or outside the village. Majority of them earn livelihood by selling their labours in the agricultural sector. The village is now structurally split into capitalist rich peasants, merginalised peasants, farm labours and non-farm labours, small groups engaged in various tertiary occupations.
East Pakistan (Bangladesh) had 61493 villages according to the census of 1951. The number of villages in Bangladesh, as under the 1991 census, is 68038 with a national average of 232 households per village.
The village economy now presents a picture indicating transformation and relative prosperity. Bangladesh villages are no more an unchanging self-subsistence existence as it was indeed under the colonial regime. The wind of change began to blow from the early 1960s. Massive efforts have put up by various governments to ameliorate village conditions. Most villages are now self-sufficient in food production and some districts are even producing surplus food crops. Mechanised ploughing, irrigation and threshing are now common feature in the village. In view of the high cost and high risk of maintaining drought cattle, peasants are now increasingly relying on power tillers. High-yielding variety crops have nearly replaced the traditional varieties. Greater part of village lands on an average is under irrigation schemes. Chemical fertilisers are commonly used. As a result, Bangladesh is now very close to self-sufficiency in food production. Villages close to cities are often chosen as the sites of agro-based industrial projects like livestock, dairy, poultry, hatchery, fishery, cold storage and so on. Most NGOs have projects for village development. While almost every village has one or more than one primary schools (formal and informal), secondary and higher schools are there for every couple of villages on an average. Large number of villages in every district is now under electrification. In short, Bangladesh villages are on the threshold of eliminating scarcity and hunger for good. [Sirajul Islam]