Two weeks ago I wrote about the poverty that persists on a massive scale in Amethi and Andipatti, the favoured Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu constituencies of Rahul Gandhi and Jayalalithaa respectively (March 20). Add to this, the underdevelopment of Orissa’s Ganjam district, home to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s constituency of Hinjilikatu, and it is readily clear that very little of rural India is ‘shining’. Most of it is gripped by multiple crises, including poverty, distress migration, farmer suicides, and ever-stronger support for ‘Naxalites’. All in all, despite 60 years of independence, the vast majority of rural Indians — whether in Amethi, Andipatti, Ganjam or non-VIP areas — continue to live in conditions of desperate want and insecurity.
Consider Ganjam district. Ganjam derives from the Persian for ‘granary of the world’. At independence, the district began with the advantages of the ryotwari system of land tenure, rather than the burdens of zamindari. But today, agriculture is so poor here that the majority of farmers get just one rain-fed paddy crop and a meagre second crop of dal. The failure to expand irrigation — and to preserve the abundance of existing tanks and local canals — is to blame. Equally to blame is the utter neglect of efforts to modernise agriculture through diversifying crops, boosting yields, or storage and marketing.
The tragic upshot in Ganjam is that there is virtually no work to be had locally. Agricultural labourers can find employment for just two months or so, earning only about Rs 25 for a long day. Families with unirrigated land have roughly four months of income. There are few jobs in the towns even for young people who have completed secondary school. Not surprisingly, child labour is common.
The primary means for survival for Ganjam’s people has been migration. For the past three decades, boys (as young as 12) and men have migrated to western India for work, particularly to Surat’s textile mills. The scale is such that roughly 2 of every 3 males between the ages of 15 and 50+ now works year-round in western India — returning to Ganjam for just a few weeks.
Employment of the kind found by Ganjam’s migrants is no solution to their poverty. Indeed, it is another shade of exploited poverty. Their hard labour of 12 hours a day earns them just Rs 75-175 (per day), but with no health care, housing, paid day off, job security or even minimal pension. They live dozen or more to a slum room. Prolonged illness or old age often lead to destitution.
The pattern of migration has also fuelled one of India’s highest HIV rates, with 2-3 per cent of Ganjam’s adults infected. In Hinjilikatu and Aska blocks, from where migration has been especially high, there are villages with 25 per cent of adults infected or dead. Orissa’s AIDS programme should have long responded in ‘mission’ mode, but instead it is in the hands of an obstructive bureaucrat, Parmeswar Swain; tens of crores of Central funds are returned unspent every year.
What makes the continuing poverty and suffering in Ganjam — or Amethi or Andipatti, for that matter — inexcusable is that virtually none of it is inevitable. Virtually none of it is the consequence of hostile nature or poor natural endowments. (Only a few of Orissa’s districts are severely handicapped by nature.) Thus, for instance, consider that there are no inherent barriers to doubling irrigation, double-cropping and yields in Ganjam, according to local officials, or to multiplying production from fisheries or small-holder plantations.
In fact, Naveen Patnaik, to his great credit, has for some years now pushed his administration to expand precisely these fronts in Ganjam, aided by the National Rural Employment Guarantee programme and the efforts of an outstanding district collector, Kartikeyan Pandiyan. But this raises the obvious question: ‘Why were these investments not made at a much earlier point in the 60 years since Independence, in Ganjam and elsewhere?’ Think of the extraordinary opportunities and spin-offs that would have been generated ever since, the poverty that would have been prevented, the positive development trajectory that Ganjam (or Amethi, Andipatti and elsewhere) would have been set on.
Instead, given decades of wasted opportunities, in the year 2008 India’s leaders are stuck with trying to belatedly implement rural development efforts that do not seem to belong to this century, but to the 1950s or 1960s or 1970s, when they should have been undertaken in earnest. Guarantees to give people 100 days of manual work at the princely sum of Rs 70 or so a day. Self-help groups for rural women. Minor irrigation. Doesn’t the dire need for such programmes in 21st century India not make a mockery of our boasting that we’re a modern nation, an economic powerhouse?
Who or what is to blame for the multiple crises afflicting rural India today? Coming to grips with our past failures is critical if we are to not continue failing rural India.
A major cause of the desperate state of rural India today is that generations of political leaders have refused to accept that equity and prosperity across our largely agrarian society are a must for India to progress. The problem dates as far back as Nehru and Mrs Gandhi (the latter focused the ‘Green Revolution’ on high-potential districts, ignoring the rest.) Currently, only the Left parties have laid out a convincing plan for tackling the massive scale of rural poverty. The Congress’ concern, as now aired by Mr Chidambaram, appears superficial; and some of its prescriptions are doing damage rather than good.
A related cause is the unresponsiveness of our political system to the needs and rights of average Indians. In Ganjam, a group of young men visiting home from Surat, told me exactly what I hear across rural India: ‘We vote because we care about democracy, but we never expect politicians to deliver on their campaign promises’. So much for giving back to Ganjam’s hardworking migrants — who remit Rs 500 crore each year to Orissa — something of what they’ve contributed.
A final cause of rural India’s problems is our individual and collective indifference to the persistence of poverty. We ignore all the evidence that things are tragically wrong until an embarrassing crisis erupts, whether farmer suicides (Vidharbha), ‘Naxalites’ (Andhra, Chattisgarh, Orissa), ‘hunger’ deaths (Kalahandi), or AIDS (Ganjam). As a young IAS officer pointed out to me caustically, a shortage of shuttlecocks for the Indian badminton team leads to public outrage and prime-time TV coverage but the deadly annual shortage of HIV testing kits is ignored. Let’s face it: our misplaced priorities make each of us as much to blame as Rahul Gandhi, Jayalalithaa or Naveen Patnaik for the development failures afflicting their constituencies, and for the even greater wretchedness of non-VVIP areas.
Siddharth Dube is the author of ‘Words Like Freedom: The Memoirs of an Impoverished Indian Family, 1947-1997’
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