In the mid-1990s, while writing a book about rural poverty, I lived in a small village near Amethi, the pampered Lok Sabha constituency of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. I found, to my surprise, that the crores pumped into Amethi over the preceding 15 years had left poverty as widespread as in areas of central Uttar Pradesh not favoured by political largesse. While Amethi was equipped with more factories, smoother roads and finer government rest-houses, by outcomes relevant to the poor it performed no better than the average for this area of UP.
Last year, on renewing my research, I found that there had again been depressingly little progress for the impoverished dalits and lower backward castes in Amethi, despite another decade of being a ‘VVIP’ constituency. The inequity in land ownership remains as great as elsewhere in the area, wage rates for labourers no higher, oppression by the upper castes as intense, and literacy and health no better.
Two thousand km south of Amethi, this pattern of social and development failures persisting despite ‘VVIP’ status is evident in Andipatti, where I spent some weeks recently. Andipatti returned Chief Minister MGR to the Tamil Nadu assembly in 1984; since 2002 it has been Jayalalithaa’s constituency; and Theni district itself has long been an AIADMK bastion.
The most egregious failure in Andipatti is the strength of ‘untouchability’ practices. They are of such an intensity that even the oppression of dalits in Amethi seems trivial by comparison. Thus, people of the Arunthathiyar caste continue to be barred from village temples, are given inferior-quality tumblers at tea stalls, and are forbidden from wearing chappals on upper-caste lanes. Bonded labour is commonplace. In several schools, Arunthathiyar children are segregated. A report on the entire Theni district, published last year by Arogya Agam, a courageous NGO, and the Arunthathiyar Mukkal Munnetra Iyyekam, found that these practices were the norm in 196 of the 281 villages in which members of this caste live.
A second major failure is the extent of poverty in Andipatti. Poverty extends beyond the Arunthathiyar and other dalits to the ‘most backward’ castes too. While the poorest in Andipatti do not seem as destitute as their counterparts in Amethi — because wage rates for men are nearly double that of Amethi — the proportion of poor people appears to be no lower. The poverty is readily apparent. Many children and adults are emaciated. Many huts are hovels. Large areas of land have no crops growing. And in interviews, person after person pointed to massive fraud in apportioning ‘Below Poverty Line’ cards.
Not least among Andipatti’s failures is the high rate of female foeticide and infanticide. The female to male ratio among children and teenagers in Andipatti is the lowest of Theni’s blocks — and Theni itself is among the worst-performing districts in Tamil Nadu. The gender inequity epitomised by the skewed sex ratio is a key factor behind the high HIV rates, with large numbers of disadvantaged women taking to sex work to provide for themselves and their children. It is a sharp irony that Jayalalithaa, one of India’s most powerful women, represents a constituency where gender discrimination remains entrenched.
The persistence of poverty and other human development failures in these two enormously privileged constituencies — Amethi and Andipatti — should worry us greatly.
First, because conditions for the poor in the vast remainder of rural India that has never seen such an influx of money and attention as these two favoured areas are doubtless just as bad or even worse. And second, because the primary lesson taught by these VVIP areas is that money by itself is not a cure-all for rural India’s developmental problems. This lesson is at odds with the neo-liberal theory — dominating the PMO, finance ministry, Planning Commission, and Congress leadership for many years now — that rapid economic growth, once channeled into larger budgets for the social sectors, will bring an end to poverty and other deprivations. The theory is persuasive in abstract terms, but not when applied to rural India’s realities.
Thus, Amethi shows clearly that money alone does little to remedy the problems that plague much of north and central India. In all likelihood, even with far larger government spending in the years ahead, in these major regions of the country there will be nothing more than halting progress in terms of poverty or human development.
The situation in Andipatti is more complex. Tamil Nadu’s important initiatives for the poor over the past quarter century — such as cheap rice, quality health services, accessible schooling and mid-day meals — have gone a long way to redressing several widespread deprivations in Andipatti. Add to this the fact that Andipatti’s factories, unlike Amethi’s, do employ poorer youngsters in blue-collar jobs. So Andipatti’s poor would probably be unwilling to trade places with their counterparts in Amethi. Yet, the continuing tragedy of Andipatti is that all these favourable developments, even when combined with the massive inflow of government funds, have proved inadequate to remedy the backlog of poverty, inequity and other developmental failures.
If all that has been attempted in Amethi and even Andipatti is not enough, what more is needed to ensure progress in reducing poverty and other deprivations across rural India?
A first need is to base our economic strategies on the recognition that poverty is far greater in rural India than official estimates suggest. The government’s estimate that roughly one fourth of India’s rural population is impoverished is simply the result of using poverty lines that are set indefensibly low. (For instance, in both rural Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, only people earning less than Rs 365 per month are classified as poor!) In contrast, both the Arjun Sengupta report and the Centre for Policy Alternatives have estimated that roughly 80 per cent of the rural population should be classified as poor, using more realistic poverty lines and welfare indicators. That is the enormous scale of the development challenge remaining in rural India.
A second need is to tackle rural India’s hierarchies, many of which are still rooted in control over agricultural land. Efforts directed at promoting equity remain critical because it is inequity that keeps many among the poor from progressing in Amethi, Andipatti and elsewhere.
A final need is to promote the political organisation of the poor and the marginalised. Without concerted efforts in this direction by political and social movements, the persisting ills of rural India cannot be addressed. As Amethi and Andipatti show graphically, there are many aspects of contemporary rural India that have little to do with the 21st century and much more to do with colonial India; in such a context, only strong political participation by the poor can lead to development.
Siddharth Dube is author of ‘Words Like Freedom: The Memoirs of an Impoverished Indian Family, 1947-1997’. Aniruddhan Vasudevan has contributed to this article
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