Fifth column: A letter from rural India

Fifth column: A letter from rural India

On paper all kinds of anti-poverty schemes were available in the village, but had made little or no difference.


Literary flourish  In contrast to the prosaic style of pre-Budget Economic Surveys in the past, the advent of Arvind Subramanian as chief economic adviser has lent a literary flourish to the report. For the 2017 survey, virtually each chapter begins with a quote and Subramanian has drawn from many sources, including Tagore, Nehru, Keynes, Amitabh Bachchan’s dialogues and Aravind Adiga. Each chapter title is carefully thought out and provocative. Subramanian, who is on leave from the Peterson Institute for International Economics, where he is a senior fellow, clearly believes that the survey should be written in the style of an academic thesis. So at the end he has acknowledged taking inputs from  some 200 individuals, ranging from ministers and officials to NGOs, economists and columnists, including two from this newspaper. A conservative Finance Ministry official was not amused because few names included in the long list of acknowledgements are stringent critics of the government.     Taxiing to success  H R Shah, a Gujarati NRI who runs the 24/7 TV Asia channel in the US, was awarded the Padma Shri this year. Shah has an interesting history. He started out as a limousine cab driver in New York and was a favourite of many VIP politicians from Gujarat, and so he was ensured of a steady supply of customers from India throughout the year. One of his clients was Amitabh Bachchan, with whom he struck up a friendship and they eventually launched a TV channel together. Later, Bachchan exited the venture. It is speculated that one of Shah’s former Gujarati customers recommended his name for the Padma award. Slip of a slip  When Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav met in a Lucknow hotel for a press conference this week, Rahul gave Akhilesh a three-line chit which had been passed on to him by Ghulam Nabi Azad.  The note reminded Rahul to discuss the Amethi and Rae Bareli seat adjustments with Akhilesh.  Unfortunately, Akhilesh did not keep the slip in his pocket and left it on the table. A local journalist picked up the chit, which consequently became public, to the Congress’s embarrassment. The party is unsure whether Akhilesh acted deliberately or absent-mindedly. Certainly, Akhilesh and his followers are unhappy with the way the Congress hijacked the event. Rahul acted as the big brother when the Congress is in fact a junior partner in the alliance. Instead of praising the SP government’s performance, which is the campaign theme of the party — ‘Kaam Bolta hai’ — Rahul said that while their intentions were right, there were some shortcomings, as with the UPA 2. When asked about BSP chief Mayawati, Rahul said he had a lot of respect for her, a response which was hardly music to SP ears. Kept out Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is upset that the Congress and SP did not include the JD(U) in their alliance in Uttar Pradesh.  Sharad Yadav had suggested to Ghulam Nabi Azad that the JD(U) and RLD should join forces with the SP and Congress to make it a broad-based alliance. But Azad returned with the message that Akhilesh had vetoed the idea. However, the JD(U) believes that the Congress was more responsible for keeping them out as it did not want to part with its share of tickets. A JD(U) leader said his party was perforce not contesting the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls as it would be accused of cutting into the anti-BJP vote. In fact, it is doubtful if its presence would have made much difference. Outside help needed The BJP workers who volunteered to help out in the campaign for the five election states were asked to give their preference for the state they would like to be sent to. In Madhya Pradesh, the overwhelming demand was to go to Goa, known as a holiday destination. But help is really needed in Uttar Pradesh where in many areas local RSS workers are up in arms over candidate selections and want to teach the central leadership a lesson. Missing  CM Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was missing from the Capital for most of January. Kejriwal did not even attend the two-day Winter Assembly session. His visit to the Capital for the flag-hoisting on January 26 was among the rare occasions he was seen in Delhi. Deputy CM Manish Sisodia functioned in his absence. Kejriwal is campaigning in Goa and Punjab. The BJP considered putting up Kejriwal’s photographs in Delhi with the caption ‘Missing’, but seems to have had second thoughts.
Last fiscal, Punjab saw only 0.96 crore person-days of employment generated under MGNREGA from April to December 2015.

First I am going to describe for you living conditions in a village I visited in Uttar Pradesh last week. Then I will leave it to you to decide whether it is wrong for the government to continue spending taxpayers’ money on unwieldy, centralised, leaky anti-poverty programmes. Or whether it is time for the Prime Minister to admit that if he wants to fulfill his promise of change and development, he needs to make an urgent course correction.

Since there are thousands of villages of the kind that I am about to describe, I am not going to bother giving it a name. I chose it because a man who works in Delhi called Rakesh urged me to come to his village to see how little has changed in it in the past few decades. Like Rakesh, more than 50 per cent of young men from this village left long ago to find employment. The young men who leave often belong to farming families but are not needed at home because land holdings have shrunk and farming is no longer profitable.

On the way to Rakesh’s village, he pointed out his family farm and said, “We grow enough to feed the family but not enough to sell in the market.” We drove on a dirt road at the end of which we came upon a cluster of ramshackle brick and mud dwellings set in narrow, muddy lanes. Women washed utensils with wet mud and water from open drains and children wandered barefoot amid stray cattle and dogs. On a vacant patch outside Rakesh’s home, village elders gathered. They said the village now got 18 hours of electricity but it came and went capriciously, farmers stayed awake at night to water their fields. Drinking water came from communal hand pumps and open defecation was the norm not just in this village, but for nearly every village in the area.


On paper all kinds of anti-poverty schemes were available in the village, but had made little or no difference. MNREGA money disappeared in the pockets of unknown local officials and old people never saw their pensions. Access to the villages in this area is so limited that until last year pregnant women had to be carried on dirt roads to the nearest health centre to deliver their babies. Last year a diligent official helped out by building a brick road that has made life easier. When I asked why their MLA had not helped do this through his constituency fund, they said they had not seen him once in the past five years.

So should money continue to be wasted on huge welfare schemes that have achieved nothing? Or should money be spent instead on roads, schools, health services, sanitation and drinking water? Political pundits and economists have applauded the Finance Minister for putting more money into the MNREGA and similar rural development schemes, but is this really the way forward? When Narendra Modi first came to office, he mocked the MNREGA for being no more than a wasteful exercise in digging ditches, and he was right. So why has he not changed course? Why is the NITI Aayog not auditing anti-poverty schemes to see if rural development cannot be achieved more effectively?

The Prime Minister has talked often about his RURBAN plan that seeks to provide urban public services in rural India, but can this happen without a course correction? There can be no better time than now for real ‘parivartan’ because farmers and small businesses have been badly affected by the currency withdrawal. People I met on my rural travels admitted that there had been initial support for the Prime Minister’s brutal demonetisation but said this was mostly because very poor people with empty Jan Dhan accounts believed that they would be direct beneficiaries. Now that their accounts remain almost empty, support is waning, especially since cash continues to be in short supply in rural banks.

If the Prime Minister wants to ease the pain of those who live in rural India, he must find a way to give people the tools that will help them rise above the poverty line. Massive welfare schemes serve only to provide a minuscule measure of relief to our poorest citizens while ensuring that they continue to remain below our pathetically low poverty line. This is what our political leaders like to call ‘poverty alleviation’. Surely in 2017 we need to acknowledge that poverty needs obliteration, not alleviation?

The awful state of rural schools and health services, in most of India’s 6,00,000 villages, bears testament to the failure of the welfare schemes that the Central government has invested in so generously. It is time for the Prime Minister to order an audit of such schemes that have for decades been the hallmark of Congress governments. Rural India needs new ideas and a new direction.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter@ tavleen_singh