Rural Starvation Stalks ‘Make in India’

Sanjay Kapoor

Recently, a friend returned from a long journey that took him as far as the ancient university town of Nalanda in Bihar. What did he see?  Plenty, it seems.

He found a part of the country where, he says, nothing might have changed from the days of Lord Buddha:  Mud houses inhabited by desperately poor people wearing loin cloths with hollow eyes and sunken cheeks. Similar images welcomed early Chinese travellers like FaHien and Hiuen Tsang, and later Portuguese explorers like Marco Polo. Indians looked poor, emaciated and seemed to live and eat frugally. Has nothing really changed in India since the Middle Ages? My friend probably described it best:  “They may not have anything to eat or wear, but they all had mobile phones in their hands.”

Does it mean that the poor prefer talk time in their phones to the next square meal?

We have no study to tell us that, but there is plenty of evidence that life in the villages is getting very grim. Hundreds of debt-ridden farmers have committed suicide. Recently, an activist went on a visit to an eastern UP village and reported distressingly the return of extreme hunger with people eating some extremely sour leaves mixed with flour. These sour leaves were meant to kill hunger.

It is possible to believe these reports from different parts of the country. The rains have failed two years in a row and the government, in its wisdom, dramatically cut down spending in the rural sector. In other words, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) that provided some kind of safety net during such crises was diminished to an extent that, for the first time in many years, rural wage growth began to fall rapidly.

There are more than 300 districts in different states of the country that are reeling under drought and extreme rural distress. As an agricultural expert pointed out, the disaster management authority mandated to help the people living in these conditions does not have the competence to prevent the seriously distressed from committing suicide or taking extreme measures like selling their sons and daughters as bonded labour to richer farmers or moneylenders. For the first time in many years, the families that had begun to gather food together are splitting up. Young boys are being sent by their cash-starved parents to nearby towns to eke out a living. Girls are being withdrawn from schools and made to do odd jobs.

It will be a cruel tragedy if this moment is allowed to pass due to the obsession of hate-filled entities with settling mythical scores. If that happens, then our memories of this period of rural India will be little different from that of FaHien and others

For a government that promised jobs, it has done just the opposite. Its policies, driven by clueless economists that hated the sight of the poor, gave priority to ‘Make in India’ programmes. This much-hyped programme was bound to struggle as the country’s debt-ridden business class did not have the stomach to engage in any new enterprise until their debts are waived. Banks, too, were reluctant to extend credit to any defaulting companies, that including Anil Ambani’s Reliance, the Adanis Group, Essar and scores of others. It’s a depressing mess.

The government has realised the implications of the pain in the farm sector for politics. Expectedly, it has done a volte-face and resurrected the MNREGS. There are suggestions that the scheme will create irrigation assets in villages like canals and ponds. It sounds good, but this would be a temporary relief until ‘basic income’ is factored in. The government has to show boldness by declaring areas where traditional agriculture would be discouraged and new industries would be brought in to provide employment. Warehousing, cold storage, food processing and other industries have to be conceived to countenance the disruption caused by climate change, technology and globalisation.

It does not make sense to do the same thing and fail. With access to metadata, the government and corporate houses have so much more wisdom on how to deploy resources efficiently and change the circumstances of the poor. It will be a cruel tragedy if this moment is allowed to pass due to the obsession of hate-filled entities with settling mythical scores. If that happens, then our memories of this period of rural India will be little different from that of FaHien and others.

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2016