OF POVERTY, INEQUALITY AND GIGANTIC DENIALS
Abhijit Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based Economist.
A good amount of data from Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011 are out – though the caste data are yet to be divulged to the public. And expectedly there is a demand to make the caste data public as soon as possible. However, currently that is not the point of public discussion. Rather, the survey data show in no uncertain terms the abject poverty and inequality which are prevailing in rural India.
Out of total 24.39 crore households in the country, the number of rural households is a huge 17.91 crore which substantiates the fact that the real India still resides in the villages. The survey data reveal some astounding facts which is usually ignored in the policy making circles, particularly in the last 20 years or so. To start with, 38.27 per cent of total rural households are landless and deriving major part of their income from manual casual labour. After 68 years of independence, that is simply unacceptable amount of landlessness in rural sector. The promise of land reform (just after independence) has almost faded from the public memory and a large part of rural population still do not have any access to land which is generally the major source of rural income through various farming and other activities. This also raises questions on the zeal with which the Land Bill is pursued by the current government. Shifting of ownership of land from rural landowners to corporate entities with sufficient ease will further destabilise the pattern of landholding in the rural sector – there is very little doubt about it. Only 30.10 per cent of rural households derive their household income directly from cultivation quite naturally and a huge 51.14 per cent derive income from manual casual labour. It simply means that most of the rural folk are not land owners but dependent on day-to-day menial drudgery for the sustenance and livelihood.
Add to that the fact – 74.49 per cent of total rural households have the highest earning member getting less than Rs. 5000 per month, and the balloon of so-called “prospering and shining” India will burst immediately. Only 5 per cent of total rural households have somebody in the family with a salaried job in government, 1.11 per cent with salaried job in public sector, and 3.57 per cent have any member with a salaried job in the private sector. The jobs in the government sector in any case dried up in the past 25 years, and the so-called “metropolitan boom” of the recent past has completely ignored and bypassed the rural India. Even with a moderate inflation that is bad news for the people residing in Rural India, and that fact is coming out straight from these data.
After the publication of these data, broadly two kinds of reaction came out in the public. One is more of a silent treatment – at the most vaguely saying that the remedy lies in high (double digit) growth. Our Finance Minister has chosen to make that kind of reaction which is actually more cluelessness than a real reaction. Second kind of reaction is actually very strong and pouring in from the economists who made a living out of free market economics. They were saying all these years that high GDP growth rate is the remedy for everything including poverty and inequality. Suddenly the emergence of these kind of contrasting data, 24 years after the initiation of liberalisation, has sufficiently enraged many of them. So, now they are rubbishing the entire set of data from SECC by comparing different figures with those derived from National Sample Survey (NSS). Since SECC was undertaken by the Ministry of Rural Development rather than NSS or Census Commissioner, the nature and the intention of these data collection is essentially challenged by this set of free market proponents. In spite of vouching by the economists involved in this SECC about the authenticity of the data, a case has been made of partisanship. However, by pitting one government agency against another these economists are plainly indulging in slandering. If, at all, there is any confusion then the solution lies in undertaking a detailed census of this kind again. And that is very important simply because the SECC data fundamentally challenge the model of economic development the country has pursued all these years, including the pre-liberalisation models of development. A rethinking of the current developmental model is needed if anybody is serious about removing inequality and poverty from the country. Questioning authenticity of these data, on the contrary, is a very juvenile and (in fact) itself a partisan reaction. If practising researchers and policy makers start doubting all kinds of data collected by any government agency then in reality there will be no research and policy making. However, being proved grossly wrong (on poverty and inequality eradication) on the basis of SECC data is bound to evoke such responses for obvious reasons, and there is no easy and shortcut cure to it.
But then we come to the issue of solutions. To be true, there is no easy and immediate solution to it. Over the past 20 years or so, input subsidies in agriculture has been reduced substantially, output has been made vulnerable to wide fluctuations in prices due to opening up of the sector, government capital and other kinds of expenditures in rural sector are cut to the greatest extent possible, there have been withdrawals of various social safety nets (both general and rural specific) as well. All these have put the agriculture and the rural sector under severe distress. To start with, reversal of all these measures should be done earnestly to provide some immediate relief to Rural India. Public investment in agriculture and other allied activities has to increase to reverse this process of poverty. The government needs to come up with welfare measures which can reduce the stress of economic and social hardship of the people in rural India. In the longer run, a rethinking process should be initiated. Though going by the reality that may remain a distant hope always, the figures provided by the SECC 2011 has really opened up the debate on the relevance of mainstream growth and development models among thinking minds. At some point or the other, a demand for people oriented development will rise, and if the government does not pay any attention to it now probably a time will come when it will be compelled to. Any forced intervention always provides ad hoc and temporary solution while problem of inequality and poverty warrants a more stable and permanent approach.