The lockdown has put sharp focus on India’s poverty as it emerges the sheer number of migrant workers alone is mind-boggling, over 80 million. Mrs Indira Gandhi’s slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’ and subsequent government’s ‘poverty alleviation’ programmes now need critical debate and analysis. Battling the global pandemic has laid bare the reality the poor and those belonging to the economically weaker sections, be it the migrant or unorganised workers are confronted with and who have had to struggle over decades for mere existence.
In the spectrum of poverty, it’s vital not just to keep in mind the BPL group but also the EWS, who have had to fight against all odds to make two ends meet. This is equally relevant with regard to education for their children as well as health facilities, which sadly governments have ignored consistently.
The so-called socialistic governance ensured one outcome – equitable distribution of poverty for 80 per cent of the population. The political economy centred, over the years, on alleviation and not on institutional support systems, which could generate the needed inputs of capital and know-how at the local level. It is indeed tragic that after almost seven decades unemployment and underemployment have not been contained and we have a 100-days employment guarantee scheme, which too obviously has proved inadequate to tackle acute rural distress and poverty.
The hollow claims of political leaders regarding enhancing development can be easily understood by the present scenario. What has actually happened is not development – understood as a balanced and sustained process – but just growth, benefitting the upper class and middle income sections. The nation’s progress has actually been confined to just 20 per cent of the population, most of which resides in big cities. It would be relevant to refer to Prof. Michael Lipton’s famous book, Why People Stay Poor: Urban Bias and World Development, where he observed years ago that the rural poor have been subsidising the urban middle class.
The lack of adequate development and social infrastructure in the rural sector, particularly in backward districts of the country is a cause of serious concern. While it’s difficult to find proper wellness centres in most blocks, where poor people can go for treatment, the same is true for secondary schools, not to speak of colleges. Schools may exist in villages, under the ‘Education for All’ scheme, but their standard of building, teaching and even mid-day meals is questionable, as there is no system to make authorities accountable.
It may not be wrong to say that the one outcome our socialistic government has ensured is the equitable distribution of poverty for 85 per cent of the population! While the political economy was centred on poverty alleviation, for the time being it has been without any institutional support systems which could generate the needed inputs of capital and know-how at the grass-root level.
The village and block level institutions have become decrepit with little political and financial autonomy notwithstanding the Panchayati Raj system. The only effective programme in 73 years, according to this writer, has been MGNREGA, but even here the financial allocation is not enough. Rest of the eco-system, from access to opportunity and markets or employment, remains in the unorganised sector.
In recent time, the underdevelopment of rural areas has become more manifest with huge number of migrants – around 80 million or more — trudging in pitiable conditions just to get back to their villages. It revealed that reality of rural India is imbalanced development as a result of which able-bodied migrated from poor States, specially in north and east, be it Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Bengal etc, in search of employment, which was insecure and exploitative in nature. Though the National Sample Survey warned of worsening poverty and growing malnutrition with the rural population cutting down even on their food expenditure, the government chose to look the other way.
The government is either totally ignorant or chooses to remain ignorant about the pitiable conditions of migrants, their work, families and means of livelihood. Worse, it seems to look the other way even to the exploitation, the workers suffer at their place of work. Over the years, it hasn’t cared to examine in detail the conditions the vast number of unorganised labour has had to deal with for its survival. Or for that matter, what needs to be done to halt their journey to well-off States in search for jobs.
Reports reveal that 30-odd per cent of migrants wanted to return to their villages not only because of the lockdown but due to work conditions, which may be expressed in the word ‘exploitation’. A recent survey by the Stranded Workers Action Network conducted on 11,000 migrant workers indicates that 89 per cent had not been paid wages by their employers during the lockdown and 96 per cent had received no food from the government.
The situation is alarming and we do hear of promises being made by the ruling political leadership. Talk of self-reliance can be justified only if a plan for rural economic revival is undertaken, the thrust of which should be on agro-based industries, food processing, horticulture etc. Instead, the Prime Minister has as usual narrated what is oft-heard: “Had our villages, towns, districts and States been self-reliant, problems facing us would not have been of much magnitude as is evident today”.
‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ is a deceptive ploy to hoodwink and distract attention from the more pressing issue of providing jobs and livelihood to the suffering masses. The Opposition has rightly suggested extending MGNREGA to urban areas and raising the number of days to at least 150 days in rural areas this fiscal. This would give impetus to developing rural infrastructure, provide livelihood options and succour for the workers/labourers.
Whatever the Government may claim or propose to achieve in next two-three years, the real test will be whether it will change the state of economy, poverty or near poverty looming large? More so, even as official figures don’t give a realistic picture of the proposed growth rate or the unemployment situation in dire straits. Clearly, the two most important thrusts required today are, realistic and better governance, in the absence of which Moody’s downgraded India and the other emphasis on innovation and R&D, specially for micro and cottage industries. Being pragmatic is the need of the hour
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