Talk of Village Economy and the first thing that comes to the mind is suicide of farmers which has been increasing steadily in the last two decades, mostly in five states: Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chattishgarh, Karnataka and Maharashtra. According to available statistics, between 1997 and 2007, in just one decade, as many as 182,936 farmers committed suicide, close to two thirds of all farmers’ suicides in the entire country. Some believe that this number is under-estimated. Perhaps. But even as it is, it is a fearsome figure indicative of a general collapse of the country’s agricultural economy. As many as 78,737 farmers committed suicide between 1997 and 2001 on an average of 15,747 a year.
Between 2002 and 2006, the figure was 87,567 or roughly 17, 513 a year on average. What has been the driving force behind so many suicides? One immediate answer is the heavy debt incurred by farmers and their inability to face usurious creditors. According to the National Sample data, peasant households in debt doubled in the first decade of “economic reforms” announced by the government, from 28 per cent of farm households to 48.6 per cent. It comes as a shock to learn that 82 per cent of all farmholds in Andhra Pradesh were in debt by 2001-2002. One theory holds that this had happened because many farmers moved from food crop to cash crop cultivation, which was an extremely foolish thing to do. The belief among many farmers apparently was that growing rice, wheat, maize or pulses was not very profitable, while growing cotton, coffee, groundnut, pepper or vanilla meant more money in one’s pockets. They didn’t reckon with other factors such as higher cost of basic materials and the volatility of global commodity prices. At one reckoning, it would have cost about Rs 8,000 to grow an acre of paddy in Kerala around 2003-2004 while cost of growing vanilla in that same one acre cost almost a lakh and a half rupees. If the market crashed, so did the farmers’ income, with understandable results.
One item which has been very much in demand is hybrid seed. In 1991, one could buy a kilogram of local cotton seed in Vidarbha for as little as Rs seven to Rs nine. By 2003 the price had shot up to Rs 350 for 450 gms for hybrid seed imported from the US. Within another year the price of that same seed shot up to around Rs 1,700, which was pure loot. And the victim of that was the enterprising farmer. There are instances of many farmers selling their small farms—some 20 per cent of the entire farming community—to Special Economic Zones, only to migrate to cities as a last measure for survival. The alternative was to become a landless labourer trying to make both ends meet.
According to one estimate, the metropolitan cities are swelling by a daily intake of about 1,000 rural migrants. The guess estimate is that about one lakh rural people move to urban areas all over India, making an annual migration to the tune to about 3.6 per cent of the population, only to increase the slum population in cities like Mumbai, doing good neither to the migrants themselves nor to the cities they move into, causing in the process environmental problems. What are the causes for the continuing rise in the percentage of people below the poverty line (BPL)? According to latest figures available, despite all the efforts so far made for alleviation of poverty, the percentage of people below the poverty line has actually doubled from 28 to 58 per cent. That is a terrible indictment of the UPA Government.
What are the causes that have led to this deplorable situation? Writing in Mainstream (June 26, 2009) Maj Gen Vombatkere identified the following causes: (1) Neglected land reforms, leading to less, or poor, land available for cultivation (2) Agricultural policy encouraging cash crop rather than food crop cultivation or marketable, water-intensive, rather than rain-fed food crops (3) neglect of localised watershed management (4) soil erosion due to deforestation (5) Loss of soil fertility due to continued use of chemical fertilisers (6) lack of micro-credit to farmers (7) industry-based high-input cost technologies in farming, including ‘high-yield, water-demanding seed, instead of sustainable organic methods and (8) caste-based limitations to cooperation between farmers. But talk to the government. Its spokesmen will immediately draw attention to the “paradigm shift in the policy of rural development” that has treated rural poor as “a resource who form an integral part of the development strategy and not as burden”. The number of programmes initiated over the years is mind-boggling. They include: Indira Awas Yojana (1985-86), National Social Assistance Programme (1995-1996), Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (December 2000), Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Youjana (September 2001) Area Development Programme, National Land Resources Management Programme, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy, Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme, Drought Prone Areas Programme and, above all, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act operationalised from February 2, 2006 in 200 selected districts of the country and extended in 2007-2008 to another 130 districts. Though originally envisaged to cover the whole country within five years, a decision has apparently been taken to bring the remaining districts (around 275) within the NREGA’s ambit—but so far with not much success.
The NREGA guarantees at least 100 days of employment to unskilled labour to at least one adult member of any rural household that registers for employment under it. If the scheme is fully implemented, any rural household availing of the scheme should be able to earn at least Rs 10,000 a year from it. But what are the facts? According to a media report, data for the three years during which the NREGA has been in operation shows that on an average only 50 per cent of the households that registered under the Scheme actually got employment. Further, the average number of days each household got employment was only 45 against the promised 100. In terms of the percentage of registered households provided work, Maharashtra averaged an abysmal 13 per cent over the three years (2006-2009) and West Bengal 22 per cent. Strictly speaking, an employee under NREGA should be getting at least Rs 100 a day, but the average wage rate paid touched about Rs 85. The Times of India (July 12, 2009) reported that though Union Finance Minister believes that NREGA—the UPA Government’s flagship scheme—is a big success, ground reports prove that there is “huge accountability gap”. In the first place, a series of field surveys spread over a dozen states during the last three years showed “routine violations of the entitlements of NREGA workers”, whether it was their entitlement for work on demand or to minimum wages or to payment within 15 days or to basic worksite facilities”. The NREGA includes many provisions for grievances redressal. However, according to The Times of India “these provisions have been ignored or sidelined”, reported the paper: “One of the key accountability mechanisms in the Act is the Unemployment Allowance: if someone is not employed within 15 days of applying, he or she is entitled to an unemployment allowance.
However, with a few exceptions, the state governments have resisted this tooth and nail. “A common stalling tactic is to reject work applications or refuse to issue a receipt when people apply. Without a receipt showing that they have demanded work, they cannot apply for unemployment allowance”. At the national level, the Central Employment Guarantee Council is supposed to be an active, independent watchdog for NREGA. It has a broad mandate and wide powers under the Act. But, according to The Times of India report “unfortunately, the Council is not doing its job nor has it been enabled to do its, and further, the government seems to consider the Council as a purely advisory body”. Corruption in the implementation of the Act also seems to be common. A media report quoted an 18-years old dalit as saying that during the last season, he worked for two months, but got paid for only 28 days “and that, too, after a long wait”. Women, apparently, are treated even worse. They are not issued job cards. Even if the job cards are issued, there is no guarantee of getting a job. In West Bengal a woman has complained that in the three years since the NREGA was initiated, she got work for just one day! Caste and communal considerations also operate at the village level.
According to available statistics, during the last three years since the NREGA was under operation, there have been as many as 860 suicides in Vidarbha’s Yavatmal district. Worse, of the Rs 20 crore cumulative grant under the Scheme, only Rs eight crore had been utilised. Apparently the unutilised Rs 12 core had been allocated to 1,205 gram panchayats, with what benefits to the poor there is no record. So, who is there to blame? The government in Delhi? The government in state capitals? Those actually responsible at the grass root level not only for creating projects, then jobs and then allocation of work to registered workers? This is India. One might add here that endemic poverty is not necessarily prevalent in all the districts all the time and that some are better off than others. In all districts there is place for private bodies to help alleviate poverty, an aspect of poverty alleviation techniques that has not been fully explored, but needs to be. A war against poverty need not end in a stalemate, or defeat. That is the lesson that the style of implementation of several measures conveys to those in power.
(The writer is former Chairman of Prasar Bharati, author of many books and a former editor of Illustrated Weekly and a senior columnist.)