The picture of rural Indian life today that emerges from what is probably the world's largest study ever of household deprivation is sobering and sombre. It describes a massive hinterland still imprisoned in persisting endemic impoverishment, want, illiteracy and indeed hopelessness. It tells a story that every thinking and caring Indian must heed.
Advocates of free markets, opposed to building a welfare state, have long argued that accelerated market-led economic growth in India has lifted millions out of want in ways that direct state support could never have done. They suggest that poverty is vanishing in India, and those who still advocate large-scale public action in support of the poor are caught in a time-warp, failing to recognise that the lives of India's poor have altered dramatically in the quarter century of neo-liberal reforms. The recently released preliminary results of the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) however tell a very different, and profoundly worrying tale.
With hand-held laptops, official enumerators were commissioned to ask members of all households in the country a few basic questions, including what they owned, how they earned a living, how much they earned, and how far they had studied. Their findings tell us first that in three in four rural households no one earns more than Rs. 5,000 a month. More than nine out of 10 rural households have no one earning over Rs. 10,000 a month.
The survey also reveals that 56% rural households own no land. Around half of the rural households report that they depend primarily on manual labour to survive. Economist Prabhat Patnaik observes in Outlook: 'Our share of cultivators has actually fallen since 1951. A whole set of people who might have been independent peasants…have been pushed into the ranks of agricultural labour'. 'They have no rights, no security of income, they are subject to the worst kind of drudgery because it is all manual work: They cannot be organised. It's just a miserable state of existence'.
Since the stagnant rural economy offers meagre opportunities for employment, a large segment of these households are footloose circular distress migrants, evocatively described by labour anthropologist Jan Breman as 'hunters and gatherers of work'. In order to stay alive, they will go to any corner of the country, to do any work, with any remuneration, on any terms.
These are the migrant workers toiling in the prosperous rice, wheat, sugarcane and cotton farms of Punjab, Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, construction workers building high-rise structures in cities across the country, semi-bonded workers in brick kilns that pockmark the country, workers building roads in conflict-endemic frontier states, and so on. Often boys barely in their teens set out to distant lands to earn some money to keep their families alive. But now increasingly families migrate along with men, interrupting children's schooling, forcing women to bear and raise children on dusty city streets and shanties, and leaving behind old people in the village to starve, beg or die.
These findings are also another reminder of the potential contributions of what has been described as the world's largest social protection programme, the MGNREGA. When he dismissed this as a living monument to earlier governments' failures, Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonstrated little sensitivity to the struggles of distress migration that millions of rural households still have to endure, which could be prevented by the State's effective guarantee of safe and dignified waged work in the vicinity of their homes, enabling them to escape their annual uprooting to distant lands.
Modi in his election campaigns often spoke of aspiring youth, restless and impatient to join India's growth story. The SECC results again offer a dismal reality check. Only 3% rural households have even a single member with a graduate or postgraduate degree. On the other hand, more than a third of rural India is still illiterate. A quarter households have no literate adult above 25 years. Less than one in five households have one or more family members with primary education, whereas only 13.5% have anyone who made it to middle school. This means that more than half of rural India still has only minimal or no skills of reading and writing. If they can share in India's growth story, it can only be in adding to its already mammoth reserve army of cheap and footloose labour.
The SECC mandated officials to survey every single household in the country, which contributes to its importance and credibility. It is a census, not an estimate. All large official surveys, however, tend to neglect invisible populations, such as forest dwellers, nomadic communities, footloose distress migrants, bonded workers, and people stigmatised by their vocations, sexuality or ailments.
These populations are invisible to state officials because of their extreme vulnerability and powerlessness, and as a survival strategy they often also hide from the State. Moreover, although rules required that the survey results be ratified in open community meetings, this was rarely done. Far from over-stating the situation, therefore, it is likely that the SECC significantly underestimated that levels of poverty and deprivation.
The lesson that the government drew from the SECC findings was predictably to call for a further hastening of India's economic growth. This would mean administering more of the familiar medicine of market fundamentalism: Reducing public spending further on education, health and agriculture, combined with further weakening labour protections and safeguards against land acquisition. Instead we must heed the resounding message of the SECC, as also of the unending epidemic of farmers' suicides and the continuing distress exodus from India's countryside: That India does not shine for its teeming villages. This challenge requires an entirely different set of prescriptions: Much greater public spending on rural infrastructure, watershed development and small-farm agriculture, farmers' income protections, the MGNREGA, education and health, and reviving land reforms. Without these, rural India, still home to a vast majority of Indians, is fast becoming a wasteland of distress and despair. But who is listening?
(Harsh Mander is convenor, Aman Biradari. He is the author of Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India. The views expressed are personal.)