As this Budget approaches, there are many worries about the future of ‘the India economic story’. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) has been severely criticised as a gargantuan guzzler of taxpayers’ money, a scheme that seeks to condescendingly trap India’s agricultural poor in an 18th century mode of production. The stock markets are crashing regularly and there are fears that as the American economy heads into recession, Indian market sentiment and exports will be badly hit. Already growth rates are lower than expected: the Indian economy is now expected to grow at a slower pace of 8.7 per cent rather than the projected 9 per cent.
Economists warn of an impending crisis: the coming steep rise in the price of all food, which will affect the poor most of all. A shift in mindset is necessary. If India’s growth is to be made truly inclusive, if millions and millions of poor people are to be brought into the economy, if we are to go beyond schemes like the NREGA, then policy-makers, leftist intellectuals and politicians must stop perpetuating a colonial definition of the word ‘farmer’.
The Indian ‘farmer’ and the Indian ‘rural areas’ occupy a moral and rather intellectually dishonest space in our mental landscape. The ‘farmer-first’ rhetoric of our policy-makers means that we see the Indian farmer as frozen in time, seated wisely and calmly next to fields of waving paddy, wearing colourful clothes, speaking in simple profound phrases and representing the constant Elsewhere of the urban commercial centres. Celebrated journalists have made the ‘rural areas’ into their personal visiting cards, waving the banner of the Indian ‘rural areas’ as a moral construct, as an undifferentiated monolithic value in itself, a moral construct whose main relevance is its Otherness to the evil cities where people are money-seeking and valueless. The ‘rural areas’ are flag waved by careerists of poverty, the vote-seeking politician, and the westernised romantic whose colonially inspired vision seeks the real India in the bubbling streams and green fields of a pre-industrialised idyll. Sadly, these army of Indian colonials are doing a terrible disservice to the very people whose cause they claim to uphold.
The NREGA illustrates the policy establishment’s deadly romanticism about the Indian farmer. It shows how ‘rural reconstruction’ has become such a holy cow and how the ‘rural areas’ now occupy the realm of bizarre fantasy of the urban educated class. According to the NREGA, the rural poor must stay trapped in their socially unequal and violent villages, and undertake meaningless exercises in earthworks to then be handed a paltry wage. Because there are no contractors or machines, in the NREGA scheme villagers will turn up to play with mud, to create a road that goes from nowhere to nowhere, to dig ditches that will be washed away in the next monsoon, in order to fill their stomachs for a few weeks, if that. No permanent rural assets will be created. There is no accompanying guarantee of health, education or the physical safety of women along with this so called guarantee of employment.
The NREGA also ignores a basic right of every Indian, and that is the right to migrate. It attempts to provide work in villages, as if to condescendingly say to the Indian farmer, stay put in your pretty little village and here’s some pretty little work you can do for a pretty little wage. The fact is that the vast majority of India’s cities are made up of rural migrants. All of us migrated from centres of low economic activity to high economic activity in search of opportunities. The right to migrate is an inalienable right and applies to every Indian equally. If the son of a sweeper can dream of being an engineer why should the son of a farmer be consigned to remain a farmer? Simply to satisfy the elite that the farmer has been preserved in his pristine exotic primeval glory? The NREGA, at best is a semblance of a safety net for the absolutely destitute, that those surviving by eating worms on riverbanks, can be assured of some food for a few days, if that. But in its entirety, it is elitist in its view of the ‘rural areas’ and an insult to India’s poor.
There is now a growing argument that the crisis in Indian agriculture can only be battled if it is recognised that no economy can grow with 60 per cent of its people trapped in land. On the one hand, the vast majority are ensnared on their unproductive patches of land; on the other, land ceiling laws, land conversion laws and the absence of clear title deeds and land records mean that there is no free buying and selling of land. So a farmer cannot maximise his holdings, cannot increase the size of his assets or farm productively. Plus a battery of other ridiculous laws bear down on the farmer’s mobility. If a farmer builds his own ponds and check dams he could be held guilty of violating the Irrigation and Drainage Act.
If a farmer takes his produce across the state boundary for a better price, he could be held guilty of violating the Mandi Act. Nor is there any education or training available for the farmer to become skilled enough to leave the land. Today, millions of people across India simply do not have the skills to be employable. That only 20 per cent of our GDP comes from an occupation in which 60 per cent of Indians are trapped against their will, should wake up the babus and ministers to the fact that agriculture equals poverty and the only way out is to follow the Chinese example by creating avenues to allow the millions to move out of agriculture into mass producing industry. China has done exactly this with tremendous success. The descendants of Mao have got over their ‘farmer glorification legacy’ far quicker than us.
In the creation of mass producing industry, we come across that terrible familiar hurdle: the Left. Our crippling labour laws and the high price of labour means that the millions who should have come into the labour market by now are systematically denied jobs because of the high risks that employment in India still carries. For a country where the majority of the workforce is unorganised, it is a terrible injustice that organised labour (that minuscule fraction the Left strenuously upholds) should get 3-5 times more than unorganised labour. Labour surveys show that the percentage of jobs in the formal sector are shrinking. Lakhs are streaming into cities to take casual jobs like vending, street hawking and driving cycle-rickshaws. Thanks to the far-sighted initiative of Madhu Kishwar and Manushi, the PMO has now recognised the importance of street vending and cycle rickshaws as regular jobs for the poor. But there was a time when these life-giving, mass-sustaining jobs were seen as mere ‘scum’, just opportunities for hafta for cops.
We already see the fruits of liberalising industry. Yet agriculture, frozen in the romantic dreams of the elite, is not seen as worthy of liberalisation. On the one hand, there is an arsenal of legislation preventing the farmer from realising his productive potential; on the other he is imprisoned on the soil because education and health opportunities do not reach out to him and allow him to move away from the land. The Indian farmer bears the burden of our elite’s colonial nostalgia. He is the slave of an insane king who maims and imprisons him to keep alive some murderous aristocratic dream of rustic innocence.
Sagarika Ghose is senior editor CNN-IBN