Chronicles The Hungry Tide

India lives in its villages; it just goes to look for work in the cities. Across the country thousands of migrants throng to cities in search of a livelihood, forced by circumstances to adopt a tenuous, arduous, life style. Today the village is far from being, or even having any pretensions to be, a self-sufficient unit.

Faced with chronic unemployment, racked by poverty and hunger, families flee their villages in search of better prospects which, by and large, are only to be found in urban and peri-urban areas. This huge movement creates cheap labour for city centres, but the migrant who been pushed out of his native lands finds himself in hostile conditions. The vast majority of India's migrant labour force is employed in the unorganised sector, preferred to local labourers since they are cheaper and do not develop social relations in their place of destination. They are deprived of housing, entitlements to basic state services such as the public distribution system, and end up living in sub human conditions. Worse, city administrations have, today, honed in on migrants as the 'culprits' responsible for the overcrowding and the breakdown of civic order that most cities are facing and, in ham-handed attempts to stem the rot, formulate distressing plans to keep migrants from entering the city.

But the flow cannot be stemmed. It arises out of the changing dynamics of rural economics, and can only be stalled or reversed by massive investment in the rural economy, and the creation of what have been described as 'agropolitan' districts and centres - an economy that creates employment for populations where they are.

Agriculture still employs over 60 per cent of India's labour force, but its ability to productively absorb growing populations is rapidly declining. Productive jobs, today, are to be found overwhelmingly in the States that have been significantly urbanised, such as the highly developed states of North West India (Haryana, Punjab), Coastal West India (Gujarat and Maharashtra) and the Southern States (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka). Businesses in the BIMARU states remain mainly rural, and are afflicted by very low levels of labour productivity. Indeed, the tide is turning steadily against rural India and, in 2000, for the first time in the country's history, more than half of India's national income was generated in cities and towns - though 71 per cent of the population still lived in its villages. More and more businesses in the vast rural industrial and services sector are shutting down, or moving to urban areas, attracted by better linkages and profitability, even as the rural economy is gradually strangulated by low productivity and the lack of infrastructure. According to one study in 2001, the labour productivity of unorganised manufacturing units in urban areas was more than double than that of units in the same sector in rural areas. Thus many small rural businesses are destined to die, though sectors like wholesale trade, transport, storage and warehousing have actually employed more people in rural areas over the years.

One study on rural-urban migration noted in 2002 that the Government had, "as a matter of policy", concentrated its investment and employment in cities to the neglect of rural areas. It noted further that the little that was spent in villages is "wasted in microeconomic interventions to help individual villagers and not the macro-economy of the village as a whole". Further, the Government has no employment generation schemes for cities; yet, there are plenty of jobs. In villages there are a variety of job creation schemes for the poor, but few jobs of any kind to be had. The reason is, "the Government invests in the macro-economy of cities and in villages it tackles only the microeconomic level. It is time the government tackled the poverty of villages rather than the poverty of villagers. Villagers cannot get rich so long as villages remain too poor to attract modern industry and commerce."

The 2005 Budget saw the birth of the Bharat Nirman Project, with numerous schemes to improve the infrastructure in Indian villages. A comprehensive rural upliftment programme under the Project committed Rs. 18,334 crores to six key areas - irrigation, roads, water supply, rural electrification, housing and rural connectivity, including both roads and telephony.

It would be heartening to see that winds of change are sweeping across rural India, yet there are apprehensions that much that is being proposed under rural infrastructure extension would eventually benefit urban centres more, and that it is not linked to the requirements of increasing productivity in the rural areas, or that it will, once again, be hijacked by urban entrepreneurs reaching back into these areas. Thus, across the sprawling landmass of northern Uttar Pradesh, land is being sold dirt cheap and being snapped up by street-smart entrepreneurs, who proceed to claim subsides and set up thriving high technology agricultural and fisheries projects. Village land is also being bought up across India, either to be colonised by developers or to be used by the wealthy to set up businesses or practice the farming of exotic varieties of produce.

The evolution of the 'agropolitan' economy lies at the heart of India's development. With over 70 per cent of the population still concentrated in rural areas, the country cannot be lifted out of poverty and backwardness on the shoulders of a small - through rapidly expanding - urban sector. Hyderabad - and its hi-tech extension, 'Cyberabad' - developed new office parks, academic institutions, flashy flyovers and 'highovers', and came to be seen as a beacon, a model of urban development, an inspirational city, built for a progressive future. The then Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu, was hailed and feted by the national and international media as a man of great vision, leading his state to the gold-paved road of prosperity. In the midst of all this, thousands of farmers were committing suicide, consuming pesticides, caught in a wrenching cycle of debt and poverty in the heartless backwaters of rural Andhra Pradesh. Their plight was ignored even as Naidu enjoyed the unchallenged status as the poster boy of 'reforms' in the country, as the "CEO" of a State, whom The New York Times applauded as the "darling of western governments and corporations."

Yet the verdict that was eventually doled out to this Chief Minister was a crushing defeat at the elections. Perhaps there is a greater lesson here of what comes from the neglect of the poor in a nation where poverty afflicts hundreds of millions, particularly in rural India.

The bane of India's cities is not the impoverished migrants that are flooding in - indeed, they may well provide a safety valve, "keeping a possible revolt by the masses at bay". Investment in the rural economy could have far reaching impact, not only on increasing livelihood options and reducing poverty in these areas, but accelerating national development and checking the rising tide of political unrest and violence across wide areas.

Exploited by the informal sector, deprived of the benefits of rural development, the life of the rural poor is lived on the margins, in the shadows of national neglect. Strangely, however, it is only when their plight is addressed and resolved, and a semblance of dignity is available to the people of India's vast rural hinterland, that urban India will actually be in a position to develop its 'world class' cities.

Chitvan Gill

Published in The Pioneer, January 26, 2006



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