A Chinese Road for ‘Rural India’

Sagarika Ghose’s Farming the Colonial Dream  purports to be a criticism of policy makers, “leftist intellectuals and politicians” as well as certain type of journalists. In essence what the article suggests is that wasteful schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) need to be discarded, agriculture needs to be liberalized and mass migration from rural hinterland encouraged to enable the people to move into manufacturing.

In the course of her ‘argument’, Ghose takes a few potshots at un- named “celebrated journalists who have made the “rural areas” into their personal visiting cards” as well as “careerists of poverty, the vote-seeking politician, and the westernized romantic.” There is nothing in the article that, however, suggests that she herself belongs to a different universe. Perhaps as not to be accused of being a ‘Westernized romantic’ herself, she deftly alludes to the Chinese way where mass migration from the villages to the cities is ostensibly paving the way for the uplifting of the impoverished rural masses.

After having disarmed the windmills, Ghose goes on to demolish the NREGS lock, stock and barrel for an aim which was never intended for the NREGS. She accuses the NREGS of “ignoring a basic right of every Indian, that is the right to migrate …The right to migrate is an inalienable right and applies to every Indian equally.” Not just that, “according to the NREGA, the rural poor must stay trapped in their socially unequal and violent villages, and undertake meaningless exercise in earthworks to be then handed a paltry wage”.

Wow! The NREGS seems to be having a dramatic impact on rural India !  This, however, is not really the case. Recent reports, suggest that the scheme with Rs. 15,000 crore in its first year has been nothing short of a failure benefiting just about 7- 10 percent of the intended beneficiaries (link). (Jean Dreze and associates on NREGA).  She herself is closer to the mark when she acknowledges later in the same article that “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.” If that is the case why accuse it of holding back the “rural masses” from the urban paradise in the first place?

One, however, cannot disagree with Ghose’s assertion on the “socially unequal and violent village”, but the urban landscape hardly offers a better picture for the migrant poor. With the prices of houses in cities sky rocketing, even the middle classes outside the IT and BPO sector shudder at the thought of owning a flat. For the urban poor, in the absence of any worthwhile housing schemes by the government, the situation is deteriorating fast. In the 1980s and 1990s, China was alone in the developing world to construct decent housing for the urban poor. Even then, the population of slum dwellers in China is as high as 193.8 million, or 37.8 of the urban population, compared with India’s slum population of 158.4m constituting about 55.5 percent of urban dwellers. (Planet of Slums by Mike Davies, page 24).

Worse still is Ghose’s recipe. Liberalize the agriculture sector, she says, which for her means abolishing ceiling laws that impact the farmers’ mobility. Not a word for the landless, not a word for land distribution as if something like land reforms did not exist. If at all it exists, it does so only in the sense of ‘buying and selling of land’. While accusing others of ‘glorifying a monolithic rural India’, she herself does no better.

What does one do for those who do not own any land at all? Though the landless do not seem to exist in her article, implicitly Ms Ghose’s recipe for them is to send them to the cities, along with those smart farmers who can now easily sell off their land under a liberalized agriculture. In that, Ms Ghose discovers the solution in China. 

Follow the Chinese path, she declares. No, not that of the Chinese Revolution but its counter- revolution in the era of ‘colourless cats’:

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.

The trouble with those who call for copying China today is that they want the thin icing without the cake, that is to copy everything minus the Chinese Revolution itself !

She ignores what is practically an urban nightmare in China. Overwhelming migration from rural areas, a reversal of the 1960s forced migration, has led to increasing social problems. While uprooting the people from their villages and providing cheap, unprotected labour in a country that does not permit forming of labour unions for unrestricted exploitation so severe that in many areas, there is a reversal in trends with people migrating back to villages (link). The example of the Chinese peasants who are ostensibly migrating to the cities to become productive clogs for industries manufacturing everything from diapers to electronics for the Western consumers, is a cruel joke which would be hilarious were it not just sad in its implications.

To the chimera of the rural migration to Chinese cities, this is what Li Changping has to say in his essay The Crisis in the Countryside (One China, Many Paths ed. Chaohua Wang, page 213-14):

But the new regulations also meant that the peasant could not alter his or her rural registration status. Economically they ensured a huge supply of cheap labour to developed regions along China’s coastline, as some 80 million peasants rushed to join its booming cities. Socially, however, the result has been a set of injustices that have got steadily worse. …”

In the same book He Qinglain (page 179-80) points to the increasing tendency to form criminal gangs in urban China.

The large number of wandering peasants in Chinese cities and suburban areas are also a well- spring of various forms of criminal activity in the PRC today. The majority- over 75 percent- of criminals in big cities such as Beijing, Guangzong and Shenzhen, are non- resident ‘three-have-nots’. …three demographic features defined these peasant offenders. The majority- 64.5 percent were unmarried; most- 59 percent- had criminal skills; and not a few- 16.5 percent- had been in jail before… the most shocking finding of the survey, however, is the changing motivation behind peasant criminality in recent years. Previously, many peasants displayed clear signs of psychological imbalance, which had led to conflict with the law without any deliberate aim of challenging it. By contrast, majority of those caught after 1996 had committed crimes with the conscious intention of breaking the law and defying moral prohibitions. ‘Since other people are living a highly enjoyable life’, one prisoner said, ‘I, who am lonely and impoverished, should be able to find some stimulus and relaxation too.’

That is the direction that the Chinese path leads to. This is at a time of an overall boom in the manufacturing sector and the absence of a recession in the developed world, which is what has sustained China’s growth. One wonders what the situation will be at a time of decline.

Whatever be Ghose’s motivations for such a misdirected ‘solution’ for rural Indians, the fact is that rural India has always subsidized the city. Those who claim that India needs to move away from its ‘socialist’ past are actually treading an extreme version of broadly the same path as the ruling classes have followed since Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, using whatever little pretensions it had to being ‘socialist’, as a punching bag.

The fact is that the total outlay for rural development is measly as compared to the incentives given to the industry that is producing some of the world’s richest people even as the rest patiently await their promised trickled down share. In a recent article, economist Kamal Nayan Kabra observes that the “public expenditure on rural development … in the Net National Product that used to be 3.6 percent for a population of 70 percent has come down after liberalisation and is just 2.7 percent…. Similarly, the share of total public expenditure in agricultural and allied activities, including irrigation and flood control, that used to be 37 percent in the First Plan total expenditure has come down to 16.5 percent in the Tenth Plan period.” In contrast, the corporate tax foregone (Rs. 50,000 crores in 2006-07) by the Union government last year is only trivially less than the total amount spent by both Union and state governments on all rural development schemes. (link)

People like Ms Ghose would like the amount for rural development to come down further so that the largesses can be given to urban India. Perhaps in her universe, all urban Indians own companies. In reality the corporate beneficiaries are not even one percent of the population.

But then, perhaps it does not matter.

Related Post: An Alternative to Globalization

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Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

12 thoughts on “A Chinese Road for ‘Rural India’”

  1. Thanks for links, Madhukar. I have seen it before but I think one has to keep on re- stating the same thing again and again. MSM does the same, using rhetoric- repeated stating of the same things- to convert their ideas into a ‘common sense’. I guess one has to do the same to counter them.

  2. India has made some gains with the call center jobs, that have come to the cities. Those gains, as seen from a whole view of India, is negligible.

    The sad part is capitalist enterprise in India, makes the most profits, are in areas politically controlled by Maoists.

    See this about Chinese capitalism.

    however deformed, the Chinese revolution, layed the basis for industrialization.

    At my blog I have an open thread about Pakistani elections. My comrades are running as the Marxist wing of the PPP. We are even running in Taliban area. I hope you’ll leave a comment.

  3. @renegade eye: historically, the process is similar to early capitalism where centralization caused major movement from the country to the city, I happened to be re- reading the manifesto and Marx’s observation on this phenomenon is striking. What is different is the scale of the process, and the technological revolution that does not need as much manual labour as early capitalism did. This movement from rural areas to the city does not automatically create a revolutionary proletariat as foreseen in Marx’s time.
    @arasu: thanks 🙂
    @vidya: there are answers, for example see the related post on Alternatives to Globalization that discusses Amit Bhaduri’s proposal. The problem is not knowing the answers but implementing them. The post- 1991 coterie of Manmohan- Chidambram- Montek (and the Sinhas and Shouries in the BJP) simply want to work as spokesmen of certain classes. Sagarika Ghose and much of the press, especially TV, merely echo the same. As Marx observed, the ruling ideas of every age are the ideas of the ruling class.

  4. I read the Amit Bhaduri article. I agree – a very articulate and an excellent assessment and summary unlike Sagarika Ghose’s response. I am definitely not disagreeing with you on the issue ie the economic policy imbalance and how it might not be sustainable but I do get this feeling of impracticality when I read some of the conclusions in the same Amit Bhaduri article. In an economy where corruption has always been a given, how would this magical fund transfer with the system of mutual checks and balances happen? Aren’t we ignoring the possibility of every village panchayat potentially having a Laloo-in the making waiting to usurp these funds. In terms of track record in India w.r.to accountability corporate accountability still seems better than what the public sector, panchayats have. How does this solve the huge rust of corruption that has coated the official machinery? For instance even in the US economy there is corruption but it is far and few and does not permeate the life of an average citizen going to a county office / Panchayat office unlike the Indian economy. And I think this issue has been there long before any Manmohans even appeared on the scene. Without this internal change alternate economics won’t work.That was what I was referring to in the previous comment.

  5. Point well taken. I have tried to indicate as much at the end of that post:

    Admittedly, Bhaduri’s take is that of an economist, not that from a political economy perspective and needs to be worked out in detail, but it provides a very good start for a practical alternative model for development.

    The essential question is of power, whether at the village or the national level, and in whose class interest it is exercised.

  6. on corruption: that cannot be the reason not to invest in rural sectors- as Kamal Nayan Kabra has mentioned, the total outlay for the rural sector is less than the amount being foregone from the corporate sector- which is a corruption of sorts. There are massive sell- offs for land development where the ‘efficient’ private sector is making mega bucks. I also think that small time corruption strikes us much more than the huge corruption at the corporate levels. See also Madhukar’s posts at alternative perspective on this theme (he mentions, for example, the Rs 850 crore subsidies being given to the Tata plant at Singur)

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