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.
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