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Chronicle of a 'miracle' foretold

Statistics often fail to register or communicate trends that are dramatically evident in a physical image. Western Uttar Pradesh has long been the location of a very successful 'Green Revolution', with 'modern' agriculture and its many symbols - tractors and mechanised harvesters, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, high yielding varieties of seeds, multiple cropping and cash crops - penetrating almost every village in the deepest countryside. This is not Eastern UP, which is just an extension of the abyss of poverty and lawlessness that is Bihar. Western UP has been at the heart of the agrarian revolution, and has long been held up as a model of rural prosperity. A few years ago, you would be hard put to find a bullock drawn plough anywhere in the region.

Suddenly, however, the bullock drawn plough is more and more to be seen, even in fields abutting highways. And on the roads, herds of bullock are found to be driven, not surreptitiously to the slaughter house as was sometimes the case in the past, but to cattle markets, where they are quickly snatched up by farmers looking for draught animals.

Western UP is not the only area registering regressive trends and a resurgence of the bullock and cow-dung economy. There are other systemic indicators that suggest strong regressive trends in Indian agriculture, and these should give pause to those who are thinking of grand schemes for another wave of the Green Revolution on the back of the genetically modified crops currently and aggressively being hawked by various multi-national corporations - already with disastrous impact on farmers who have sunk deeper into debt in at least some areas where experimentation with these varieties has combined with adverse weather conditions to produce crop failure, indebtedness, pauperisation and, in many cases, eventual suicides.

It is useful to look at some numbers in this connection. Official statistics indicate that tractor purchases were lower by nearly 20 per in 2001-2002 as compared to 1999-2000. There has been increasing fragmentation of land and, today, more than 85 per cent of all land-holdings in the country are below five acres and 63 per cent are actually below three acres - quantities that make no sense for efficient farming within the context of modern agricultural technologies - including the use of tractors.

Worse, nearly two million small and marginal farmers have been losing their lands and becoming landless labourers each year since 1998. Capital investment in agriculture has fallen over the 1990s from a meagre 1.6 per cent of GDP to 1.3 per cent. The rate of growth of agricultural productivity fell from 4.7 per cent under the Eight Plan (1992-1997) to 2.1 per cent under the Ninth Plan (1997-2002); in 2002-2003, it registered a negative growth rate of -7 per cent, before rallying to 9.6 per cent over the abysmal preceding year, in 2003-04; the year 2004-05 registers a provisional growth of a meagre 1.1 per cent.

As a result of declining rural incomes and prices of agricultural produce, agriculture today contributes less than a fourth of the GDP, as against almost a third in 1998. The output of foodgrains in 2003-04 was stagnant at levels achieved seven years earlier, and, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), India is one of 17 countries where the number of the undernourished actually increased in the second half of the 1990s. According to one estimate, the rate of absorption of foodgrains per head of the population has dropped to the same level of 150 kilograms per year, which it was in 1950-1951, after peaking at 174 kg in 1997-1998.

The Prime Minister has announced a scheme for investment in rural infrastructure, and this is intended to give a fillip to the entire village economy. This is indeed a laudable scheme, and will hopefully benefit many. But it is useful to look at the millions it will still leave out of its scope. Among the most significant elements of this scheme is the plan to link up all villages with a population of more than 1,000 with roads. This sounds excellent on paper - until you realise that it leaves out more than 61 per cent of India's villages which, according to the 2001 Census, had a population of less than 1,000.

It is clear that, across rural India, a slow and inexorable tragedy is unfolding, and remains largely ignored. The ideas that have served us in the past cannot resolve the problems of the present and the future - and it is evident that the strategies of the Green Revolution and the new technologies that are now being offered by way of genetically modified crops - have little relevance for the overwhelming proportion of farmers who own tiny fragments of land, and are progressively being forced into subsistence farming, not to mention the added millions who are being pressed into the ranks of the unemployed and under-employed.

The mitigation of rural distress, of the 'nutrition emergency' and the crisis of health that afflicts large proportions of the village population across India today, must immediately be brought to the very centre of our developmental policies; these cannot be subsumed under some inchoate dogma of 'trickle down' effects and strategies that focus exclusively on macro-economic indicators of growth (which, in any event, as we have seen, are not particularly healthy for the agrarian economy).

At the heart of such a revised strategy will have to be the creation of greater capacities within each village to meet its own basic needs. Each of India's over 638,000 villages must be conceived of as a production centre with a capacity, at least, to meet its own requirements of food security- including the minimum needs of its most disadvantaged population. If there are surpluses, if there are linkages to other villages and to urban areas, if there is greater 'integration' with the modern economy- and eventually, globalisation - it would be excellent. But the basic capacities, on which the day-to-day survival of the poor depends, must remain non-negotiable.

This means that, for most of the basic goods required for survival, the increasing dependence of the village on the urban economy will have to be curtailed, and the production of most such goods, of vessels and utensils, of clothing, of agricultural and household implements, must be located within the village economy itself. Even a cursory glance of the average village shop today will demonstrate that virtually every product on its shelves is produced in urban centres. The traditional economy of the village artisan has almost entirely disappeared.

This does not, of course, mean that we must return rural India to the bullock cart, or that some sort of ideal network of 'village republics' is to be restored. Village life in India has never been the romanticised idyll it is sometimes made out to be. It has, in fact, historically been iniquitous, brutish and oppressive, and overwhelmingly remains so. But rising rural pauperisation demands that the basic necessities essential for a decent, productive life must somehow be assured within the village structure itself.

In an earlier age, the rich lived in a secure bubble, insulated from the poor. That age is gone. In our troubled times, an 'economic miracle' that ignores 70 per cent of the population is doomed to failure. India must look hard at trends in the agrarian economy and the increasing desperation of people in its villages, and find the means to create at least a modicum of stability, security and well-being there.

(Published in The Pioneer, October 15, 2005)






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