Extend A Hand, Help Them Reap More

Updated: Mar 23 2003, 05:30am hrs
In a column that was published some weeks ago, I had pointed out the irony of consumers grudging a modest price increase in wheat or rice or sugar while they happily paid Rs 10 for a bottle of mineral water. We now know that most of those bottles contained pesticide residue; so, consumers paid not only for the water but also for the pesticides. I had argued that a country must support its farmersm those who grow foodgrain, vegetables and fruits; those who raise chicken and lamb; and those who tend to cows and buffaloes and produce milk. I had made out a case for cheerfully paying one rupee more for a kilogram of wheat or rice or sugar.

My gentle friend, Subir Roy, is a knowledgeable journalist. He is also a trained economist, which I am not. Within days of my column, Subir wrote a trenchant piece sharply criticising me for suggesting better prices for farm products. He felt I had fallen into the trap of those who were bent on pampering the kulaks. Perhaps, he was also concerned about the inflationary impact of my suggestion. Since I have great respect for Subir, I deliberately withheld a rejoinder until I was more sure of my facts and until I felt confident that I could articulate my views more effectively.

In the intervening period, I have travelled quite extensively by road in my home state, Tamil Nadu. In the last two days alone, I have travelled nearly 600 kilometers, most of which was in the so-called rice bowl of Tamil Nadu: the old Thanjavur district, now trifurcated into the three districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam. I passed through several villages. What is the state of our villages, 55 years after independence, after nine five-year plans, after three decades of socialism and after twelve years of economic reforms Most people are dependent on agriculture and allied activities. The percentage for all-India is 70 per cent, in Tamil Nadu it is 62 per cent. Agriculture contributes about 25 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP), in Tamil Nadu it is about 17 per cent. Those two figures the percentage of the population dependent on agriculture and their contribution as a per cent of GDP are sufficient to tell the story of rural poverty.

The roots of rural poverty can be traced to the low per capita incomes that accrue to this section of our population. As a result, most houses in villages are no more than four low-level mud walls and a thatched roof over them. Drinking water is from a hand-pump or, occasionally, an overhead tank, but there are still a number of villages where people have to trek a few kilometers to draw water from a well or a lake. The open countryside is the toilet, so one not even dare to speak of sewerage or drainage facilities. Many babies are still delivered at home, not in a hospital. Many illnesses are still treated by quacks.

I visited one such village recently to attend a marriage. The village was barely two kilometers away from a black-topped district road, but economic reforms and its benefits seem to have stopped at the point where the branch road began. It was a road which the revenue records would describe as a village road, a road formed many years ago, and waiting to be black-topped. Meanwhile, the monsoons have taken their toll, the road is no longer level, there are many ups and downs and it is full of potholes. Some day, a department will do patchwork, but until then the villagers have to do with this road. The village has a population of above 300 families. The landowners hold, together, about 600 acres. A sizeable number are landless labourers. There is a village tank. According to the villagers, there is enough water in the tank, only once in two years, to raise paddy. In other years, the paddy crop is rain-fed and the harvest is poor. When even that is not possible, they raise some coarse grains. Time has stood still in that village for many years. Young men have left the village to find jobs in towns and cities, some even in West Asia. Young girls have grown into women, aged beyond their years, borne children and taken the places of their mothers and grandmothers. Yes, there are some signs of the State. The government has given the village an elementary school, a community hall, a community TV and an overhead tank. All houses have electricity. A few landowners own television sets. What has not changed is their income levels. A family that is entirely dependent on agriculture and farm-based activities has remained poor. Life is hard work and drudgery, and at the end of the year there is some paddy, more debt and little else. The younger generation has no incentive or desire to continue to do farming, and is looking for ways to escape the prison walls of the village. This year, in Thanjavur and elsewhere, there is a severe drought. Karnataka refused to release Tamil Nadus share of the Cauvery waters, pleading poor rainfall and low storage. Both the Kuruvai and the Samba crops were lost. Most farmers are now dependent on pitiful government doles. Some farmers took the risk and raised paddy, the land yielded a few bags, but the State government has refused to procure the paddy. Farmers have been forced to sell a 60-kg bag of paddy to private traders for Rs 250 a bag. It will take many years to wean most of Indias working population from agriculture and find them productive jobs in the industry or the services sector. Until then, what That is the question that Subir must answer. A better-governed State may provide roads, schools, drinking water and healthcare. But who will provide the income necessary for a life of dignity

Subir should travel in rural India not in Punjab or Haryana, where things are definitely better but in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are certainly worse. Subir should see the face of income-poverty. You, Subir and I, are consumers of food and food products. I think we owe an obligation to those who produce the food and food products. We should give them, if a way can be found to reach it to them, that extra rupee per kilogram or per litre.

(The author is former Union finance minister)