General Elections 2019

Sunaina Rawat and the dilemma of Bharat

The new government has to focus on the rural population, their aspirations and the economy

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Thursday 16 May 2019
News channel NDTV’s head Prannoy Roy interviewed Sunaina Rawat on life and aspirations while covering elections. Photo: Youtube/NDTV

By this time most of us know Sunaina Rawat. Still a brief introduction: she is a 12-year-old girl from a village in Uttar Pradesh. When the news channel NDTV’s head Prannoy Roy interviewed her on life and aspirations while covering elections, she immediately became one of the most imposing symbol for the country’s rural economic crisis and the aspirations of the rural masses. Remember, in 2024 she will be a first-time voter. And there will be millions like her.

She is a walking statement on India’s agrarian crisis and our criminal failure in averting this crisis. To sum up her conversation with NDTV: she wants to be a doctor, but her economic condition is not so encouraging. Her family has lost whatever little income they used to earn from farming as stray cattle destroyed it. And there is no alternative source of livelihood. Can she be a doctor? Her answer revolves around the great divide between rural and urban India that she insists in that interview. “Urban people have money”. She repeats many times. In half-an-hour, she captured the agrarian crisis of India, and unfolded how a rural Indian earns or doesn’t earn. She also indicated governance’s overt bias towards India, or the urban Indians who according to her enjoy more privileges.

The new government, thus, has a precise agenda: to cater to the economy of people like Sunaina, their aspirations and apply the healing touch to this rural Bharat that has been bleeding profusely from ignorance and neglect.

It is no more a subject of debate. After years of brewing, India’s rural and agrarian crisis is exploding. Farmers are committing suicides even if we have stopped counting them. Unemployment is high even if we have discarded all government data on the same. The economy is on a downslide despite our claim of it being the fastest growing economy.

India’s rural economy accounts for half of its gross domestic product as well as private consumption. And 40 per cent of its output comes from agriculture. If the next monsoon is below normal, it would be the fifth consecutive below-normal monsoon and drought year for close to 250 districts in the country. Most of them are in India’s rainfed areas and host the country’s poorest population.

Currently, 300 districts are already under drought, the third and fifth consecutive for regions such as Marathwada in Maharashtra and Rayalseema in Andhra Pradesh. On April 6, 2019 Prime Minister Narendra Modi arguably made his first mention of the word “poverty” during the current poll campaign. And in a huge symbolic gesture, he made this mention in a public rally in Sonepur in Odisha, one of India’s poorest districts.

But what makes this a point of great distress for the rural economy is the double whammy. First, farmers lost crops and income from agriculture to consecutive droughts. Second, when they looked for alternative livelihood options, there was not much to take up. It means their economic condition has worsened.

The average growth rate for farm sector wages nearly halved between 2016-17 and 2018-19. Those who want to make up for this dip can’t find options. For example, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has been able to offer only 38 days of employment per household in 2018-19—a significant drop from 45.8 days in 2017-18. Similarly, non-farm wage growth has also dipped to around 4 per cent (December 2018).

Going by government data, there is a 20-30 per cent dip in general rural wage growth. The crisis in rural economy started showing signs way back in 2011. The rural wage growth rate that hit the historic above 20 per cent in November 2011 started declining. By November 2014 it reported a growth rate of just 3.6 per cent. But this year also marked the start of the consecutive two severe droughts. Agricultural growth was just 0.2 per cent in 2014-15.

After this, though officially the monsoon has been normal, farmers have not recovered from losses. To this was added the market glut that ensured farmers didn’t get enough returns for their produce. The dip in wage rate means close to 50 crore (500 million) daily wagers have reported a dip in their income. This is an additional loss as their perceived income from farming would have also dipped. Sunanina mentioned how her father was not able to find daily wage jobs.

Whoever comes to power in May this year, will again inherit these problems, though at more severe levels. So, the priority for the next government has to be environmental issues that undoubtedly dictate the rural economy. Erratic weather events are the new normal in an era of climate change. The new government needs to find new ways. Farmers need a new deal—like the Green Revolution in the 1960s. But it has to be an environmental agenda: fixing the soil, water, production and distribution of produce that will ensure farmers a decent economic return.

Almost half of India is currently under drought; for many districts this is the second-consecutive drought. Given this, MGNREGA should have been the key scheme to not only mitigate impacts of drought but also employ people in distress.

But an analysis of the performance of MGNREGA for 2018-19 shows that it has failed to be of any help to drought-stricken districts. Significant work related to water conservation and irrigation has been left incomplete or suspended, making them useless for farmers; a bulk of job cards, on the other hand, have been deleted, debarring those households from accessing employment. More than 1.8 million water-related projects were abandoned or left incomplete in 2018-19. Governments spent close to Rs 16,615 crore—close to a quarter of the total MGNREGA expense—on structures that are of no use.

So, the new government must take immediate steps to ensure farmers are insured against extreme weather events, get the right price for their produce, ensure that in lean periods they can seek alternative livelihood in MGNREGA. It is also important that they build the water conservation structures that are not abandoned but used for drought-proofing for future needs.

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