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A forgotten people

By Mihir Shah

Worst is the plight of those who are being made to pay the price for someone else's development.

I LIVE in remote tribal Madhya Pradesh, learning and working with the Adivasis to find solutions to problems such as water and food that have remained intractable, more than 50 years after Independence. We do not have access to satellite TV. But my work brings me off and on to Delhi. On my last visit a few days ago, I happened to watch a programme debating whether all post-1995 "non-Mumbaikars" should be debarred from making a home in the great metropolis. The predominantly young Mumbai audience rejected the proposal out of hand. It was obviously revolted by the sickening xenophobia of the idea. The members of the audience also said how impossible it would be to implement the proposal and what a mockery it would be if each city in India were to start debarring "aliens". But for all the enlightened views expressed in the programme, one troublesome underlying theme kept annoyingly popping up. The slum-dwellers, who somehow refused to go away. They were the ones giving the city a bad name and breaking the law. They are illegal, they should be done away with, roared an eminent playwright. No thought was given by the participants to the compulsions that brought the slum-dwellers to the city in the first place.

This is a long story that dates back to the earliest years of planning, when three-quarters of our working people were employed in agriculture that contributed more than half the national income. The Lewis-Mahalanobis model aimed to radically transform these percentages. Since it was assumed that Indian agriculture was stagnant beyond reform, the aim was to absorb most of our working people in the industry and service sectors. But even 50 years after planned development, 65 per cent of people continue to be dependent on agriculture, even though it only contributes 25 per cent to the national income. The economy has not grown fast enough and agricultural productivity in our poorest areas has stagnated.

India's drylands have been consistently neglected both in terms of public investment and appropriate R&D. Either no positive intervention has been made or centralised models of development have been imposed on them, completely ignoring their location-specific requirements. In nearly 70 per cent of India, hard rocks underlie the landmass and the natural rates of groundwater recharge are very low. In these regions, an agricultural development strategy based on deep drilling of tubewells has proved unsustainable. Water that took thousands of years to gather below the ground has literally been mined within the last 30 years. A completely man-made water crisis has been engendered by over-exploitation of groundwater.

Worst is the plight of those who are being made to pay the price for someone else's development. Millions of people continue to be uprooted from their homes that fall within the boundaries of a large dam project or wildlife sanctuary. Where else are these people to go but try their luck in the metros of India?

These are a forgotten people. When we read of starvation deaths or suicide by farmers, it is these people we are speaking of. The World Bank's just released 2003 World Development Indicators report shows that India has the world's highest percentage of anaemic pregnant women, a shocking 88 per cent. More than half our children under the age of five are malnourished, which is again the highest in the world. These are our forgotten issues, in the clamour and excitement over disinvestment.

What the privatisers ignore is that the Asian tigers, who they seek to imitate, laid the foundation of their industrialisation on comprehensive programmes of health, education, agricultural development and land reforms in their rural hinterlands. This was the bedrock that provided the basis for subsequent economic diversification. But what has been India's record in this regard? Our investments in health and education lag behind some of the world's poorest nations. The 2003 World Development Indicators reveal that the proportion of public expenditure on health is the lowest in India, with the exception of Myanmar and Georgia!

And disastrously when not even the bare needful has been done, current obsession with reducing the fiscal deficit is further jeopardising state support for these areas. Where I live, there is no qualified doctor among a population of 100, 000 people across 100 villages. No one bothers to point out that the private sector is simply not going to shoulder the responsibility of providing drinking water, schools, hospitals and roads in these "unattractive-for-profit" areas. Market failure in such public goods is a well-recognised fact taught to every student of Economics. But there is a silence on this amongst our policy-makers, blinded by the razzmatazz of liberalisation.

The solutions, when tried, prove remarkably simple. They need to be upscaled for which far greater state support is necessary. The first and most dramatic impact of the local water harvesting work facilitated by my organisation across 50 districts in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and Rajasthan is a complete cessation of migration from the area. Guaranteeing employment in rural India will not take more than 2 per cent of our national income. Focussing these programmes on water harvesting and micro-irrigation will ensure water security for our dryland farmers. Combined with stepped-up investments and improved quality of education and health care, this is also the way to stop the degradation of human lives in India's slums, by making life more liveable in the remote and neglected rural areas. A truly win-win situation that will make redundant any neo-Orwellian plans for keeping the people of India away from each other.

(The writer is secretary, Samaj Pragati Sahayog, an organisation that works for water and food security in the tribal drylands of India.)

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