At a time when debates about rural India centre on Maoism and poverty, it is refreshing to see different perspectives for a change…
Is rural India transforming itself or teetering on the brink of famine?
In the same week that Binayak Sen talked on television about famine and genocide, India Today came out with a cover story whose cover photo was designed to cock a snook at nay-sayers. Composed like an ad for a mobile phone company, it had turbaned rural gentry with mobiles to their ears, riding in a roofless red limousine against a backdrop of lush green fields. The story's opening sentences proclaimed that “islands of poverty still exist but most of rural is transformed beyond imagination thanks to a host of factors.” I can almost hear all those human rights activists who regularly post grim stories on Internet mailing lists gag. Whatever happened to the earlier stock stories of farmers' suicides, and the current ones about why Maoists are spreading their tentacles everywhere? They were given the go-by in the search for a positive change story.
When you live in a geographically vast country of a billion-plus, you can find the evidence to support any story you want to get. In a country where famers commit suicide, there will also be those who upgrade their wheels with a particularly lucrative harvest. But the truth is that a feel-good story about rural India is as rare as it is welcome. While the reporters who found the stories to put into India Today's cover package seem to have steered clear of the Naxal-affected districts or, for that matter, those districts in Andhra or Maharashtra which saw farmers' suicides, they did go to Kalahandi in Orissa and report on its transformation. And to West Bengal to report on the efficacy of NREGA there. Also to other districts in other parts of the country to report on how technology and innovations, changed cropping patterns, NREGA, and access to finance are transforming the landscape.
And so, even as Binayak Sen, Vara Vara Rao and others describe how displacement on account of big projects is taking away the poor tribal's tenuous lifeline and driving him to the brink of starvation, in this magazine you got a breathtakingly different take on land as an issue. It told you that farmers were selling part of their land, even when they had modest holdings, to transform their bank balances, because the price of rural land had shot up. The magazine went to villages not far from Bangalore or Gurgaon to report that “Ford Endeavours rub bonnets with Skodas and Scorpios.” They did not go to Dantewada or Lalgarh. They did go to rural Punjab where malls and multiplexes are sprouting. You could storm at the political incorrectness of a story that says “the tribal dude has arrived” because NREGA is incentivising tribal youth from Jhabua to migrate to Gujarat and elsewhere in search of higher wages which then enable them to acquire denims and imitation Ray Ban shades. But you have to laud the magazine for having the gall to bring you a story on the brighter side of rural India at a time when Maoism overshadows any discussion on the subject.
The Other India may not get flesh and blood reporters looking in on them very often but its alleged statistical contours are whipped out in a jiffy at TV debate time. What is kept alive on TV is the diametric opposite of India Today's sunny story. Broadbrush statistics in polarised debates paint a grim picture. Even Mani Shankar Aiyar trotted them out recently on NewsX, now that he no longer has to sound like all is well under the stewardship of the UPA. Davos this year became a favourite peg on which to hang discussions on the rich and the poor. The NewsX anchor called it an “elitist smugfest”. “Seventy seven per cent of our people live on under Rs. 20 a day,” said Aiyar on this particular show titled The Davos Deception or some such. Then he railed about the vulgar rich who go to Davos and declared that he felt polluted “even coming on a show like this”. None of which was particularly illuminating.
Going beyond statistics
This 77 per cent figure has become a favourite statistic (a variation of it says 77 per cent of India lives below the poverty line) but surely it caricatures even inequity when the discussion does not go beyond that? Binayak Sen used the converse statistic to bolster his “famine is abroad in the land” argument: 33 per cent of Indians have clinically demonstrable chronic under-nutrition he said. This was on a Karan Thapar show and of course it never got to even discussing this statistic because Thapar was more interested in nailing Sen as a Maoist sympathiser. When you cover the economic status of rural India through TV debates as our media increasingly does, the nuances of rural poverty or prosperity are never going to show up. Partly because of anchor inadequacy as in the case of the NewsX debate mentioned, but also because of anchor oversimplification and aggression.