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Clouds of despair: The poor and the permanent 'drought'

The next fortnight is crucial for the country's agriculture sector, for if the 11th `normal' monsoon still plays truant, farmers will soon be in deeper trouble. But more than they, it's the rural society at large which will face tremendous hardships,already pounded by hostile policies. Yet, in all the discussion on the issue, not a word is being said about the next likely policy move — the privatisation of water use. We don't seem to have learnt any lessons even after 10 good monsoons, says noted journalist P. SAINATH in the first of a two-part article.

What if you're over 50 years old? Try digging the required 70 cubic feet a day at relief projects for the rotten grain you'll be given.

TEN good monsoons and we still managed to wreck Indian agriculture. Imagine what we could do with a bad one.

And so far, it doesn't look good. Many reservoirs in Orissa are close to "dead storage levels". At that point, you can't release water for power generation or irrigation. And Orissa is a State where distress sales from the last crop wrecked lakhs of farmers, anyway.

In Andhra Pradesh, the number of peasants voting with their feet is on the rise. Even in already high-migration districts like Anantapur. Rajasthan's rural poor are seeing the shredding of the little food security they had left.

Close to two-thirds of all districts have seen poor rainfall. For rural folk dependent on agriculture, the next 20 days will be thick with tension. Some rains now in Rajasthan, A.P. and Maharashtra hold out a little hope. But if there's no more by August 15, we're looking at major crop loss. If August 15-31 goes the same way, recovery won't be easy. Distress levels, already high, will soar.

This is just the beginning.

The rural poor, especially landless labourers will take a hit five ways, at least. A fall in income is obvious. For many, the period from about August to October is anyway critical. Those are the hungry days, the period between sowing and harvest — even when there is a normal monsoon. That's when work is hardest to find and survival games sharpen.

Imagine where the sowing hasn't happened. Or where it fails, or is much less than usual. Employment dips further. So even the wages that would have eased a part of the hungry days are missing. A reduced harvest makes things bleaker. Farmers will lose out on production.

As food prices rise, so will hunger in rural households. Even last year, adivasi homes in Rajasthan were rotating hunger amongst family members. Each day, one of them would go without anything to eat at all. Those who did get to eat — a single meal — would go out and look for work that day (The Hindu Sunday Magazine, March 18, 2001).

Many who own a few goats or fewer head of cattle could lose them. Distress sales of livestock are on even now in several States. Looking after farm animals becomes a huge problem with rising fodder costs — and less water.

The debt situation gets much worse. Quite a few of those who might own an acre or two of land are likely to lose it.

The "normal" avenues of work in other seasons aren't there. No construction work or road laying. No brick making. So heading for the city — as lakhs are doing — won't be of too much help. In fact, it will bring about a crash in the daily wages of labourers in the cities. As it happened last year in Hyderabad and Vizianagaram, with workers from Orissa streaming in. As it did in Bangalore, too, with migrants from Anantapur flooding the city. Also, those coming to the cities will find that their "Below Poverty Line (BPL)-Above Poverty Line (APL)" cards mean nothing.

That is, those who have not already lost their cards to the village moneylender. Tens of thousands did last year, in Orissa (The Hindu Sunday Magazine, June 24, 2001).

The pressure on women in rural households will be huge. The time and energy they spend in fetching water, firewood and fodder shoots up. But their food intake goes down. The women eat last, after feeding the rest of the family. They then have to worry about feeding the livestock. That mix of rising exertion and falling nutrition will devastate many.

When things go wrong, they can't afford health costs. The policies of the past decade have smashed what little the rural poor have had on the public health front. The drive towards privatisation and "user fees" has been thorough. Indeed, loans taken for health spending make up one of the fastest growing segments of rural debt in the country. (The Hindu Sunday Magazine, May 6, 2001.)

Children will drop out of school in large numbers because they can't afford to go. Or to join their migrating parents. That's what happened most years of the ongoing crisis, drought or no drought. In one part of Anantapur last year, the children spent most of August earning money for their families by capturing pests. Landowners paid them Rs.10 for each kilogramme of Red Hairy Caterpillar they brought in. A kilo meant catching over 1,000 caterpillars.

In a part of Ananthapur last year, children spent most of August earning money for their families by capturing pesta.

There's an urgent need to provide work and incomes to the rural poor. But most governments don't want to spend even the modest cash component that major food-for-work programmes need. They can tolerate Rs.100,000 crores in unpaid debt by a handful of business houses that even the finance minister calls "a loot". Even while doing that, Jaswant Singh makes the avuncular offer that if any of the looters have a genuine problem, they can approach him.

Landless workers and other rural poor don't get to "approach" the finance minister. Nor do they dine with him each year as the defaulters in the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) do. They do sometimes take out big protests that the media largely ignore. They don't own newspapers and television channels.

By the time public outrage has forced governments to get serious about food-for-work programmes, many of the old will be too weak to do the kinds of labour those sometimes involve. What if you are over 50 years of age? And if you have not eaten at even your normal pathetic level for two months. Try digging the required 70 cubic feet a day for the rotten grain the government will dump on you.

And yet, the drought is discussed mostly as a natural phenomenon. As if everything was fine until it came along. And the failure to cope with it seen as one of "faulty implementation" of noble projects and schemes. Really? In fact, the problems lie first in the policies. Most of them anti-poor in design and content. In fact, the last decade saw the best implementation of the worst policies.

Investment in agriculture collapsed in the 1990s. And, at 1.8 per cent, the growth rate in food grain production in the 1990s was about half of what it was in the 1980s.

No surprise then, that the last seven years of the 1990s saw our lowest rate of growth of rural employment since 1947 — 0.67 per cent. Rural credit folded in the 1990s, pushing farmers towards moneylenders. The mounting crisis saw many lose their land or other meagre assets. All this rocked the fragile balance the poor struggle to maintain.

They've been pounded for over a decade by such policies. Reduced to a state of high vulnerability by conscious human decisions. Drought, or other calamity when it occurs, makes this unbearable situation impossible.

Yet, in all the discussion over it, not a word is being said about the next major policy direction this country will move on — sooner rather than later. The first — camouflaged — moves have already been made.

That is, the privatisation of water.

Having faithfully followed the World Bank-International Monetary Fund (IMF) script on economy and development for some years now, the move to privatise water is quite logical.

Never mind that this is a country where large regions are wholly dependent on rain-fed tanks and canals. Nor that it will devastate the poor. Never mind that in countries where the process has gone further, the chaos has been terrible. Never mind, too, that in this country it could create unbelievable levels of violence in the countryside.

FACT: During year 2000 alone, IMF loan agreements in 12 countries included conditions imposing water privatisation or "full cost recovery".

Those pushing these agendas have a sense of the likely fallout. In India, this sector has not seen the kind of bravado in public statements that privatisation in other sectors has. Here, it's the benign route. At least, in some places.

Water is really being handed over to "the community" who have formed themselves into "water users' associations".

That's a cute term: "water users". The rest of us, it seems, are non-water users. Just a form of dry land bacteria that do not need the liquid to survive. Spinning off from the positive ring to the word "panchayat", come the pani panchayats. Many of these quite fraudulent. Some, once decent, are being steered towards straight commercialisation. A hijacking of a once democratic concept.

In many parts of A.P., the "water users'" association is now headed by the biggest contractor of the region. Common control by all the farmers in the command area of a major water source exists only in theory.

Another method is already in use in States like Orissa. Through a "lease" agreement, the management of a State-owned asset (say, a canal) is leased out to a pani panchayat. It will not be all that long before the same logic extends to private corporations. The money to finance these schemes comes from the public, of course. The profits will be private.

Even at a micro level, the emergence of private water markets has been on for some years now. In Ramnad, in Tamil Nadu, a class of people emerged in the late 1980s whom locals call the "Water Lords". Yet, the exploitation of scarcity for profit at the village level has in fact been lauded as "efficient" and good.

It surely is good for somebody in Rajasthan. There, if you live in a water-scarce village, you buy what your family needs from a tanker. At only 200 times what it costs per litre in the city of Jaipur.

In the present distress, the economists of the CII and similar bodies see an opportunity. "Let's use this time of adversity to accelerate the process of reforms," writes one."... Increase the pace of privatisation ... start freeing land markets." He does not mention water. But you can bet it's on the agenda.

And here we are, a nation with huge conflicts and tensions over water, heading that way. With a bunch of planners pretending they aren't thinking that way at all. Knowing all the while that they are.

But back to the drought, there's no problem, you see. We have 63 million tons of "surplus" grain. You can only girdle the globe 38 times with that. Or build a ladder to the moon. So mainstream economists assure us we can take care of hunger. (Come to think of it, there is no situation ever where mainstream economists go hungry.)

The point is not: "Aha! We have 63 million tons of grain lying around. So there's no problem." The point is that the 63 million tons is a big part of the problem. It exists because the purchasing power of the poor has been so severely trashed by policy.

Last year, for instance, India exported rice at Rs. 5.65 a kg. We sold the same rice to people in drought-hit regions of Andhra Pradesh at Rs. 6.40 a kg. The export price of wheat was even less than the BPL rate of that item in many States.

Besides, agriculture is not only about output. It is also about livelihoods — which have swiftly frayed in the last 10 years of assault on the poor. Those battered and bruised by that process now face two of the media's favourite phrases: the "vagaries of the monsoon". And, of course, "drought".

But wait till we privatise water. That'll make it truly efficient.

(To be continued)

P. Sainath is one of the recipients of the A.H. Boerma Award, 2001, granted for his contributions in changing the nature of the development debate on food, hunger and rural development in the Indian media.

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