For the rural poor, a manufactured crisis

The National Population Register (NPR) and a possible National Register of Citizens (NRC), which will unleash a humanitarian crisis, are being pushed at a time when rural distress is acute. With the Budget due soon, let’s look at how the BJP-led government has served the interests of the rural poor.

A grim picture

The Consumer Expenditure Survey (CES) is meant to be conducted once every five years by the National Statistical Office (NSO). The CES contains details about the spending patterns of households. Data collected from this becomes a vital source of information to improve economic planning and budgetary allocation. However, the Central government suppressed the release of the most recent survey data from 2017-2018. According to the report, leaked to and published by Business Standard , consumer spending fell for the first time in 40 years. A remarkable analysis of the report by Professor S. Subramanian in ‘The India Forum’ compares the Monthly Per Capita Consumption Expenditure (MPCE) from the CES 2011-2012 and 2017-2018. It presents a grim picture of rural India.

According to his article, if we rank the rural population from the poorest to the richest, and divide them into 10 groups (or deciles), we find that the MPCE fell for every group. This means that consumption — and so income — in the entire cross-section of the rural society decreased. For example, the average monthly consumption levels of the poorest 50% of the rural population was ₹1,138 in 2011-2012. This came down to ₹1,082 in 2017-2018. Overall, the average monthly household consumption reduced from ₹1,430 in 2011-12 to ₹1,304 in 2017-18, a sharp decline of around 9%. In other words, more people have become poorer and hence have less money to spend.

Observing such inconvenient truths, the government tried to shun the survey results citing “data quality issues”. This tendency to move from transparency to opacity when confronted with uncomfortable facts is not new. The government had kept delaying the release of the 2017-2018 Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) data. In January 2019, the PLFS data was leaked, revealing that unemployment under the BJP-led government had reached a 45-year high. The government responded that the leaked report was “a draft report” and didn’t release the data until after the general election results were announced. The truth, however, didn’t change. Years of struggle for transparency is routinely being undermined. Such systemic crushing of data corrodes institutional values and the political economy.

Recent NSO reports suggest that Consumer Food Price Index inflation increased from 2.99% in August 2019 to more than 14% in December 2019. The sharpest rise was noted in vegetable prices (more than 60%) while the price of pulses spiked by more than 15%. While the rise in prices might benefit some farmers, and the vegetable price rise might be seasonal, how will it impact the landless and small farmers? As per these reports, considering a family of four, even for the richest 5% of the rural population, the expenditure on cereals and pulses is less than ₹2.50 per day per person. For the poorer sections, the ability to spend is around ₹1 per day per person. To put this in perspective, the cost of one egg is ₹5 and one litre of milk is ₹30. As per the 2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census, 56% of the households don’t own land and around 51% of the households depend on casual manual labour for income. For this segment, the MGNREGA can serve as a lifeline. However, in the last five years, the budgetary allocation for MGNREGA has been abysmal. One-sixth of each year’s allocation are pending wage payments from previous years. Payments of most States haven’t been released by the Central government since October.

Continued delays in wage payments, in violation of Supreme Court orders, and low wage rates discourage workers from taking up MGNREGA work. Indeed, the twin evils of low incomes and high food prices means that the landless poor have to further reduce their food consumption. This might have consequences of low nutrition leading to lower physical and mental growth. Accounting for work demand, pending payments and inflation, any allocation for MGNREGA less than ₹1 lakh crore would be insufficient.

Wrong focus

It is distressing that instead of focusing on increasing rural wages and improving the functioning and payments of MGNREGA, the BJP-led government is wasting resources on divisive policies such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Population Register (NPR). The estimated cost of the NPR is ₹4,000 crore, an amount that can support 2.2 crore landless labourers through MGNREGA for 100 days at current wage rates. Further, since the arbitrary dilution of Article 370, according to reports of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce, Kashmir Valley has incurred losses of around ₹18,000 crore, and about 5 lakh people have lost their jobs since August 5. The losses would be amplified if Jammu and Ladakh are added to this calculation. More than 4 lakh migrant labourers from parts of India, mostly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, were made to leave Kashmir Valley on August 5 rendering them jobless overnight. Add to these the costs of running detention centres for those categorised as ‘stateless’, and we are staring at a manufactured crisis of epic proportions. Women, in particular, would pay a huge price as they relocate after marriage and hence don’t have relevant documents. When the Central government can’t get cash transfers correct for rural women under the PM Matru Vandana Yojana programme, owing to variation in documents, implementing NPR-NRC would be a monumental catastrophe.

Rajendran Narayanan teaches at Azim Premji University . Views are personal.

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Printable version | Oct 7, 2022 5:40:43 pm |