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 Some Questions

Mainstream, VOL LI, No 41, September 28, 2013

The Right to Food Programme —
 Some Questions

Tuesday 1 October 2013

The National Food Security Programme involves $ 21 billion per year to subsidise grain for about 810 million people. The main cause of malnutrition includes high prices, poor sanitation. Many people add that 43 per cent of children go hungry as well as many mothers.

These ideas and remedies demonstrate once more the gap between urban elites—often decision-makers—and villagers, economic and social issues. Already in 1975 the great anthropologist, M.N. Srinivas, was deploring this current. (On Living in a Revolution, New Delhi, Oxford University Press 1992, pp. 79-81)

In their excellent book (Why growth matters 2013, New York Public Affairs)), Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvin Panagariya have shown, particularly the latter, that estimates distributed by various organisations and showing that Indian children are poorer than Black African children are highly questionable. (Chapter 5)

The most acute poverty is found in villages remaining outside the GR (Green Revolution). They are quite widespread in peninsular India, facing physical constraints: poor and eroded soils, limited irrigation potential, uncertain rains. The lack of reliable irrigation as a complement to the monsoon and to a second crop in the dry season prevents any Green Revolution. In certain areas, large scale non- agricultural employment opportunities around the village or in growing cities can be wide-spread, as in Maharashtra. Part of the farmers work outside while their relatives concentrate on tiny irrigated plots for onions or vegetables which bring a higher return than cereals.

In the eastern plains, the Green Revolution, for lack of good governance, has not been fully implemented in spite of rich alluvial soils, plenty of ground and surface water, good rain; but serious problems exist of floods or lack of drainage in lowlands. In Bihar, one comes across villages with rather mediocre yields, which are not so badly off because of massive migrations.

On the other hand, in GR districts, progress has been considerable, including for the poorest: big yields for the main crops, gradually a more diverse local economy raising job opportunities. In western UP today, one comes across villages where all houses are now pucca, which means brick kilns, transport of bricks, masons. All kinds of odd vehicles are running, in addition to tractors and modern cars. Mini-buses bring high caste children to private schools, ten kilometres away. Small trade, petty industries are flourishing along with vegetables, fruits and especially milk. It is now common to meet Chamars, who in the past had no milk, including for the small children, enjoy now a cross-bred cow or a she buffalo, so that they sell part of the milk and keep the rest. Shabby dress is disappearing, women wearing coloured saris, young men jeans. Even Coca Cola or beer can be found in some villages.

As a result of all these changes, daily wages have been—and remain—double or more of daily wages for the same work in the rainfed areas and job opportunities are more numerous.

Yet, serious matters of concern should be corrected because yields tend to level off. Important technical changes are needed, such as more organic manure and nutrients to improve the soils. Progress of roads and electricity have played a crucial role, but now due to lack of investments and maintenance expenditures, the roads are deteriorating while, since 1980, the shortage of electricity has become severe.

Finally come areas of poor soils, stagnant yields of 1000 – 1500 kg/ha of paddy (3000-4000 in GR). Irrigation can be confined only to tiny plots, the supply of farm manure is limited for lack of cattle. However, many such barren, waste soils properly treated with adequate organic manure, water by hand can give very Prosperous plantations of mangoes, cashew or papaya trees.

Such areas are often isolated with few local outlets, poor roads. You hardly see even traditional bullock carts. The bazaars are dull, even lacking good vegetables. Bicycles and, worse, motorcycles are rare. In the interior of Odisha, in wide areas of undulating plateaux, mediocre soils and uncertain rain, you come across people who have only a set of shabby clothes they are wearing. And in their huts there is hardly anything, not even a charpai. In 2002-03 in Keonjhar district daily wages amounted to Rs 20-30 per day versus Rs 60 in western UP; in Western UP, in 2011-12, Rs 150 to 160 versus Rs 60-70 in Mayurbhanj.

To sum up, would it not be appropriate to listen to poor people? In 1997, I met my old friend Dalchand, a Bhangi who was the chaukidar of the local bricks kiln in Khandoi, western UP. I asked his opinion on all these special schemes in favour of the poor. He replied: “Arrey Sahib, naam, naam hein, ham ko bijli and sarak chahiye.” Apparently Dalchand does not need electricity, because he has no TV. He does not need either a road since he has nothing to transport… But he understands the key socio-economic role of infrastructures in rural development and poverty alleviation. Why is such an elementary common sense in favour of massive investments and recurrent expenditures so slow to come up?

Gilbert Etienne is an Emeritus Professor of Development Economics, Geneva. He has written Dalits in Villages and Poverty Alleviation (1963-2008), Anand, IRMA, 2010, and his forthcoming book is Indian Villages, 1952-2012, Achievements and Alarm Bells.

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