NREGA: Quo Vadis?
This is an extract from a text book. The NCERT text book of Twelfth Standard on “Political Science”:
Government Campaign reaches the village
“In a way the advertisement stuck or written on walls gave an accurate introduction to the villager’s problems and how to solve them. For example, the problem was that India was a farming nation, but farmers refused to produce more grain out of sheer perversity. The solution was to give speeches to farmers and show them all sorts of attractive pictures. These advised them that if they didn’t want to grow more grain for themselves then they should do so for the nation. As a result the posters were stuck in various places to induce farmers to grow grain for the nation. The farmers were greatly influenced by the combined effect of the speeches and posters, and even most simple-minded cultivator began to feel the likelihood of there was some ulterior motive behind the whole campaign.
One advertisement had become especially well known in Shivpalganj. It showed a healthy farmer with turban wrapped around his head, earrings and a quilted jacket, cutting a tall crop of wheat with a sickle. A woman was standing behind him, very pleased with herself; she was laughing like an official from the Department of Agriculture.
Below and above the picture was written in Hindi and English – ‘Grow More Grain’. Farmers with earrings and a quilted jacket who were also scholars of English were expected to be won over by the English slogans, and those who were scholars of Hindi, by the Hindi version. And those who didn’t know how to read either language could at least recognise the figures of the man and the laughing woman. The government hoped that as soon as they saw the man and the laughing woman, farmer would turn away from the poster and start growing more grain like men possessed”.
Extracts of translation from ‘Raag Darbari’ by Shrilal Shukla. The satire is set in a village Shivpalganj in Uttar Pradesh in the 1960s.
The text book goes on to say how the situation got worse in the mid sixties forcing Lal Bahadur Shastri (LBS) to coin the slogan “Jai Javan Jai Kisan”. That was because as we were fighting an internal battle against poverty and low agricultural yield, Pakistan invaded India. India won the war in the field. But we remember LBS for the slogan he coined rather than for his acts. Indira Gandhi took over the reins of the Government. To quote from the NCERT text book:
The agricultural situation went from bad to worse in the 1960s. Already, the rate of growth of food grain production in the 1940s and 1950s was barely staying above rate of population growth. Between 1965 and 1967, severe droughts occurred in many parts of the country. As we shall study in the next chapter, this was also the period when the country faced two wars and foreign exchange crisis. All this resulted in a severe food shortage and famine – like conditions in many parts of the country.
It was in Bihar that the food-crisis was most acutely felt as the state faced a near-famine situation. The food shortage was significant in all districts of Bihar, with 9 districts producing less than half of their normal output. Five of these districts, in fact, produced less than one-third of what they produced normally. Food deprivation subsequently led to acute and widespread malnutrition. It was estimated that the calorie intake dropped from 2200 per capita per day to as low as 1200 in many regions of the state (as against the requirement of 2450 per day for the average person). Death rate in Bihar in 1967 was 34% higher than the number of deaths that occurred in the following year. Food prices also hit a high in Bihar during the year, even when compared with other north Indian states. For wheat and rice the prices in the state were twice or more than their prices in more prosperous Punjab. The government had “zoning” policies that prohibited trade of food across states; this reduced the availability of food in Bihar dramatically. In situations such as this, the poorest sections of the society suffered the most.
The food crisis had many consequences. The government had to import wheat and had to accept foreign aid, mainly from the US. Now the first priority of the planners was to somehow attain self-sufficiency in food. The entire planning process and sense of optimism and pride associated with it suffered a setback.
To quote from “Confronting Agrarian Crisis: Historical Food Insecurity, the Indian State, and the Green Revolution” by Joseph A. Arena, an American Student of Political Science and History from an Article published by FAO (2004)
“In addition to these political difficulties, the Indian state’s economic planning apparatus deliberately retarded its own efforts to increase agricultural productivity by relying heavily on agricultural imports under the American PL 480 “Food for Peace” program. The Indian government described the first PL 480 imports in 1956 as ‘buffer-stocks’ that could be placed on the market in the event of a shortage, reducing the temptation by speculators to horde stocks in times of crisis. In reality, the government used food imports to subsidize increasing consumption in the expanding urban sector through ‘fair price shops’ and free rations. This was in keeping with the strong shift away from agricultural investment to heavy industry under the Second Plan, which had begun that year.# While this system met a minimal level of demand, imports under the program spiraled: escalating from 3 million tonnes of wheat in the first purchase agreement (1956-59) to 16 million tonnes of wheat in the fifth (1960-1964). In 1966, imports of cereals soared to 10 million tonnes for that year alone in the face of famine conditions in Bihar, Orissa, and Rajasthan.# While swift action by the government enabled the avoidance of mass-starvation, this crisis reinforced earlier signals to India’s planners that the strategy of relying on imported food the make up the gap between domestic production and consumption was becoming unsustainable. Indeed, there was a positive correlation between increasing domestic harvests and increasing imports. This dependency emerged as a threat to national sovereignty as the Johnson administration made an unsuccessful attempt to use PL 480 shipments as a lever to move Indira Gandhi’s government toward supporting American military effort Vietnam.# Rising imports also created a domestic political liability to the government in its relationship with the farmers lobby, who believed, rightly, that the imports program was using imports to keep crop prices down.# For economic, political, and national security reasons, the preferred strategy of India’s economic planners, importing food to supply industrial expansion, was no longer feasible.”
The response of the Indian State as summed up by the NCERT text book:
“The Green Revolution
In the face of the prevailing food-crisis, the country was clearly vulnerable to external pressures and ependent on food aid, mainly from the United States. The United States, in turn, pushed India to change its economic policies. The government adopted a new strategy for agriculture in order to ensure food sufficiency. Instead of the earlier policy of giving more support to the areas and farmers that were lagging behind, now it was decided to put more resources into those areas which already had irrigation and those farmers who were already well-off. The argument was that those who already had the capacity could help increase production rapidly in the short run. Thus the government offered high-yielding variety seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and better irrigation at highly subsidised prices. The government also gave a guarantee to buy the produce of the farmers at a given price. This was the beginning of what was called the ‘green revolution’.
The rich peasants and the large landholders were the major beneficiaries of the process. The green revolution delivered only a moderate agricultural growth (mainly a rise in wheat production) and raised the availability of food in the country, but increased polarisation between classes and regions. Some regions like Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh became agriculturally prosperous, while others remained backward. The green revolution had two other effects: one was that in many parts, the stark contrast between the poor peasantry and the landlords produced conditions favourable for leftwing organisations to organise the poor peasants. Secondly, the green revolution also resulted in the rise of what is called the middle peasant sections. These were farmers with medium size holdings, who benefited from the changes and soon emerged politically influential in many parts of the country.
Not surprising is the fact that the unconnected article by Joseph A Arena comes to the same conclusion:
The origins of the decision, to focus on absolute increases in yields instead of tying yield gains into a larger scheme of land reform and rural development, had its origins in the research, experimental development projects conducted by private philanthropy. A hallmark of this was the 1959 Ford Foundation report which declared:” This is a report of India’s food crisis. It reaches the inescapable conclusion that an immediate and drastic increase in food production is India’s primary problem of the next seven years.” While Indian officialdom criticized the report as ‘overly alarmist,’ and continued to allocate agriculture a low priority of the budget (fourteen percent in the Third Plan),# the Ford Foundation set about demonstrating a new and more aggressive scheme of development focused solely on yield increases. The aptly named Intensive Agricultural Development Program began in the best agricultural districts of each State during the 1960-61 period. While this program did not utilize true HYV’s, it did offer improved seed varieties, fertilizer, pesticides, technical advice, and credit. In doing so the IADP was in keeping with the strategy of ‘population national security theory’ exemplified by the conclusion to the Rockefeller Foundation’s Strategy for the Conquest of Hunger concludes:
To conquer hunger is a large task. To ensure social equity and opportunity is another large task. Each aim must be held separately and pursued by separate action . . . if the pursuit of production is made subordinate to these aims (equality), the dismal record of the past will not be altered.
There was no time to be concerned about such niceties as income distribution, unless food supplies were imminently increased, economic collapse (and communist insurgency), were sure to follow. By the mid 1960s, faced with shortages, inflation, angry farmers, the Indian government of was willing to listen to this advice, and put the full weight of the state behind Rockefeller and Ford’s endorsed strategies
The general thrust of mine was to say that we have evolved policies not with great ends in mind but more in reaction to the situation of the moment. This imbalance in Agricultural growth is a necessary evil as realised by both authors, one an official text book approved by the Educational Council endorsed by the UPA government and the second an article published by FAO (of UN), even if the American author is otherwise highly sympathetic to the Indian cause. But over the last generation we have failed to address this imbalance resulting in Maoist activities where ever the positive effect of the Green Revolution has not reached.
If Green Revolution was the first major “Leap Forward”, the Education Revolution and the IT / Technology Revolution it fuelled has been the second major revolution. But this has in some ways had a similar effect. To use Rahul Gandhi’s famous words, we now have two Indias. The Indians who belong to the Middle Class and higher who can dream of growth and a secured future. And the other set of Indians whom the Government wants to perennially keep in poverty so that they would vote them to power.
In the last few years the UPA Government has sunk atleast Rs. 70,000 crores into this project. I came to this conclusion based on this table. The table says Work Completed has a cost of Rs. 19,890 Crores while work under process costs around Rs. 50,402 Crores. There is no indication as to the date on which this table was made. In fact the website has elaborate set of links yearwise. But if you take the pain of going through yearwise data you will be shocked to find that same set of data is given for all years from 2007-08 to 2011-12. The Bankruptcy of ideas can no longer be hidden considering the kind of work that is being taken up under NREGA. The latest to be added is “BNRGSK” – The Bharat Nirman Rajiv Gandhi Sewa Kendra. It involves building :
At the GP level, there will be a meeting hall to accommodate approximately 50 people, a room to accommodate the GP office requirements and another room for public interface and ICT services. The toilet will be located outside the building. A stepped, low cost open amphitheatre is proposed near the BNRGSK building to be used for public functions, IEC, large assemblies. On a broad estimate the covered area for the BNRGSK is approximately 130 sq.metre (inclusive of toilet). The overall cost of the GP level BNRGSK should not exceed Rs.10.00 lakh under MGNREGS budget.
At the Block level there will be a meeting hall to accommodate approximately between 80-100 persons, a room to accommodate the Programme Officer’s office, another room for public interface and ICT services. The toilet will be located outside the building. The structure should allow future construction on the first floor. On a broad estimate the covered area for the BNRGSK is approximately 290 sq.metre (inclusive of toilet). The overall cost of the Block level BNRGSK should not exceed Rs.25.00 lakh under MGNREGS budget.
The funding would be as follows:
The source of funding for the construction would be:
a. For the BRGF districts – the material component may be met from BRGF and the labor component from MGNREGS. In case, the material resource support from BRGF is inadequate, the same can be incurred under MGNREGS provided the material component does not exceed 40% at the district level.
b. For the non-BRGF districts, MGNREGS would be the main source. The material component can also be supplemented by other schemes. The maximum expenditure that can be incurred under MGNREGS to construct BNRGSK building at block and Gram Panchayat level would be Rs.25 and Rs.10 lakhs respectively. Expenditure over these ceiling would be borne by the State Governments. The labor material ratio of 60:40 is to be maintained at district level.
As per current available records 1,610 buildings have been built at a cost of Rs. 116 Crores (Cost per Sq. Ft – Rs. 805) and another 18,509 buildings are under construction where expenses incurred amounts to Rs. 700 Crores (Cost Per Sq. Ft already at Rs. 804). For the uninitiated which would include almost all readers BRGF refers to Backward Region Growth Fund. So the UPA government is spending the BRGF fund in building beautiful buildings so that it can house offices which would plan to keep people engaged in non productive activities. For this the total expenditure to date is around Rs. 70,000 Crores.
Imagine how much Schools could have built with this money. The useful infrastructure that could have been created. But then if you feel upset go back to the first few paragraphs. This was written much before most of us were born. We are yet to learn our lessons. At least the future generations might. And even if they learn it would be at the cost of not several thousands of crores but after keeping a generation of Indians at mere subsistence level.