Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Is Gram Swaraj workable?

"The centre of power is in New Delhi, or in Calcutta and Bombay, in the big cities. I would have it distributed among the seven hundred thousand villages of India... There will then be voluntary cooperation— not cooperation induced by Nazi methods. Voluntary cooperation will produce real freedom and a new order vastly superior to the new order in Soviet Russia... Some say there is ruthlessness in Russia, but that is exercised for the lowest and the poorest and is good for that reason. For me, it has very little good in it." 
- Mahatma Gandhi

K A Badarinath

Gandhi envisaged a 'bottom up' setup while India went for 'top down' organisation. In top down system, the villagers form the bottom of the pyramid and supporting the elite at the top. 

Ever imagined what would have happened if our country had, instead of mixed economy, adopted Gandhi’s concept of Gram Swaraj? Was the concept so outlandish that it would end up in the dustbin of history? 
We would not get a clear answer for the first question because it is still in the realm of hypothesis. But, one thing is clear: our experiment with the Nehruvian model of socialist economy failed miserably. Of course, it was bound to be a disaster — Milton Friedman, noted economist, had predicted it in 1955.
 “This policy (mixture of village handicraft units and heavy industries) threatens an inefficient use of capital by combining it with too little labour labour at one extreme and an inefficient use of labour too little capital at the other extreme.” 
Before analysing whether it is a workable concept we should understand first what Gram Swaraj is. Gandhi wanted to place the village at the centre of the country’s social, economic and political organisation. Simply put, the basic concept of Gram swaraj is that every village should be its own republic. Each village should be basically self-reliant, making provision for all necessities of life -- food, clothing, education, sanitation and so on.  
But the political leadership at that time did not see any merit in this argument. Jawaharlal Nehru believed centralised, large-scale, heavy industry were essential if India was to develop, increase its wealth and become a modern state. 
For him, the power should rest with the centre. He was averse to sharing power with villages. Gandhi envisaged a ‘bottom up’ setup while India went for ‘top down’ organisation. In top down system, the villagers form the bottom of the pyramid and supporting the elite at the top. 
This skewed policy has been hurting the social and political system of the country. Even in the distribution of national and natural resources, this disparity is visible. The government do not show any urgency to help the farmers in distress while it goes out of way to support the industry.  
Gandhi favoured production by masses instead of mass production. He disapproved of a system that was exploitative and accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few individuals. When asked to respond about American auto maker Ford’s plan to decentralise his industry by setting up innumerable smaller units in villages where villagers would run them, he said, “…. because while it is true that you will be producing things in innumerable areas, the power will come from one selected centre. That, in the end, I think it would be disastrous. It would place such a limitless power in one human agency that I dread to think of it. The consequence, for instance, of such a control of power would be that I would be dependent on that power for light, water, even air, and so on. That, I think, would be terrible.” 
Gram Swaraj cannot remain a mere slogan or concept that is alien to modern Indian society and economy at large. It could play a more effective role vis-à-vis the present system of doling out mercies in the form of MGNREGA or Old Age Pension to toiling villagers through central schemes.
It has new meaning and application to Indian economy and society at large given sweeping changes in the ethos, culture, political dispensations at all levels, social moorings and economic liberalisation. It suits more in the liberal economy, which the nation has today. The system of artificially collective public money at the national level and then redistributing them at the grassroots is just the antithesis of what liberalisation means, as it breeds corruption and wastage of scarce resources.
Many of us tend to limit this concept of ‘grassroots empowerment’ to a slogan adopted by few Gandhians or ‘bhoodan’ and ‘godaan’ movements of Vinobha bhave. Had this been in operation and had the founding fathers of new modern and Independent India given thought over it, the concept could have given dramatic results.
Yes, the concept of empowering rural people first envisaged during pre-Independence days when Mahatma led the charge against imperialistic British rule. For him freedom was not limited to shift of power at the central or state level from foreigners to Indians, but his moorings were entirely into converting India into a nation which was free from hunger, exploitation, illiteracy etc.
After 65 years, post-independence, the concept is more relevant given the fact that centralized economic planning and Nehruvian economic model has failed this country, people and its vast population in the rural landscape that total to over 1.22 billion. To prove this point one can cul out figures from the government statistics itself, as on any of the social indicators, it’s the rural India, which is more impoverished than the urban areas.
As we move to beginning of twelfth plan during 2012-17 and fourth finance commission is being constituted, a serious look at our economic model is clearly a must.
Percolation or trickle down of economic resources controlled at centre to over 6.25 lakh villages has failed miserably thereby denying basic life supporting infrastructure to over 660 million people that live in them.
Interestingly enough, vast chunk of these resources totaling over Rs 14,00,000 crore are collected from these very areas and later shared by states and centre.
De-control of resources to district centres, blocks and villages has turned the biggest challenge as the centralized planning and states turning into implementation bodies has failed and has not yielded results. Also, except spending resources on maintaining the corrupt bureaucracy, nothing substantial has happened beyond the district centres. In some far flung states, even district centres are no different from the villages at lowest level and farther most that may not have seen any official visit.
Centralised planning & dictating economic and development schemes has also taken away the basic right of people in villages to have a say in ‘governance’ and prioritizing as well as designing the development projects for their communities. Control on the resources has also gone or been denied to people who create wealth, food and fodder for the vast populace. Given the straight jacket centralized planning, the communities at village level do not have the leeway in innovation in a project that would suit them while saving costs and ensuring their participation.
Either ‘babus’ sitting in Yojana Bhavan design a development project without having clue as to what is the ground realities or state secretariats do their bit without consultation at lowest level. Even if they claim to have seen the villages, they still fail to feel needs of villagers.
Consequences of this failure in centralized economic planning and Nehruvian model of ‘trickle down’ in resources has a huge cost that the nation has to pay.
First, even today, majority or over 70 percent of Indian population has not been able to earn its bread. And, it does not earn even $ 1.25 per day considered cut off limit by World Bank to cross the poverty line. Most people do not have access to Rs 26 per day that our own ‘Tuglak’ planners think enough to determine as to who continue to be below poverty line or otherwise.
Second, large-scale migration of rural population especially able-bodied workforce in droves is yet another phenomenon that may not reverse in a hurry notwithstanding the rural employment guarantee schemes and the likes. 
Large parts of Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, rural Maharashtra and Gujarat apart from Madhya Pradesh and Uttrar Pradesh continue to move to concrete jungles that we call metropolis.
Third, centralized planning with aid and abetment of states has ensured that rural folks do not have any control on its own land, water and forest resources leading to revolt by the farmers across the country led by eminent Gandhian PV Rajagopal.
Given the situation prevailing in the country and the way mixed economy is pursued by Indian society, it seems that the market has played truant on the people from both sides – socialism and capitalism. 
In both the cases resources are being controlled by a few either in the form of state representatives or capitalist. In both the cases controllers of the resources first ensure their own greed and then allow the wealth to trickle down to the common mass.
Fourth, village panchayats and even block offices have just become outposts of district collectorates without fiscal and administrative powers to ‘do or not do a project’. 
And then “sahib” culture creeps in, where freedom of choice is skewed in favour of those sitting in authority and the beneficiaries have to content with what is given to them – good or bad.
Fifth, vulnerable sections of rural people especially the tribal communities have been marginalized to starvation while the farm sector continues to reel under siege of apathetic centralized planning run by insensitive bureaucracy. 
Sixth, control of vast resources and productive assets has got concentrated in few hands that look upon our villages without heart and soul but as ‘lucrative markets’ to sell their ware.
It is in this context that eminent social activist Anna Hazare’s recent remarks that ‘Gram Sabhas’ become socially and economically empowered bodies assume large significance. Parliament and State legislature bodies be just representative of these village bodies may be laughed off by many of policymakers as ‘trash’.
One need to take clue: villages become the centre of all socio-economic activity i.e. resources generation, their management and channeling into rural & economic ‘high-yielding’ projects with productive work for indigenous population is what has been prescribed.
Former President Abdul Kalam’s vision 2020 document clearly puts village at the centre of our development model thereby up-turning the Nehruvian system of ‘trickle down’. Problem however continues to remain there, as the question is who will plan and execute the lofty idea of Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas (PURA).
Question is, will the Centre and states allow village Panchayats to collect taxes or will they allow finance commission to include villages also to share the resources of the nation. 
Are not we failed to develop villages into manufacturing hubs so that villages can turn toward self-sufficiency? Had this had happened villages would have turned into revenue centres and thus prosperity could have been created and enjoyed locally.

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