Saturday, August 20, 2016

Smart village mission not the option for rural development

                                                 G Sreedathan 

Kerala-born Jinnet Mathew had been running a successful business in rubber products in Bengaluru for more than two decades. But when competition increased, he started feeling the pinch. Expenses started mounting and profits were dwindling. He decided to sell off his properties in the city and settle in a remote village in Kerala. With the proceeds he managed to purchase a reasonably large parcel of land in a village and started cultivating rubber and fruit and vegetables. It was a tough decision for the businessman to transplant himself and family to a village. But what gave him confidence was his passion for agriculture and love for rural life and his innovative ideas and expertise in marketing.  Unfortunately, nothing of these came to his rescue. After ten years of his rural experiment, he regrets his decision.  He sold a portion of his land to pay off loans and is exploring possibilities of shifting to a city for the education of his children. “Agriculture is the only worthwhile option for a person moving to a rural area and if it is not profitable what can one do? Farming can become sustainable only with the government support,” he insists.
In the Indian context, reverse migration – migration from cities to villages – is very rare. In almost all cases, of which I have the first-hand knowledge, those who migrated to villages returned to urban settings after a brief rural sojourn. Many complain that it takes several weeks for a simple courier consignment to reach the destination in a rural area. There is not even a semblance of health care facilities in many villages. The romantic ideas about villages will be shattered the moment you step into a village, many say.  
Our planners, decision-makers and media have a clear urban bias. In most cases, villages find mention in our mainstream media for all wrong reasons.  An estimate shows the mainstream media gives less than 5% of its space for rural issues. Rural areas find mention in reports only when there is a macabre crime or mishap or some undesirable events in those places.  It’s an irony that all governments since Independence have invariably proclaimed that their main mission was to improve the condition of the farmers and rural people. Still the rural sector continues to present a picture of squalor and impoverishment.  This is not to deny the great strides India has made in the field of agriculture. The Green Revolution has made us self-sufficient on the food front. Although many innovations have been introduced, the pace of improvement and technological intervention in agriculture has been very slow. Besides decline in land holding per farmer and other factors have made agriculture a loss-making proposition in most parts of the country. This has cast a shadow on the rural economy and overall standard of life of the rural people.
According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data, over two-thirds of households in rural India still depend on firewood for cooking. In contrast, a similar proportion of households use liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for cooking in urban areas. A rapid survey on the Swachchata Status conducted by NSSO during May-June 2015 shows that in rural areas, the percentage of persons going for open defecation was 52.1 per cent. The survey was conducted in 3,788 villages and 2,907 urban blocks.  The Census 2011 shows rural literacy rate is below 70 per cent while in urban India it is 84.11 per cent. The 70th round of the NSSO Survey on Household Assets and Liabilities has revealed that the average value of the assets per household in rural areas was found to be Rs 10.07 lakh while the corresponding value in urban areas was Rs 22.85 lakh. The difference in the average asset holding of the top and bottom 10 per cent was as high 50,000 times in urban areas.
Our cities are not free from problems either. About 31 per cent of India’s current population lives in cities. By 2030, the population in urban areas is expected to touch 40% of India's population and contribute 75% of India's GDP by 2030. Keeping this in mind, the Narendra Modi government launched the Smart Cities mission to improve the physical, institutional, social and economic infrastructure. These measures, if implemented in right earnest, would improve the quality of life of people and promote growth. There is no doubt on that.
Does that mean that a similar smart village mission is the way forward for Indian villages? Not at all. Huge investments and infrastructure projects proposed in the Industrial Policy of 1991 that heralded economic liberalisation in India had been the precursor to the establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs). We have witnessed how private entrepreneurs and big businesses grabbed agricultural lands from poor farmers and pushed them into the margins of urban centres as migrants.  The governments either facilitated or remained mute spectators to this naked land grab. This policy triggered huge unrest in many areas. The Central government could have doused the fire by making farmers also stakeholders in those SEZ projects. But it did not do. Therefore, what we need is not huge infrastructure investments in rural and backward areas that will result in uprooting of the farmer and divest him of his meagre income.  What the farmer needs is better access to credit, markets and technology that will enhance his income and remove hardships.  The government should also create job opportunities in other sectors so that under-utilized workforce in the farm sector could be gainfully employed and rural households could enhance income.  
Having said that, some elements of the smart cities project such as digital and information technologies can be adopted for effective delivery of services and establishing market linkages for farmers.  I would conclude this by narrating an experience of Jinnet Mathew who got Rs 3,000 just by selling just 2 kg of an indigenous banana variety to a Japanese customer through an online platform.  In the local market, he could have got only Rs 40 for the same!

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