Census shocker: Rural India is a bleak house

Life is indeed nasty and brutish for the poor in India's villages, but all is not lost yet

Census shocker: Rural India is a bleak house

While urban India gloats over the news that the country has emerged as the fastest growing, as well as a $2- trillion economy, it is time that it does some introspection. The first set of data from the 2011 Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) reveals that rural India lives in poverty and deprivation. The monthly income of the highest-earning member, in about 75 per cent of the total rural households numbering 17.91 crore, is below Rs 5,000.

In many cases, the entire family may be subsisting on that income. What can this paltry amount buy these days!  Only less than nine per cent are fortunate to have a household member earning more than Rs 10,000 a month. On the job front, just one in 10 households has a wage-earner with a salaried job. The news that many of the farmers are in debt, and when unable to repay some of them are driven to commit suicide, adds further gloom to the picture.

If we take into account that 30 per cent of rural households depend on cultivation for their livelihood, which is unprofitable, unproductive and monsoon-dependent, and that another 50 per cent are living on manual labour, we will realise that their future too looks as bleak and grim as their present. Most worrisome is the census finding that 10.69 crore families come under the deprived category.

Poor lessons from schools

The picture that emerges on the education front is equally appalling. Less than 10 per cent of rural residents have crossed higher secondary education, and only 3.4 per cent of rural households have a graduate as a family member.

The fact that independent India has conducted such a census for the first time is even more appalling. According to reports, such a census was carried out way back in 1932! The country has rolled out 11 five-year plans and spent crores and crores of rupees on much hyped poverty alleviation programmes without proper data for all these years! At least now, we have SECC findings that provide actionable information for policy makers to understand and come to terms with the magnitude of deprivation in rural families. This is the situation that prevails in rural India which accounts for 17.91 crore households out of the total 24.39 crore households in the country, and, therefore, represents the true India.

New initiatives, such as Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) of 500 existing mid-sized cities, building 100 smart cities, 100 gW of solar power, Digital India, and SKILL INDIA augur well and raise hopes that better days are ahead for rural India. All these initiatives do have a bottom-up approach component embedded in them that is necessary for addressing some of the crucial issues that confront India.

Building of smart cities and transformation of existing ones will involve massive construction activities which can draw people currently involved in manual work and those who do not find agriculture rewarding. They, however, need to be suitably trained. The SKILL INDIA programme aims to meet this requirement by training over 40 crore people by 2022. Making electricity available to rural areas will improve quality of life and make the rural poor more productive. If India can seriously generate 100 gW of solar power, it will change the entire profile of the global electric power industry. Setting up of rooftop solar power plants and maintaining them will power job creation in rural India.

Also, the farming community can improve their productivity by using solar operated pumps. Other programmes that focus on economic activities like consulting, engineering, and transportation will create jobs for the rural poor outside their traditional farming profession. Urban India, which has reaped the initial benefits of the economic reforms of the last two or so decades, should realise that far better days await them if the impoverished rural India can also progress alongside. Strengthening the bottom of the pyramid is important for the country’s future. The rural poor are truly the ones feeding all of us. Those who remember and those who have read about the days when people had to anxiously wait for ships bringing wheat to India to berth at our ports know how beholden we are to our farmers.

(The author is an independent industry analyst/columnist and business consultant)

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