Forget cities, India needs smart villages

At a time when villages in India are being abandoned, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojna. Although, since independence, successive governments have worked for rural development, “there were hardly a few villages that each state could be proud of. This shows that there was something extra that the leadership and people in those villages had done, beyond government schemes,” PM Modi said in his address.

Laudable words, indeed. But at the present rate of urbanisation, it is expected that 50% of India’s population will live in the cities by the next 15 years. By 2050, more than 70% population – some studies point to an even higher percentage exceeding 90% – will live in cities and towns. With this kind of a demographic shift, the country is expected to have the largest number of mega cities, big cities and towns in the world bustling with people.
A UN study points to a harrowing scenario. By 2050, those who migrate to urban areas will be living in just 2% of the country’s land. In other words, while the villages will be empty, the urban population will be crammed in the cities. I cannot predict what kind of sustainable living will be in vogue some 30 years from now when a large chuck of India’s land will be devoid of human population. Mainstream economists may applaud this, but I think there can be nothing more dreadful.

For the economists, this is the ultimate economic reform. I recall Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Raghuram Rajan saying that the ultimate reform will be when people engaged in agriculture are moved to the urban areas. Niti Aayog deputy chairman Arvind Panagariya, too, supports the same thought. I am not surprised because this is exactly what the World Bank, way back in 1996, had directed India to do. It had spelled out a roadmap for India’s economic growth, which was largely based on moving 40 crore people out of farming in the next 20 years, by 2015. Such a massive translocation of the population, according to the WB, was the only way to rescue people from poverty.

The economists are simply parroting the World Bank’s line. Emptying villages is considered a growth imperative and governments have merely followed the directive. Instead of shifting focus to the village economy, efforts have been made to create economic conditions such that more and more people abandon farming on their own and migrate to the cities looking for menial jobs. The simplest method to push for rural-urban migration has been to starve agriculture of adequate financial support and keep the farmers impoverished by giving them low prices for their produce.

For the 60 crore farmers, the budgetary allocations have been paltry. In 2013-14, agriculture received Rs 19,307 crore in the annual budget, which is less than 1% of the total budgetary outlay. In 2014-15, it fell to under Rs 18,000 crore. This year, despite the hype, budget allocation for agriculture has been raised by merely Rs 4,000 crore over the previous year’s allocations.

Agriculture neglected
In the 11th Five Year Plan period, a total of Rs 1 lakh crore was given for agriculture. In the 12th Plan, it was enhanced to Rs 1.5 lakh crore. Compare this to the lavish spending on industry. In this year’s Budget, industry has received a tax concession of Rs 6.11 lakh crore. This is in addition to all the financial allocations it has received under various heads. Since 2004-05, industry has been given tax concessions to the tune of Rs 48 lakh crore.

Unfortunately, in the race to achieve a higher GDP growth, what is being overlooked is that the path to economic growth and development for all actually passes through the villages. Instead of evacuating the villages, the economic policies should be so designed to turn them into a growth engine. Instead of building 100 smart cities, the thrust of the policies should be on creating 1 lakh smart villages. I, therefore, suggest a few economic measures that can bring back the focus on strengthening village economy.

Since a large proportion of the population is engaged in agriculture, directly as well as indirectly, it is important to turn farming economically viable. This will require financial support for setting up rural infrastructure, including more resources for a network of regulated mandis, rural godowns and irrigation.

As former president APJ Abdul Kalam had opined, provide urban amenities in the rural areas. Facilities like educational institutions, colleges, hospitals, along with agri-based industries in the villages as well as at the block level will create opportunities within rural areas, thereby drastically reducing the migration to urban centres.

Focus should shift to making villages self-reliant as far their food security needs are concerned. This would require amalgamating the provisions under food security law with farming systems. Every cluster of villages at the block or tahsil level should be encouraged to follow the principles of ensuring local production, local procurement and local distribution.

I am sure Mahatma Gandhi, the great visionary, would have endorsed this plan. We need 6.4 lakh smart villages today, so that our future generations remain eternally grateful that we left them with sustainable living conditions.

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