Bull-headed about India
By PRAFUL BIDWAI
Current Western euphoria over India's growth betrays total ignorance of realities like the 100,000 farmers' suicides.
IF asked to identify the single most distressing recent revelation about India, I would not hesitate to cite a figure that Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar placed before the Rajya Sabha on May 18: no fewer than 100,248 farmers committed suicide between 1993 and 2003, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. This staggering number is more than twice the upper-end estimate made by some of the most trenchant critics of the country's post-1991 agricultural policy, and more generally economic policy.
The figure captures in a shocking and heart-rending way numerous aspects of Indian reality as few statistics do: acute agrarian distress caused by falling returns from agriculture (especially cereal farming), coupled with debt and usurious interest rates, and occasionally, crop failure. It also reveals a grave policy failure at a time when agriculture is running up against both an economic and an ecological barrier, with disastrous rates of topsoil loss, spreading salinity, and erosion of micro-nutrients, together with rising input costs. The causes of the crisis include dependence on energy- and water-intensive farming methods, growing chemicalisation of agriculture, and unsustainable cropping practices (for example., a rice-wheat-rice cycle in Punjab, whose soils cannot support it). However one looks at it, the crisis is grave.
It is hard to think of a parallel in history where such a large number of farmers have resorted to self-destruction in response to even worse crises. The mass-scale suicides speak of distress of frightening proportions. They point to a situation of helplessness and lack of survival possibilities in rural India and, above all, to a social pathology based on certain notions of honour, guilt and responsibility to the family, and punishment for acts not of one's own making. Only extreme desperation can impel people to take their own life. They also betray recurring government failure to take remedial action - even after nearly 18,000 suicides in 2002.
The suicides, then, are a damning commentary on India's recent economic performance and policy and our society and politics. Yet, the suicide story has not received the media attention it deserves. For a media that is bent on doing "sunshine" stories on "flavour-of-the-month" India and celebrating its "emergence" as an "economic superpower", it can at best have limited use.
This is evident today not just in India, but in the West. In my four recent trips abroad, I was struck by headlines unblinkingly describing India as the "back-office of the world" (although all our information technology-related services form a minuscule proportion of the economy and employ less than a quarter-million of our half-billion-strong workforce). Equally noticeable were euphoric reports on India's boom and wide-eyed admiration for our consumerist elite. If the "India Shining" campaign could somehow be re-launched today in North America and much of Western Europe, the BJP would win the election.
For the West today, India is seeing a "New Dawn" (the caption of Time-Asia's latest cover story and the theme of recent prominent features in The Economist and on BBC-World). It is not just bullish, but bull-headed about India. India is often paired with China despite obvious differences. It is credited with a new energy, ability to pull off frenetic growth, and a gigantic capacity to innovate and create everything from microprocessor chips and nanoparticles to pipelines and giant rockets.
China may have the advantage of low wages and long working hours, but India is seen to have skills thanks to a "superior" education system and (grossly exaggerated) accomplishments in science and technology. India's virtues are supposedly further enhanced by democracy and even the rule of law.
This is a complete inversion of the image of India the Western media painted for decades - with poverty, illiteracy, snake-charmers, sadhus and elephants as the main motifs. The new image will inevitably permeate into our media, as ill-informed but favourable opinion from the West generally does. Those who blithely call India a "knowledge society" despite a third of the population being illiterate will rave about such "overdue" recognition. The elite will strut about with even more hubris.
A reality check shows that recent growth has left the lives of most Indians unimproved, while widening income, regional and sectoral disparities. Some numbers bear recalling: declining food security and per capita cereal availability (on annual average, 7 kg lower in the last five years than a decade ago), widespread malnutrition (9 out of 10 pregnant women, and half of all children), rising joblessness (employment growth lags one percentage-point behind addition to job market), persistently high poverty ratios, and a failing healthcare system. Some of this is captured in India's embarrassing rank of 127 in the U.N. Human Development Index (out of a total of 175 nations). Clearly, the prospect for the majority remains bleak, at least under the existing policy regime.
The UPA government's policies which are influenced by
the IMF and the Worldbank have turned the age old
Jai Jawan ,Jai Kisan slogan on its head to its new
avatar in the the 21st century
Murda Jawan ,Murda Kisan .