India has been developing through successive five-year plans and progress on many counts – the Human Development Index, etc – has been achieved. Still, there is a lot to be worried about as large sections of people remain poor despite a fast decline in poverty levels and increase in average consumption, wages, incomes. Inequalities, including relative poverty, have risen fast and have been thwarting the efforts to reach basic needs, skills and employment to the poorest.
In this context, the government’s intent to double rural incomes by 2022. This is a credible and doable measure in the background of past experiences: according to the Shimla labour bureau, rural wages have risen between 24.1% and 106.5% across states between January 2008 and December 2010; and a related finding by the NSSO is that rural per capita spending rose 6.3% annually during 2004-10.
We must deepen this general improvement in wages and consumption by incorporating a real, irreversible thrust to rural development overall. This implies not only agriculture and related activities but also other types of economic activities like trade, service and industry, adding value to the general output of rural goods and services.
Here, too, we have seen that for many years now, there has been more than 50-60% rural GDP issuing from non-agricultural activities — transport, construction, warehousing, trade, market maintenance, government service, medical aid, laboratories, travel, ferrying to schools and hospitals, etc.
These have been increasingly adding to incomes of the rural people and to the general decline in poverty; the number of poor has declined by 12.5% during 8-10 years till 2012, according to estimates from international agencies.
Even though the rural people sustaining agriculture are said to constitute 50% of the population/labour, their income is abysmally low on account of the fact that hardly 14% is the contribution to GDP from agriculture and is declining as a proportion, though not in absolute terms; for example, the production trends of grain, milk, vegetables and fruits are steadily rising.
We have to achieve a doubling of real incomes, not mere monetary or numerical incomes. For this, productivity and production have to increase many times over in many ways, and quickly, too. Quality of manpower has to improve; schools, polytechnics, ITIs and other rural agencies cognate to manpower training have to be earnestly improved and endowed, including modernising of training in response to emerging needs.
For example, training of the needed paramedics in rural areas according to the emerging needs, and servicing of farm equipment, earth moving equipment, tools in the construction industry, etc., have all to be imaginatively put in place; it is not enough to make budget allocation announcements, but actual manpower and physical equipment have to be readied and provided. This is a part of the much bandied or clichÃ©-esque “thrust on governance”.
Boost soil fertility
From the point of view of agricultural development and needs of the country’s growing population regarding grain and superior foods, we have to increase soil productivity/fertility and the economy and availability of decentralised irrigation. Executing MNREGA with vigour and imagination holds the key to this.
The allocation of Rs 48,000 crore is welcome and is just a small increase from last year’s (2016-17) revised allocation of Rs 47,499 crore. This allocation has to increase taking into account inflation and the need to avoid wage payment delays.
The MNREGA wage acts as a benchmark wage, ensuring improved wages to agricultural/rural labour, a necessary device to double real rural incomes. These activities are known as absorbents of unskilled labour and women labour and as largely ways to refurbish village waterbodies, levelling of land and restoring water flow ways.
These water bodies will have to be maintained with a view to increasing water-holding capacity and regular supply of silt to improve soil fertility, particularly in view of manifest harm due to increased or reckless use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Green and dung manure have to be used or re-traditionalised so that farm productivity will soon increase manifold.
Improvements in rural roads and markets in the Indian village precincts are a sure way to provide and spread demand to agricultural produce. Faster and frequent transport connecting all rural hamlets to nearby towns will add to the income prospects of the poorest in villages and potential unemployed drifting into urban uncertainties.
In situ improvements in the all round, farm and non-farm productivity in the country’s poor and rural pockets are a sure way of doubling villagers’ incomes. The 2017-18 Budget has raised high hopes regarding reducing poverty and doubling of incomes. Will the government live up to its promise?