Is India’s rural transformation a mirage?

India's Rural Transformation Mirage

Is the government’s rural thrust really working?

Seventy years since Independence and the rural-urban divide continues to remain wide in India. By now, the gap should have narrowed significantly since government after government have been claiming that the gap is narrowing and continue to throw statistics to back their claims. There is a contradiction and a serious one.

Speak to any politician from any party that has ruled at the centre or state level, and they will vociferously defend the development work conducted by their party when they were or are in power. But the fact is, rural India continues to remain way behind in the quality of life it deserves and what has been achieved thus far.

Outwardly, life has indeed changed in many parts. In rural India today, one can see signs of what some may claim development. Yes, there are many more people using mobile phones, TVs have arrived in many homes, more people wear jeans and sneakers now and more homes are made of bricks than mud, as was the case couple of decades ago.

So, if rural India has indeed transformed for the better then why are people still moving away to semi-urban and urban areas looking for work? Why has the so-called agrarian revolution not changed rural India in the way one witnesses in China? (The latter has managed to achieve that in just three decades since opening up their economy!) Is it even fair to compare with China, when there are enough stark examples right here in India?

So, have we got our rural policy correct or is rural transformation a mirage that government seems to be chasing but not achieving?

Oh, Statistics!

There are facts on the ground and then there are statistics churned out by the government. First, the stats. There is obviously a lot to be desired given contradictory data released by the Census and National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) carried out between 1999-2001 and 2011-2012.

Majority of India resides in rural India and most are directly or indirectly involved with agriculture. So any development work carried out in rural India should have positively impacted rural life and economy. Positive impact would translate into higher rural incomes, driven by higher returns from agriculture and better quality of life. If that were indeed the case, migration to urban areas should actually be coming down and not going up.

A close study of the data released by the Census and NSSO for the decade stated above reveals that as per Census, the total Farm workforce (in rural India) increased from 234.10 million to 263 million between 2001 and 2011, thereby marking an increase of 28.90%. This should imply higher incomes in agriculture was arresting migration to urban areas and encouraging more people to join farming, directly or indirectly.

However, the NSSO data for the same period reveals that total Farm workforce actually declined from 240.3 million to 224.80 million, a decrease of 15.5%. This shows that rural incomes were declining and therefore resulting in more migration of Farm workforce to urban areas in search of employment.

This directly contradicts government’s claims that development work carried out in rural areas, including modernization of agriculture, was resulting in increasing incomes and by extension, improving the quality of life in rural India. Clearly, we have a problem between the two arms of government contradicting each other. After all, India’s statistical credibility is at stake.

Trying to make sense of the contradiction

A research study undertaken by two labour economists of IIT Delhi, M.P. Jayesh and Jayan Jose Thomas, have undertaken an exercise to unravel the contradiction between the two surveys and their research has come up with a possible explanation.

According to them, the difference in outcomes between Census and NSSO data can be attributed to definition of what comprises ‘Farm workforce’ and those that ‘migrate’ to urban areas for a certain period in a year, only to return later. Most of those that are employed in the farming sector for a few months migrate to urban areas seeking employment in labour-intensive areas like construction but when demand drops, they return to their villages and farming.

The classification difference between Census and NSSO of this segment has resulted in contradictory picture emerging. That may well be the case, but statistics apart, the gap between the quality of life in rural and urban India continues to remain wide, and in some interior tribal areas, life hasn’t really changed at all these 70 years. That is the ground reality.

The facts about rural India 70 years on

  • While large section of the population can just about read and write, a significant section still remains illiterate.
  • Most of those that fall under ‘basic literate’ category have extremely poor awareness in areas such as basic math and fundamental rights.
  • Most of the youth can’t speak in English, India’s business language and are therefore denied equal opportunity to employment in urban areas.
  • Very poor educational infrastructure, teacher-student ratio and teacher quality.
  • Infant deaths continue to remain high.
  • Nutritional health in growing children continues to remain poor.
  • Diseases caused due to poor quality of drinking water and poor hygiene continues to take a high toll.
  • Women’s health, education and rights remains a low priority.
  • Most don’t have access to good quality medical facilities.
  • Open defecation continues in large parts of rural, semi-urban and parts of urban areas.
  • Large parts of India remains without electricity, and where available, is inconsistent and available only for a few hours in a day only.
  • Despite increasing per capita output in agriculture and high retail rates for agricultural output, income levels of farmers continues to remain at unsustainable levels and left out of the benefits of the value addition chain.

The gap remains

So irrespective of what the data claims, India has clearly failed to transform rural lives and economy. While on one side we have factual growth in terms of industrial development, nuclear plants, IT transformation, advances in medicine and pharmaceutical industry, mostly in urban areas, the nation has failed to bridge the gap between urban and rural India.

It is indeed ironical that while the country accepts that India still remains a largely agrarian economy and continues to employ the largest number of people, we have skewed the priority of investment and development in favour of urban areas, at the cost of rural India.

We have lived for 70 years in the farcical dream of a socialist democratic India but these have remained political jargons for the academia. The reality is on the ground and that’s a truth we have to contend with the next time we open our mouth claiming we are on our way to becoming a regional super power. Besides ‘Make in India’, it is time to ‘Wake up India’.