Originally Published 2004-06-28 04:09:11 Published on Jun 28, 2004
The accompanying politico-administrative changes apart, Elections-2004 has caused the mid-course review of the economic reforms, seeking to introduce the missing "human face", about which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had begun talking about while in the Opposition.
Budgetting for the Poor
The accompanying politico-administrative changes apart, Elections-2004 has caused the mid-course review of the economic reforms, seeking to introduce the missing 'human face', about which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had begun talking about while in the Opposition. At ground-level, this means re-focussing national energies at the rural and agriculture sector, which has been allowed suffer at the height of the economic reforms, though the former process had begun even earlier. 

In political terms, the 'E-4 Factor', as Elections-2004 will be remembered, may have identified some of the elements to the 'anti-incumbency paradigm' that has affected the outcome of most elections in the country over the past decade and more. That they have an economic content to such elements, as different from socio-political influences of the past should be heartening the social scientist, and threatening the political class. For, economic aspirations are not goals in themselves after a time, and are only a means to an eternally receding end, which cannot be met. 

Yet, the political class could take heart this time from the fact that the poor of the nation have not set any new goal for them, but are only slowly but surely and silently reminding them of the goals once set - and forgotten - by them. With that also went the social responsibility of the State and the political rulers. It went in for a six in the name of the Government facilitating, and not funding, economic growth and prosperity. By promising a 'New Deal' to rural India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may have only promised to re-invent the wheel, which remains forgotten and at the bottom-end, now. 

The case of the agriculture sector is a case in point. While a lot of noise is being made about subsidies for power and fertilisers, what is often not mentioned is the forgotten governmental commitment to increase and improve irrigation facilities across the country. Goals have not only been not met over the past decades, they are not even been set any more. In the place of Governments planning, funding and executing huge reservoirs and hydro-power projects at a cost that no community or corporate could afford, you now have individual farmers being forced to dig bore-wells across the country, at a personal cost. 

Incidentally, even water-sufficient States are not free of the phenomenon, as the State has simply shun its elementary responsibility in a nation where 70 per cent of the population still depend upon farm-related activity for sustenance. It looks as if India has simply stopped planning for irrigation. This has also become a major contributory factor for the increasing problem of drinking water availability in many new parts of the country, that  too at a time when available surpluses in normal to heavy rainfall years are allowed to drain out into the seas. A reservoir in place, with doses of water-releases through deepened canals, and renovated tanks-and-lakes systems would not only help store the rain water, but would also help replenish the ground water when doses of stored water are released in seasons and years of poor rainfall. If public funding was a problem, public sector funding, on the lines of the Konkan Railway Project, should not be. 

If one accepts that 'starvation deaths' of the kind now being reported from agriculture-centric States like Andhra Pradesh is a social malady with elements of avoidable militancy inter-woven into it, then again the cause could be traced back to the neglect of irrigation by the Government sector. Digging bore-wells, that too in desperate years of drought, has meant heavy borrowings from the local money-lender. 

There is of course an attitudinal problem, though. Non-payment of credit obtained earlier from nationalised banks under populist schemes like the 'loan mela' of Janardhan Poojary meant nothing to the farmer, but in the case of money-lender, it has meant social stigma and the possibility of name-calling at the door-steps, thus contributing to mass suicides by families. Such a course thus contributed to the farmer joining the farm labour in an unwritten suicide-pact, as earlier only the latter used to be affected in years of drought and consequent unemployment. The State neglect of irrigation only contributed to expanding the debt-net, and thus the suicide-net when unpredictable rains became unavailable. 

That way, the contribution of the political class to the erosion and corrosion of the cooperative movement in the rural sector cannot be gainsaid. If over the years, the hijacking of the cooperative societies and the cooperative banks by the political class has now contributed to the failure of the movement as a whole, that should not be held out against the farmer. The Government that has worked towards reviving public sector banks, which had nearly gone under thanks to excess corporate lending that was not meant to be replaced in the first place, and has been working towards the streamlining of 
the stock markets, did not undertake the correctives in the farm sector, as the reforms regimen has had urban-orientation and rural-neglect as its unwritten liet motif. 

A revival of the irrigation schemes and the cooperative movement in rural areas should open up windows of opportunities for growth and employment, not just in the rural sector but across the country. Urban-based education in engineering and farming technology would get a boost, so should attendant courses in agriculture marketing and animal husbandry, if Government seeks to modernise the rural sector without having to privatise it, instead. 

The same goes with the artisans' class, who have all but vanished from the face of States, where uneven education without employment has made educated courier-attendants and call-centre assistants of their children. The accompanying demand for social recognition and self-esteem has won, in the absence of their economic uplift, locally, over the years. The situation threatens to spread across to other States, where again the concept of education without employment has been spreading. 

If the process has halted somewhere, it's because the Government has stopped spending on education in the rural sector, and the increasing needs of, and demands for urban education is being attended to by the private sector. This has once again contributed to an urban-rural divide of the kind that 'Democratic Socialism' as State policy has sought to bridge to a great extent. Only that the baby too was thrown out with the bath-water in the hey days of economic reforms - again, for no fault of the reforms process, which should have addressed processes, and not necessarily the policies in all cases, as turned out to be the case. 

It is in this context that the ambitious project for the inter-linking of rivers needs to be viewed, or reviewed, without being thrown out outright for political reasons. There are lands to be irrigated, water to be drunk, jobs to be created and grains, fruits and flowers, to be produced and consumed, stored and exported. The drought of the past years has created a mood among the public about the need for sharing prosperity as the inevitability  of having to share poverty. The Supreme Court may have created the environment for an unbiased and articulated evaluation of the project, without it getting embroiled forever in debates of political oneupmanship.

This also means that the project need not be necessarily on the lines as was being conceived. For, any project that provides for harnessing available water for the common good of the nation without letting it seep through into the seas should be welcome. The arguments against the once-emerging project on the environment and other fronts too may have some validity, but they too have not been verified or tested against a final report, which had not been readied. Such reservations may be check-points, and none, including the authors, need to think that they are a check against the project itself.

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