Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Monday, Dec 30, 2002
Columns - Vision 2020
Vision 2020 The power of mobility
P. V. Indiresan
RECENTLY, the Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, wondered why there are starvation deaths in the country at a time when the granaries are full. Fortunately, starvation deaths are so rare that they make headlines. They could be an aberration. On the other hand, malnutrition is endemic. Hence, the Prime Minister could have asked a more basic question: Why is there so much malnutrition when the country is sitting on top of a grain mountain?
People are starving not because there is not enough food in the market but because they have no money to buy it. It is not a supply problem but a demand problem. The solution is not more food as the Prime Minister has promised but more employment. The Government knows it. As a remedy, it has offered in the past food-for-work but not with noticeable success. In most cases, the work given is of the "one group digs holes and another fills them" variety. Nothing that is tangible results. The scheme is ideally suited to promote leakage rather than relief. We need genuine employment, the kind that meets a market demand, not artificial ones.
As an alternative, the government may sell grain at lower than the procurement cost until everybody is fed. The financial cost may be bearable if that aid is confined to the deserving poor. Unfortunately, it is quite impossible to isolate the deserving poor. It is not possible to maintain, for identically the same commodity, a high price for the rich, and a lower price for the poor. Then, the rich will inevitably use their clout to filch what is meant for the poor.
A dual price system can be maintained only where the goods are different in some way. The Adivasis of Orissa survive on mango kernel. They can afford to eat mango kernel because the rich do not want any of it, and it is a waste product. On that analogy, the government can promote the cultivation of two kinds of grain one kind for the poor, and another for the rich. In a way, it happens in the case of Basmati rice. Only the rich buy it. To the extent the rich do so, they do not encroach on the demands of the less rich. If we can identify a kind of grain that only the destitute will buy, and others will not want, even when given free, the problem will be solved. The government can then subsidise that particular grain only without fear of the rich encroaching.
Unfortunately, in that case, the poor will face competition from animals. Any grain good enough for humans will be good enough for animals. The government cannot lower the price for select humans only because animal owners will then corner that grain, and use it to supply eggs, poultry, and meat and cheaply too to the rich. That will force the government once again to incur heavy losses. Hence, the only viable solution is to create employment for all, employment that pays well enough for even the poor to buy grain at market prices.
Incidentally, starvation deaths are reported only from remote villages, never from towns. There are three reasons why that is so. One is that such stories are easier to circulate and more difficult to contradict in the case of remote, inaccessible villages rather than from well-connected towns. Two, as Dr Amartya Sen has pointed out, famines do not occur under democratic governments because of public pressure, which operates more effectively in easily accessed localities than in remote villages. Further, in populous areas, the government will be alerted early enough to take corrective action. It will also take prompt remedial steps for fear of consequences. There is another, and a more important reason: Towns generate employment better than villages can. The destitute can at least beg in towns. In their own village, they may not be able to do so either because the others are too poor to give, or because of social stigma.
If this argument is correct, rural-urban migration can be one remedy for both malnutrition and starvation deaths. However, people cannot migrate if they lack information about how they can do so, where they can stay, and what they can do once they get to the town.
That is why beggars are found not singly but in groups drawn from closely-knit communities. Within the community, information is shared; outsiders are left out. The same is true of working immigrants too. Only those who have contacts in the town (or in the US!) succeed best. The lone immigrant is a rare phenomenon; immigrants come in droves. Hence, the destitute are not merely poor, they are also too ignorant to know how to migrate.
Remoteness is a double curse. It makes it difficult to move; worse still, it increases ignorance. A village ceases to be remote only when it is connected to a large market, when its inhabitants can reach the market in a short time. In the hills, there are remote villages even though they are within sight of a large town only because there is no provision for vehicular traffic. On the other hand, villages that lie on busy highways are not remote even when they are tens of kilometres away from a large town. Remote villages cannot access the job market of the town, but connected villages do so as a matter of course.
Mobility is power. The film Bicycle Thieves, an immortal classic of Vittorio de Sica, highlights how in the immediate post-War Italy, the bicycle empowered the poor to secure and retain jobs. India is in a similar predicament now. The bicycle expands the horizon at low cost. It allows fast movement, often faster than buses on crowded roads. Then, suppose we let villagers hire cycles as and when they desire, pick and release the cycles as needed, and where convenient. Then, with cycles available on demand, many more villagers can reach the market as and when they desire and within a reasonable time. Once villagers become mobile in this fashion, they are empowered to access jobs in the town. Further, cycles have the advantage that they need only tracks not broad roads. Villagers themselves can build such tracks at next to no cost.
Rural roads, rural buses, rural cycles will check rural destitution because they will empower the rural poor both directly by generating employment, and indirectly by multiplying it.
The government does have a Gram Sadak Yojana for rural roads but it is not working well. As the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister pointed out in last week's National Development Council meeting, that scheme is mired in bureaucratic red tape because the Centre's prior permission is needed on a case-by-case basis. On the other hand, in States like Bihar and in the North East, any money granted for such schemes is diverted and gobbled up by corrupt politicians.
Hence, the Centre needs a method to check misuse without putting a break on honest initiative. The trouble is, the Centre insists on prior checks, and checks only inputs, not outputs. Instead, the Centre should guarantee payment on completion; ensure that the cost is reimbursed within a month of the completion of a rural road, or a bus service or a cycle hire service provided only they are up to prescribed specifications, specifications that are transparent and simple to verify. Then, honest State governments can go ahead confidently, but dishonest ones will not be able to cheat. Cycle hire is cheap. It can be established quickly. Just as STD booths have empowered the richer villagers, a network for cycle-hire will empower much poorer villagers. If the government provides low-cost finance, it should be possible to let cycles on hire for a mere Rs 2-3 at a time. Poor villagers can risk that kind of a fee even if (like half the rural population) they cannot buy a cycle of their own. Making the rural poor mobile by organising an extensive and affordable system for cycle-hire is an unorthodox but useful method of curbing malnutrition.
This scheme may not work miracles. Still, it is worth trying as an experiment at least because it promises well, and costs little.
As little as a couple of crore rupees will suffice to flood an entire Rural Development Block with cycles. In any case, popularising cycles will be more beneficial than the more fashionable exercise of distributing sewing machines free.
However, no general scheme will eliminate individual destitution. There are beggars even in rich European countries with extensive social welfare.
Governments are ill-equipped to tackle such individual aberrations. Hence, instead of funding expensive officials to tackle extreme destitution, the government should aid private charity to do so. My own preference is to entrust that task to grain merchants: Aid them a little and hold them responsible for feeding the destitute. I say so because merchants have an innate psychological compulsion to provide charity. In contrast, bureaucratic officials rarely suffer from qualms of conscience.
(The author is a former Director, IIT Madras. Response may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org)
Stories in this Section
The Hindu Group: Home | About Us | Copyright | Archives | Contacts | Subscription
Group Sites: The Hindu | Business Line | The Sportstar | Frontline | Home |
Copyright © 2002, The
Hindu Business Line. Republication or redissemination of the contents of
this screen are expressly prohibited without the written consent of
The Hindu Business Line