A Chinese Road for ‘Rural India’

Sagarika Ghose’s Farming the Colonial Dream  purports to be a criticism of policy makers, “leftist intellectuals and politicians” as well as certain type of journalists. In essence what the article suggests is that wasteful schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) need to be discarded, agriculture needs to be liberalized and mass migration from rural hinterland encouraged to enable the people to move into manufacturing.

In the course of her ‘argument’, Ghose takes a few potshots at un- named “celebrated journalists who have made the “rural areas” into their personal visiting cards” as well as “careerists of poverty, the vote-seeking politician, and the westernized romantic.” There is nothing in the article that, however, suggests that she herself belongs to a different universe. Perhaps as not to be accused of being a ‘Westernized romantic’ herself, she deftly alludes to the Chinese way where mass migration from the villages to the cities is ostensibly paving the way for the uplifting of the impoverished rural masses.

After having disarmed the windmills, Ghose goes on to demolish the NREGS lock, stock and barrel for an aim which was never intended for the NREGS. She accuses the NREGS of “ignoring a basic right of every Indian, that is the right to migrate …The right to migrate is an inalienable right and applies to every Indian equally.” Not just that, “according to the NREGA, the rural poor must stay trapped in their socially unequal and violent villages, and undertake meaningless exercise in earthworks to be then handed a paltry wage”.

Wow! The NREGS seems to be having a dramatic impact on rural India !  This, however, is not really the case. Recent reports, suggest that the scheme with Rs. 15,000 crore in its first year has been nothing short of a failure benefiting just about 7- 10 percent of the intended beneficiaries (link). (Jean Dreze and associates on NREGA).  She herself is closer to the mark when she acknowledges later in the same article that “the NREGA, at best is a semblance of a safety net for the absolutely destitute, that those surviving by eating worms on riverbanks, can be assured of some food for a few days, if that.” If that is the case why accuse it of holding back the “rural masses” from the urban paradise in the first place?

One, however, cannot disagree with Ghose’s assertion on the “socially unequal and violent village”, but the urban landscape hardly offers a better picture for the migrant poor. With the prices of houses in cities sky rocketing, even the middle classes outside the IT and BPO sector shudder at the thought of owning a flat. For the urban poor, in the absence of any worthwhile housing schemes by the government, the situation is deteriorating fast. In the 1980s and 1990s, China was alone in the developing world to construct decent housing for the urban poor. Even then, the population of slum dwellers in China is as high as 193.8 million, or 37.8 of the urban population, compared with India’s slum population of 158.4m constituting about 55.5 percent of urban dwellers. (Planet of Slums by Mike Davies, page 24).

Worse still is Ghose’s recipe. Liberalize the agriculture sector, she says, which for her means abolishing ceiling laws that impact the farmers’ mobility. Not a word for the landless, not a word for land distribution as if something like land reforms did not exist. If at all it exists, it does so only in the sense of ‘buying and selling of land’. While accusing others of ‘glorifying a monolithic rural India’, she herself does no better.

What does one do for those who do not own any land at all? Though the landless do not seem to exist in her article, implicitly Ms Ghose’s recipe for them is to send them to the cities, along with those smart farmers who can now easily sell off their land under a liberalized agriculture. In that, Ms Ghose discovers the solution in China. 

Follow the Chinese path, she declares. No, not that of the Chinese Revolution but its counter- revolution in the era of ‘colourless cats’:

That only 20 per cent of our GDP comes from an occupation in which 60 per cent of Indians are trapped against their will, should wake up the babus and ministers to the fact that agriculture equals poverty and the only way out is to follow the Chinese example by creating avenues to allow the millions to move out of agriculture into mass producing industry. China has done exactly this with tremendous success. The descendants of Mao have got over their “farmer glorification legacy” far quicker than us.

The trouble with those who call for copying China today is that they want the thin icing without the cake, that is to copy everything minus the Chinese Revolution itself !

She ignores what is practically an urban nightmare in China. Overwhelming migration from rural areas, a reversal of the 1960s forced migration, has led to increasing social problems. While uprooting the people from their villages and providing cheap, unprotected labour in a country that does not permit forming of labour unions for unrestricted exploitation so severe that in many areas, there is a reversal in trends with people migrating back to villages (link). The example of the Chinese peasants who are ostensibly migrating to the cities to become productive clogs for industries manufacturing everything from diapers to electronics for the Western consumers, is a cruel joke which would be hilarious were it not just sad in its implications.

To the chimera of the rural migration to Chinese cities, this is what Li Changping has to say in his essay The Crisis in the Countryside (One China, Many Paths ed. Chaohua Wang, page 213-14):

But the new regulations also meant that the peasant could not alter his or her rural registration status. Economically they ensured a huge supply of cheap labour to developed regions along China’s coastline, as some 80 million peasants rushed to join its booming cities. Socially, however, the result has been a set of injustices that have got steadily worse. …”

In the same book He Qinglain (page 179-80) points to the increasing tendency to form criminal gangs in urban China.

The large number of wandering peasants in Chinese cities and suburban areas are also a well- spring of various forms of criminal activity in the PRC today. The majority- over 75 percent- of criminals in big cities such as Beijing, Guangzong and Shenzhen, are non- resident ‘three-have-nots’. …three demographic features defined these peasant offenders. The majority- 64.5 percent were unmarried; most- 59 percent- had criminal skills; and not a few- 16.5 percent- had been in jail before… the most shocking finding of the survey, however, is the changing motivation behind peasant criminality in recent years. Previously, many peasants displayed clear signs of psychological imbalance, which had led to conflict with the law without any deliberate aim of challenging it. By contrast, majority of those caught after 1996 had committed crimes with the conscious intention of breaking the law and defying moral prohibitions. ‘Since other people are living a highly enjoyable life’, one prisoner said, ‘I, who am lonely and impoverished, should be able to find some stimulus and relaxation too.’

That is the direction that the Chinese path leads to. This is at a time of an overall boom in the manufacturing sector and the absence of a recession in the developed world, which is what has sustained China’s growth. One wonders what the situation will be at a time of decline.

Whatever be Ghose’s motivations for such a misdirected ‘solution’ for rural Indians, the fact is that rural India has always subsidized the city. Those who claim that India needs to move away from its ‘socialist’ past are actually treading an extreme version of broadly the same path as the ruling classes have followed since Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, using whatever little pretensions it had to being ‘socialist’, as a punching bag.

The fact is that the total outlay for rural development is measly as compared to the incentives given to the industry that is producing some of the world’s richest people even as the rest patiently await their promised trickled down share. In a recent article, economist Kamal Nayan Kabra observes that the “public expenditure on rural development … in the Net National Product that used to be 3.6 percent for a population of 70 percent has come down after liberalisation and is just 2.7 percent…. Similarly, the share of total public expenditure in agricultural and allied activities, including irrigation and flood control, that used to be 37 percent in the First Plan total expenditure has come down to 16.5 percent in the Tenth Plan period.” In contrast, the corporate tax foregone (Rs. 50,000 crores in 2006-07) by the Union government last year is only trivially less than the total amount spent by both Union and state governments on all rural development schemes. (link)

People like Ms Ghose would like the amount for rural development to come down further so that the largesses can be given to urban India. Perhaps in her universe, all urban Indians own companies. In reality the corporate beneficiaries are not even one percent of the population.

But then, perhaps it does not matter.

Related Post: An Alternative to Globalization

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Albert Camus

This BBC talk on Albert Camus reminded me of my own enriching encounters with the writings of the Algerian born French existentialist many years ago.

Existentialism did not appeal to my primarily Marxist leanings, not even Sartre’s philosophical works and his attempts at synthesis of Marxism and existentialism had any long lasting impact, though the writings of Sartre, Beauvoir and Albert Camus instigated one to think critically. Even then, it was their literary works that held greater appeal. Some of the most influential works I was introduced to after having read the English and Russian classics, were those by these three writers. Camus, especially his novels The Outsider, The Fall and The Plague opened up a new landscape for me. In case of Sartre, I found his literary works like Nausea, very difficult to read. Funnily, his philosophical writings (like the supremely unreadable A Critique of Dialectical Reason) appealed more, despite their languid dreariness.

Sartre was a hero for us, mainly for his political stands and the fact that he continued to be a Marxist of sorts. Camus, on the other hand, despite his one time membership of the Communist Party (or perhaps because of it, some would aver) disowned Marxism, and was hence pretty much dismissed as a renegade. The only major philosophical work that I remember reading, with some trepidation, is The Myth of Sisyphus (of which my friend Rahul Banerjee is very fond of, incidentally.) The absurdity that the French existentialists spoke of did not strike a chord even then.

However, lately I found reading some of Camus’s philosophical works like The Rebel, Resistance, Rebellion and Death to be rather pleasant, which is perhaps a reflection both of the distance I have traveled since, and also the relative obscuring of ideological debates and dilemmas since Camus’s times.

It is still difficult to accept the ideological and philosophical positions of Camus, and as the talk on BBC radio indicates, Camus’ literary writings will rightfully outlive his philosophical works.

(Link to the BBC Talk via the excellent blog Ready Steady Book blog that I discovered today).

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Globalization or Americanization Index?

India 2nd least globalised economy: Report

Is there something wrong in this Globalization Index for 2007 published by AT Kearney, or am I missing something?

The only country in the the top 20 in terms of population that figures in the list is the United States, with the exception of United Kingdom, the world’s 20th most populated country. Countries at the top of the population list (China, India) are way down in the GI.

The AT Kearney methodology is less well documented than another comparable one- that by KOF, though the latter results also follow the same pattern- the United States is ranked 19th and the United Kingdom and France make it to the top 20 ranked 4th and 6th respectively, but none of the other high population countries make it to the top 20 Globalization Index list.

The KOF index methodology is more detailed and some of the indicators included may help to understand the pattern- besides the count of the internet connections which in itself is reason enough to influence the results significantly, one of the measures used are the number of McDonalds outlets in a country!

As an additional cultural proximity we thus include the number of McDonald’s restaurants located in a country. For many people, the global spread of Mcdonald’s became a synonym for globalization itself. In a similar vein, we also use the number of Ikea per country. (page 2 of the methodology document)

GI    Country            Population          Country                  Population
1    Singapore                 1                China                     1,315,840,000
2    Hong Kong                2                India                     1,103,370,000
3    Netherlands              3                United States            298,210,000
4    Switzerland               4                Indonesia                 222,780,000
5    Ireland                     5                Brazil                       186,400,000
6    Denmark                   6                Pakistan                   153,960,000
7    United States            7                Russian Federation    143,500,000
8    Canada                     8                Bangladesh              141,820,000
9    Jordan                      9                Nigeria                    131,530,000
10    Estonia                  10               Japan                      128,080,000
11    Sweden                  11               Mexico                     107,030,000
12    United Kingdom       12               Vietnam                    84,240,000
13    Australia                13                Philippines                84,210,000
14    Austria                  14                Germany                   82,690,000
15    Belgium                 15                Egypt                       74,030,000
16    New Zealand          16                Turkey                      73,190,000
17    Norway                  17                Iran                         69,520,000
18    Finland                  18                Thailand                   64,230,000
19    Czech Republic       19                 France                     60,500,000
20    Slovenia                20                 United Kingdom        59,670,000

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Scavenging the Sticky Glue

What struck me in this story about scavenger children using improvised boats and magnets to collect coins from the Yamuna river in Delhi, was this comment by Dr Shreekant Gupta, professor at the Delhi School of Economics:

According to Dr. Shreekant Gupta, a professor at the Delhi School of Economics specializing in the environment, factoring in the cost of environmental damage in India would shave 4 percent off of the country’s gross domestic product. Lost productivity from death and disease (water-borne diseases are India’s leading cause of child mortality) are the primary culprits.

“Some of this feeling of euphoria gets a bit dampened thinking of environmental degradation,” says Gupta. After environmental corrections, he puts India’s rocketing 9 percent annual growth rate at a mediocre 4.5 percent.(link)

Lack of regulations, and a still worse record in implementing them is one side to the story, a change in paradigm going away from centralised form of disposing the effluents is another. It is amazing that while governments display excessive triumphalism in inviting FDI, neither the multinationals nor the international agencies prescribe any sort of regulations on environment.

The story in India is not unique, as more and more production moves offshore to countries like China and India, the exploitation of natural resources pushes more and more people in these countries to the brink. A recent World bank report has suggested that close to 500,000 people in China die because of air and water pollution.

In a recent inspection of 529 firms along the Yellow, Yangtze and other major rivers and lakes, 44% had violated environmental laws, while almost half of the 75 waste water treatment facilities underperformed or did not work. Zhou said some waterways resembled “sticky glue”.(link)

But this is not too bad if compared with the conditions in Africa which bears the brunt of environmental change.

Despite contributing under 5% of the global amount of the six key greenhouses gases, Africa is one of the continents most vulnerable to climate change, a recent United Nations report on climate change found.Between 75 and 250-million people in Africa are expected to face even greater water shortages by 2020 as a result of climate change, the report said.

“It’s not enough to stop pollution now,” Worthington told Deutsche Presse-Agentur. (link)

Cross posted at How the Other Half Lives

The news inside the gaffes

Two news items in the last two days made me see things more carefully than I would have had there been no gaffes in the headlines.IBN Live carried a headline: China is India’s best neighbor. The news item, however puts it differently:

Describing China as India’s “greatest neighbour”, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Thursday said that New Delhi wanted the “strongest relationship” with Beijing.

Well, there is a difference between being the greatest and the best: the greatest is not necessarily the best.

In another report in The Hindu, the headline “G8 pledges to lift Africa out of poverty” is misleading since the news item- in fact, the sub- text itself says something else. The sub- text says:

$60-billion plan to fight AIDS, tuberculosis

While the news report further clarifies:

“They say $60 billion for AIDS, TB and malaria and it sounds great, but that’s not earmarked for Africa, it’s a global figure and there’s no timeline,” he said. The G8 agreed during its summit on a programme worth more than $60 billion in aid, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. However, in its final communique, the amount pledged had no timeframe and did not specifically single out Africa as the beneficiary.

Removal of poverty from the continent will have to wait. Even in the time of globalization.

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Inside the Mind of Mao

(On the eve of the 57th anniversary of the foundation of People’s Republic of China)

Sidney Rittenberg was the only American ever to join the Communist Partyof China, working closely with Mao while translating his works into English.

His interview published in Al Jazeera sheds interesting light on The Great Helmsman who may be dead but whose presence looms large as various groups lay claim to different aspects of Chairman Mao’s thought as it evolved from the days of the Long March to the disastrous Cultural Revolution.

Understanding the mind of Mao is also to understand the reversal of the socialist revolution in China.

Understanding the mind of Mao’s is to also understand the mind of the “Communist” leaders in China today, as they go about building capitalism, in the words of author Wang Anyi, “with the enthusiasm of a proletarian revolution.”

Excerpts from the interview:

SR: I think it was his own ideology in Marxist clothing. Not that he was not a sincere Marxist. But his view of Marxism was to take dialectic materialism and use it to analyse Chinese reality and then develop a Chinese programme.

He had no interest in copying what was done in the Soviet Union or any other country.

In the days before the PRC [People’s Republic of China] it was whether the Chinese revolution would depend on the peasants or urban industrial workers. And the orthodox Soviet line was that Marxism belonged to the proletariat. There was no Marxism in the mountains they used to say. The peasants are backward.

But Mao said when the Party educates the Chinese peasants they could be just as good revolutionaries as anyone else in the world. That was the bedrock of his thinking.

AJ: Mao has been revered across the world. Why, and does he deserve it?

SR: I don’t think he deserves reverence.

I think he deserves acknowledgement as a serious historical leader at a certain period and he needs to be studied, both the good and the bad.

And I think he was not content with seeing China plod along. He wanted to see China advance to a prominent position in the world during his lifetime and I think he became overly ambitious.

He said in 1958 at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward that he would use the strategy and tactics of a people’s war and not use the Soviet way of brick upon brick to build the economy.

This was totally unrealistic and resulted in this huge man made famine.

I think it was what went on inside his head that was the problem. His plans during the Great Leap to catch up with Britain and America met with opposition from almost all his sober-minded colleagues. This awoke the conspirator and narrow envious peasant in him.

Link via Naxalrevolution

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Made in China, or China Unmade

Amleft has this post on China and concludes:

One wonders, however, whether the time for a peaceful evolution has passed, given the intransigence of the regime, the support of international finance capital and the general disinterest of social justice groups in the US. With the exception of the colonial period, China has frequently made its own history, often in a turbulent way, as shown in the 20th Century through the Boxer Rebellion, the May 4th movement, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Some China scholars contend that there is a stubborn tendency towards utopianism in Chinese society that leads to an excessive embrace of new ideas and policies, to the extent that they are adopted ruthlessly and uncritically, only to be abandoned in equally ruthless fashion. Deng’s departure from Maoism promised a break with this practice, as did his unceremonial funeral, but his naive promotion of capitalism in his later years may ultimately be recognized as a poisonous weed that facilitated its return.

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