Rural strategy critical
By Dhurjati Mukherjee
Discrimination in India has greatly affected our society and widened social and economic inequality. Besides, we witness another form of discrimination, wherein those in power have the ability to stall or delay justice when they are on the wrong side of law. A recent reiteration of this malady is manifest in Lakhimpur Kheri, where the Uttar Pradesh government demonstrated its seemingly scant regard for democratic norms and justice, leaving the protesting farmers further disheartened, but determined.
One effect of the conception of the rule of law is the legitimation of the idea that state infrastructure, including the law, can be used without accountability against its political or social opponents, thus sharpening the inequality. The big question that the Lakhimpur Kheri incident raises amongst others is whether the farmers, rather the society will hit back and give a befitting reply in the ensuing UP Assembly electionsto the ruling BJP?
It is said that public memory is short and that in the polls next year the incident may be forgotten. But the party in power and that at the Centre will obviously be on its guard and will need to ensure it retains power and is not impacted and that it reaches out to the electorate; in this case the farmers with a rural strategy.
Without delving deeper into the question of what effect it may have on BJP’s poll prospects, it is vital to note that such form of violence witnessed has only aggravated the discrimination against the poor farmers protesting against the agriculture bills and for their rights. One may also note that such violence aggravated by the State found its critique in Mahatma Gandhi’s utopian idealism long back.
Not surprisingly, therefore non-violence became for Gandhi a non-negotiable element of his idea of freedom, which is manifest in the year long struggle of the farmers. The logical fallacy and anachronism involved in such attempts notwithstanding, it must be admitted that Gandhi like Marx, was pointing to truly fundamental issues of human life and the right to live with dignity. This then brings us to the question of right to life as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution.
Recall that the Supreme Court gave a new dimension to Article 21, in the Maneka Gandhi vs Union of India (1978) case. The highest court of the land held that the right to life is not merely a physical right but also includes within its ambit the right to live with dignity. Another broad formulation of the right to life with dignity is found in Bandhua Mukti Marcha vs Union of India (1997) case. Characterising Article 21 as the heart of fundamental rights, the court expanded its interpretation. Justice Bhagwati very aptly observed: “It is the fundamental right of everyone in the country . . . to live with human dignity, free from exploitation”.
This obviously points to the fact that the poor and economically weaker section do not enjoy right to life with dignity, though governments speak volumes on the subject. The main reason for this is the wanton neglect of the rural and backward areas in spite of various programmes launched by the government. Also it is interesting to note that a section of analysts are against subsidies or welfare programmes although they are silent when facilities are extended to corporate or business houses for industrial projects. Also there is little effort made on recovering the massive amount that big business houses have erred on and not repaid to banks for years together.
The crux of the problem is that rural development has not received priority in India’s development strategy. To make things a little clear, it means that since over 60 percent of the population lives in villages, at least 30 to 40 percent of the total budget expenditure should be earmarked for rural and semi-urban areas. But this has not been the case and successive governments have not bothered to examine the state of education, health, sanitation etc. and especially the incomes of the majority who live there.
The obvious question before us is what needs to be done and what is critical. Recently, an analyst observed that agricultural labour needed to be curtailed and used elsewhere, signifying that it be used in industry or services sector. But he either did not know the extent of current unemployment and underemployment in these sectors nor had adequate knowledge about how agriculture could be modernised and diversified for higher profits.
The obvious strategy that needs to be adopted is to revive the rural economy and incomes of the people through a human-centred approach “to survive in a carbon neutral, digital age and affords them dignity, security and equal opportunity. It must also meet the changing needs and challenges facing businesses and secure sustainable economic growth”, as outlined by the Global Commission on the Future of Work.
First, there is a need to invest more in people’s capabilities — this means establishing an effective life-long learning system that enables people to skill, reskill and upskill, a system that spans early childhood and basic education through to adult learning. Other than the farmers, the informal workers and small business too need to contribute and benefit in the sound formal economy and this can only be possible in the country, if the government comes out with a well-designed action plan to promote labour-intensive sectors. But a significant financial allocation has to be made to really make this sector viable.
Secondly, more investments by the Centre are required in the institutions of work, including the establishment and implementation of a universal labour guarantee. Workers in the informal economy have to be given support in a big way, not just by providing finance but also technological inputs for their products so that they become acceptable in the domestic and also international market.
Thirdly, agriculture and agro-based industries have to be modernised and diversification of value added crops should be experimented with. The Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) would have to make contact at the panchayat level to ensure technology, particularly seeds and fertilizers to help small farmers diversify crops for higher incomes. Of course, productivity increases have to be taken care of, especially in districts where it is lower than the national average.
Finally, the thrust of the new policy has to be on rural transformation and not aim to become the strongest military power globally, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated on this Vijaya Dashmi day. We must not forget that India occupies the 101st position on a list of 116 nations in the 2021 Global Hunger Index with even Pakistan and Bangladesh being better off. A proper judicious rural development strategy can change the power matrix in the country. Protests and violence need to be countered with empathy and the will to work for a robust society.—INFA