The suffering of millions does not create public outrage, much less government accountability.
The people of India’s villages carry collective memories of centuries of calamitous losses of sometimes millions of lives in famines. Famines have been pushed into history, unarguably one of free India’s greatest accomplishments. But the same can’t be said about droughts, which continue to extract an enormous toll on human suffering.
At least a third of the residents in India’s countryside are battling drought — many for the third consecutive year. Near-zero yields, sinking groundwater levels, drying streams and reservoirs have resulted in a massive slowdown in agricultural growth — it grew by minus 0.2 per cent in 2014-15, with no imminent signs of recovery. For millions of farmers, especially the small and marginal ones who are most dependent on rains, there is little food and almost no work alternative. The rural reality is stark: Around 55 per cent of households have no land at all, and are entirely dependent on manual labour to provide food to their families. But outside farming, there is little work available in the countryside.
The human consequences of this massive distress movement of people are inestimable. This should be intolerable in a country that boasts of being the fastest growing major economy in the world, with stocks of foodgrains in government warehouses ranging from 50 to 80 million tonnes. But the avoidable suffering of millions of children, women and men in today’s India, because they lack food, work and water, still does not create public outrage, much less elementary accountability from governments.
Even colonial governments were guided in times of scarcity by famine codes, which contained detailed guidelines to employ all persons who seek work in low-paid public works, to enable survival. These were combined with programmes of distress-feeding of children, the old and sick, and starving; fodder camps for cattle; and the transportation of water. In the decades I worked in the civil service, we still regarded the preservation of human and animal life during scarcities, along with protection of persons from caste and communal violence, to be among the highest duties of public service. The times today are dramatically different. In the glitter of contemporary India, the distress of city car drivers in the country’s capital, who have to find other modes of transport on alternate days, occupies far more public and media attention than the agony of daily survival of millions of people in rural India.
The highest priority of the Central government in times of scarcity should be to ensure the creation of millions of additional person-days of work in all affected villages. Instead, we find that it continues a policy of false claims, low-resourcing and poor management of highly delayed financial flows.
Colonial famine codes and scarcity codes of post-colonial India were not legally binding, but they spurred local administrations to create millions of person-days of wage employment in a vast battery of village public works. Today, the duties of governments are written into a law, the historic Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which creates legal obligations on governments to create at least 100 days of work in a year for all rural households that seek wage work in rural public works close to their homes. Given the scale of distress of landless workers, small and marginal farmers and livestock rearing communities in times of recurring scarcity, it can reasonably be expected that there would be a huge spurt of demand for employment in these times.
The finance minister claimed he had allocated the highest ever resources to MGNREGA in the 2016 budget. However, allocations have actually fallen significantly in real terms from the peak of 0.6 per cent of GDP in 2010-11 to 0.26 per cent of GDP in 2016-17. Also, if the 2010-11 allocations are adjusted for inflation, allocations in 2016-17 should be higher than Rs 66,000 crore to actually qualify as the highest ever. The allocations made in the current budget is Rs 38,500 crore. Of this, as much as Rs 12,590 crore is required to meet the record high of pending liabilities at the end of the last financial year (2015-16). Therefore, the amount of resources required to meet wage demands in the current year is only Rs 25,910 crore.
What does this huge bill of pending liabilities represent? It simply means that workers have not been paid wages, often for several months, for work done in the past. If wages are delayed so extensively even during times of acute distress then a precariously surviving impoverished person cannot rely on MGNREGA to extend wage and social protection in normally lean times. In effect, by deliberately delaying fund releases to states, the Central government ensures that fewer and fewer workers actually demand work under the programme. This is, under the law, a demand-led programme, in which the Central government is legally bound to provide all the resources needed to meet the demands for work up to 100 days per rural household. Chronically delayed payments kill the demand for work and thereby subvert the central purpose of the law.
Drought has been declared in 10 states. The Union government made a grand announcement of 50 days additional work in drought affected areas, but it did not back it with the allocation of a single additional rupee. We estimate that an additional 50 days of work just for drought affected job-card holders would require an additional allocation of Rs 15,000 crore — that’s over and above the normal requirements of the programme, which have not been made to begin with. And the sad reality is that all 10 states ended the year with a negative balance of pending liabilities because of long-delayed releases from the Centre, and as a result, a mere 7 per cent of households in these states crossed 100 days of work.
It has become customary for the present government to make tall claims whenever it is confronted with criticism of neglect of the social and farm sectors, and of people battling drought. A simple reference to actual facts reveals the hollowness of its claims each time. Yet each time it seems to hope that people may not notice.