India should fix its villages first
India’s economic rise is the story du jour. But for all its much-delayed embrace of globalisation, 70 per cent of India’s citizens remain condemned to rural isolation, unable to link to the global networks that could catapult them from poverty.
Recently, I trudged through the slush of a government-run food auction yard, or mandi, in Bangalore, the off-shoring capital of the world: piles of produce lay everywhere, rotting in the sun and competing with mangy dogs and scampering mice for my attention.
The farmers’ day began in the pre-dawn hours, with ramshackle buses, bullock carts, trucks, even tractors chugging along the narrow, so-called “highways” to the auction yard. Produce unloaded, the farmers accept whatever they get because every day away from the farm is lost income.
India’s Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMC) Act mandates agricultural products be purchased through such wholesale yards, making the mandi a monopoly controlled by local political interests, a perversion of the original purpose of freeing farmers from moneylenders’ clutches. Farmers remain exploited, just by someone else now.
The hapless farmers’ urban sojourn is a continuation of the rural nightmare of a daily hand-to-mouth struggle. Policy-makers have neglected Indian villages in the decades since the nation’s independence: 89 per cent of rural households do not own telephones; 52 per cent do not have any domestic power connection.
The contrast with rural China is stark.
Around the time I visited Bangalore, I criss-crossed parts of Henan province. The province is home to more than 100 million people. I started in Zhengzhou, the capital, a major industrial centre and railway junction, and travelled to Chengguan, scrupulously clean, with municipal services apparent even in the pre-dawn hours.
Usually, agricultural development in rural areas generates economic surpluses, which catalyse light manufacturing in rural and semi-urban areas, and ultimately industrialisation in the urban areas.
Corporate muscle multiplies the benefits that civil society can bring to rural India.Alas, though, these efforts are too little, too late. The state government has not always supported Sewa, perhaps sometimes feeling threatened by the unified block of votes its large membership base represents.
Organised investment in the retail and wholesale sector has often met its match at the hands of the unorganised trade that it would likely supplant: witness protests against both indigenous retailers such as Reliance Fresh and German wholesaling giant Metro Cash and Carry. Retail trade employs eight per cent of India’s population, the largest employer after agriculture.
There are more than 12 million small retailers in India, 96 per cent of whom are small stores, each occupying less than 500 square feet, creating the highest retail-outlet density per capita in the world. In India’s democracy, small retailers count for many votes, and so local politicians support the inefficient distribution system against more efficient modern retail and wholesale formats, even at the expense of societal advance.
Mandis, in a sense, perpetuate systemwide inefficiency, and unorganised retail does not have the wherewithal to attack the system. The farmer continues to be beholden to the local monopolist for distributing his produce. Thus, the misery of the villages continues apace.
Well-meaning pundits assert the government should “do something”. Indeed, the highest echelons of the government concur. India’s finance minister, P Chidambaram, has spoken out against the APMC Act, recognising it as an unfortunate anachronism. But even this august personage’s ability to dictate to the local satraps is limited.
In these circumstances, the most expedient course of action is to search for multipliers of civic action and grass-roots movements that empower villagers. After all, modern China’s economic revolution started in the reform of its village enterprises. The Croesus-like riches in the form of foreign direct investment followed China’s rural reform.
So India should take a page from China’s book and fix its villages, but not by trying to do it China’s way. China’s strong government forced the rapid dissemination of its experiment. India’s weak state cannot accomplish anything remotely comparable. Rather, India should play to its private-sector strengths. India’s vibrant indigenous entrepreneurial class must be courted.
Reliance Fresh is an indigenous example in India. Even multinationals should be welcomed, the task is so enormous. Metro Cash and Carry is an example, and joint ventures between indigenous entrepreneurs such as Bharti Enterprises and multinationals such as Wal-Mart can complete the private-investment picture.
A modern agricultural supply chain linking the village tomato farmer to his urban market could reduce waste by 25 per cent and end-user prices by 21 per cent. Only then will the 70 per cent living in villages begin to share in India, allegedly “rising” today.
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