The end of Gandhi’s dream: India’s economic boom and bust
Published: 20 March 2006
For sale – one farming village: 1,800 acres of fertile arable land, 280 houses. All serious bids considered. An intriguing offer.
Malsinghwala is a village like any other of the thousands across Punjab: a collection of low brick buildings, a dusty road, and fields thick with crops that stretch across an endless flat landscape. Sikh farmers in brightly coloured turbans with ceremonial daggers slung at their sides pass by. Women stagger along the road carrying huge bundles of crops on their heads. A tractor passes by with Bollywood music hammering out of crudely attached loudspeakers.
But a few months ago, an advertisement appeared in the local newspaper. The entire village of Malsinghwala, it said, was for sale: lock, stock and barrel. Not one farm or plot of land. The people had all agreed to sell the whole village as a single lot.
Malsinghwala is one of a spate of villages across India that have suddenly been put up for sale. Similar reports are coming from across India. A thousand miles south, in the village of Dorli, in Maharashtra, farmers have painted “For sale” signs across the backs of their cows and on the trees. In another village in Maharashtra, a banner reads: “This village is ready to be auctioned. Permit us to commit mass suicides.” In the village of Chingapur, the villagers invited the Indian Prime Minister to preside over a “human market” to auction off their kidneys. Something is badly wrong in rural India.
“It is debt,” says Gurjit Singh, a huge Sikh farmer who stands in the hot sun, handing loose fibres to two elderly men who are painstakingly spinning them into a rope. “We cannot pay our debts. If someone else can come here and make the land pay, we’re prepared to work for them.”
The farmers of Malsinghwala own their own land. But they are so heavily in debt they would prefer to give that up and work as common labourers. Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of a strong, independent Indian society based on its villages is dying under the sizzling Punjab sun.
It is happening even as India is going through an extraordinary economic boom that is transforming it from a third- world country to a global economic power. The economy is growing at more than 8 per cent a year, and the cities are growing from week to week. The US is courting India as a strategic ally, and foreign companies are jostling each other to get a share of the huge potential market here.
India’s big companies talk of the country’s agriculture as a massive untapped resource, with exceptionally fertile land, and tropical fruits, rice and spices that are considered among the world’s best. Insiders say Reliance, one of the major players in India, is planning to move into the farming sector in a big way.
But out here in the villages, there is no sign of India’s economic miracle yet. The people are still mired in grinding poverty. It takes seven hours to drive here from Delhi, but it feels like a journey back in time. The road gives way to dirt tracks and the gleaming imported cars that clog the city streets disappear, unable to withstand the rough roads.
Punjab is known as the “bread-basket of India”. The most fertile farmland in India has made it one of the country’s richest states. But out in the villages, life is harsh. It is searingly hot in summer: the temperature regularly rises to 45C, but the villagers cannot afford air conditioning. “AC? We don’t even have a fan,” one laughs, then points to a tree. “That is our air conditioning,” he says. “We lie in the shade under a tree. It’s too hot to move.” Everyone in the village is a farmer. The children go to school in a neighbouring village, the villagers shop at a market in another village. Punjab is the home of Sikhism, and everyone in the village is a Sikh – all the men go by the Sikh surname of Singh.
The people here live in communal houses shared by several brothers. Each lives in one or two small rooms with his wife and children, grouped around a central yard where they keep cows and buffalo.
Gurjit Singh is the richest man in Malsinghwala. He owns 14 acres of land. He has debts of £2,500, but he only makes £650 a year, and he has to feed and clothe his three children out of that: he is trapped in a cycle of debt he can never pay off.
He is not the only one. Four farmers have already committed suicide in this tiny village alone, rather than face their impossible debts. The reason, Mr Singh explains, is that the farmers are at the mercy of unscrupulous moneylenders who charge annual interest rates of 24 per cent.
The farmers live hand-to-mouth: they have no capital to buy seeds and fertiliser, so each year they need to take out loans. The deal is simple: the farmers repay the loan with a percentage of the crop. But if a single harvest fails because of poor rainfall, the farmers lose out. Unable to pay off the loan, they face massive interest they cannot pay off. And in recent times, Punjab, like much of India, has endured several years of drought.
“We cannot go to the banks for a loan,” Mr Singh explains. “If you go to the bank, the manager demands a bribe for agreeing to the loan. To get a loan of 100,000 rupees [£1,285], we have to pay the manager a bribe of 20,000 rupees.” The result is that the farmers are at the moneylenders’ mercy. One bad harvest and they face handing over their crops to the money lenders for years just to pay off as much of the debt as they can. As one observer put it: “The moneylenders have effectively got the farmers in slave labour.”
There was a major scandal in India two years ago after hundreds of farmers, unable to pay their debts, committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh, in the south. There have been suicides here, too, but the people have decided to fight. Facing the unpayable debts, the panchayat, the village council, in Malsinghwala met and decided to put the village up for sale. Harshikanpura, a couple of hours’ drive across the maze of dusty lanes that thread their way through the fields, was the first village in India to put itself up for sale. That was five years ago, in 2001, and at the time it was dismissed as a freak publicity stunt. But in recent months Harshikanpura has inspired a rash of imitators.
However, the villagers’ gambit has not paid off. After five years on the market, still not a single buyer has come forward for Harshikanpura. But the villagers insist the offer is still on. They refuse to give a price for the village. They say they will consider any serious offers.
Kunda Singh’s brother, Chabiya, and his wife committed suicide rather than face their debts. The couple drank fertiliser, like thousands of farmers across India who have been trapped in the impossible cycle of debt. Chabiya was just 26. Today, his brother, Kunda, is careworn beyond his years. Some of the farmers here have massive debts: some owe as much as £25,000, almost 40 times their annual income. The total debt of all the farmers is more than £500,000.
“We’re hoping a big company will buy the land and build a factory here,” says Baldev Singh, one of the villagers. “Then we can work in the factory.” There is little chance of that. Harshikanpura is right in the middle of India’s cotton-growing belt, and no one is going to want to build a factory on fertile land.
But the fact that farmers working in what should be a lucrative agricultural sector are so desperate they want to sell their villages shows that something is dreadfully wrong in Indian farming. Even as India is emerging as an economic force, the villages on which Gandhi dreamt of basing an independent India are struggling and dying. It is the cities that are driving the economic boom, and every year hundreds of thousands of Indians leave the villages and migrate to the already bursting cities looking for a better life.
“They say India is becoming rich but we have not seen any of it,” said Gurjan Singh. He has debts of £5,000, but makes only £300 a year. “When George Bush came here he said India was a big economy. He should have come to Harshikanpura, then he’d have seen the truth about India.”
Part of the problem in Punjab is that the tradition of dividing a farmer’s land between his sons after his death is making some farms so small they are economically unviable. Farms have been divided again and again until the descendants of men who farmed hundreds of acres have tiny plots. One farmer said he had only three acres of land.
That may soon change with Indian big business showing increasing interest in agriculture. The word is that the Reliance company wants to move into the farming sector and buy produce directly from farmers to sell in its own retail outlets, cutting out the middle men altogether. That could be bad news for the money lenders who currently get the crops to pay off their loans.
Insiders say Indian agriculture is performing far below its potential because it is steeped in outdated methods and practices. As much as 35 per cent of Indian produce is spoilt in transportation, for instance.
Changing the way the market works inside India is only the beginning. Analysts say agricultural exports should be doing better as well in a country that produces mangoes, rice, tea and spices that are considered among the best in the world.
If the big companies do move into agriculture, it could be good news for the villagers. But it could also change Indian rural life forever, in a way that will take India even further from Gandhi’s ideal, and into the tough commercial realities of modern capitalism.
But in the villages, they are not worried about that. They just want a way out of the cycle of impossible debt.
In his struggle for independence from Britain, Mahatma Gandhi envisaged a panchayat raj, or village republic, to replace the colonial and caste system that held sway across India.
“Independence must begin at the bottom,” he wrote in the 1940s. “Thus, every village will be a republic or panchayat having full powers. It follows, therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world.”
In this village model, each collective would be its own democratic entity, with the government of the village conducted by the panchayat of five persons, annually elected by the adult villagers, male and female.
Having witnessed the ravages of colonial capitalism in both India and what was then the Cape Colony, Gandhi developed a deep opposition to the technological advances that in his view made the rich richer and the poor poorer. “In this there is no room for machines that would displace human labour and would concentrate power in a few hands. Labour has its unique place in a cultured human family.
“I have not pictured a poverty-stricken India containing ignorant millions. I have pictured to myself an India continually progressing along the lines best suited to her genius. I do not, however, picture it as a third-class or even a first-class copy of the dying civilisation of the West.”
what would you wish if you see this page?
What would somoene desire if not adopt the Aakhri Raasta and shoot these guys?
Justice can be so antithetical to common sense that, for all purposes, it becomes nonsense. Nearly seven years ago, Jessica Lall, a citizen of Delhi, was killed in a restaurant packed with people, many of whom knew the young woman personally. On Tuesday, a Delhi court’s acquittal of nine people accused means that no one has as yet been found guilty of her murder. Clearly, two crimes have been committed — one, the actual murder of a woman; two, the act of letting those guilty of the murder walk away into the sunset.
In a judicial system that (rightly) hinges on the tenet that a person is innocent until proven guilty, this seems a tragic, but, alas, ‘fair’ judgment. But the murder of Lall was not committed in a dark and empty bylane or in the badlands of Bihar where the law is a figment of one’s imagination, but in the presence of scores of people in the national capital of a sensitivised urban India. So what happened? For one, the police decided to bungle. Basic forensic rules were thrown out of the window; witnesses who turned hostile were given little incentive to stick to their initial stand; the accused were not ‘squeezed’ hard enough, and the murder weapon not found. When a person is shot dead at pointblank range in front of a crowd and there is a lack of evidence of this act ever having being committed, something more than just a rat can be smelt. It is this stink that is now emanating not only in Delhi but throughout the land.
The three main accused in the murder case are ‘well connected’. If there is a single incentive in this country for anyone to yearn for political connections, it is to protect oneself from the law if and when required. And the police are not alone in playing ‘protectors’ to well-heeled criminals. The courts, too, by dragging such cases for years on end — with witnesses having enough time to be threatened or cajoled, and with judicial officers being shunted in and out for no apparent reason — have facilitated the process of justice being denied. For Jessica Lall’s family to be told that there is not enough evidence to punish her killer(s) is punishment of the most debilitating kind. For the rest of us, the concept of justice has once again proved to be a silly bedtime story for the gullible.
do i even need to add my own words here?? don’t think i have any!
The original article in Hindustan Times
Hunger lurks unseen and unacknowledged in millions of homes, not just in the countryside but in the shadows of glittering cities. For millions of people in India, hunger remains a way of life, unremitting and unforgiving. Studies estimate that 80-200 million men, women and children go to sleep hungry every night in our country.
While India is proud of its scientific inventions, tribal and rural communities are silently inventing ways to survive. They have identified local wild shrubs, weeds and tubers growing in forests and wastelands, with no nutritional content, but with which they can fill their stomachs to combat the insistent pangs of hunger. These pseudo-foods include also waste like mango kernel. Some tubers are poisonous, but they are boiled over and over again to enable for human consumption.
On desolate days when there is no grain in the house and no work, women, and sometimes entire families, go foraging for food. They gather grain fallen on fields that have been harvested or stale vegetables left waste after the village market. Some eat rats. The most dispossessed communities like the Musahars of Bihar and east UP search for undigested grain even in cattle dung and field rat excreta.
The food that they gather, at times just a fistful, is boiled in a large pot of water, sometimes with chilly powder and salt, to create the illusion of plenty, and this is shared in the household. However, the burden of hunger is not equally shared among members. First, the male bread-winner is fed, then children and the elderly. The turn of women, and sometimes also girls, comes only when all else have eaten. Women have internalised the cultural values of intense self-denial when the family lives with want.
Coping with hunger often places intolerable burdens on family ties. Cities are full of men who migrate to pull rickshaws, break stones at quarries, erect buildings or carry loads, and often sleep on the streets. In all cities, the most arduous work is usually done by migrants from states like Bihar. They live with intense loneliness, low-paid exploitative labour, and a hard life on streets or shanties, so that they can earn and save enough to send home to their families and shield them from hunger. For a great many, the rigours of homelessness is a choice they make because if they spend money on their own shelter, how will their families back home survive?
Sometimes families migrate with their children. But when they do, increasingly they leave old people behind to somehow survive on their own or quietly die, unnoticed, unmourned. Many starvation deaths that I have investigated have been of old people so abandoned. They beg for food in the village. Often the man is too weak to move, so the old woman moves around the village with her bowl. There are some who still try to work bravely at fields, if anyone is willing to employ them. But usually it is a battle for survival in which they are slowly, imperceptibly vanquished. Women who are battered, abandoned or widowed face a similar fate, but often with the further burden of feeding their small children.
There are other ways as well that hunger tears families apart. There are sensationalised media stories periodically of children being sold in the famine fields of Orissa or Chhattisgarh for a pittance. But most often, the real motivation of parents is to send children to situations in which at least their food and survival is secured. Sometimes, the child himself makes the choice of leaving a home in endemic want. Many street children have confided that they chose to leave home not because of abuse, but simply because there was not enough food for all to eat. They reasoned that one less mouth to feed would mean more food for their siblings, and they courageously hit the streets alone often at ages as low as seven years.
Hunger in indigent households often also means letting a child fend for herself, through labour in factories or eating establishments. In cities very young children, left to fend for themselves, learn to beg at places of worship or traffic lights. But as they grow older they diversify into rag-picking or selling water and sweeping floors of train compartments. Many are sexually abused, and some learn early to sell their bodies for money or food. Others are sent by their parents from their villages to work as domestic help or in tea stalls and dhabas.
It is intensely painful to see one’s own children fitful and anguished with hunger. Musahar women said that it is hardest when the children are very small. As they weep endlessly, mothers lace their fingers with opium or tobacco to put the child to slumber. As they grow older, they sometimes beat them if they complain but mostly they tell them that they must learn to live with hunger, as this will remain all their lives.
The hunger of city streets, camouflaged in the glare of street lights, is often the most lonely, because on these streets live children, single women, old and disabled people and homeless mentally ill people, are ruptured from even the protection of their families. I have met on Delhi’s freezing winter streets children high on smack or ‘solution’. It is all that makes the cold, the hunger, the brutality and the loneliness of life on the streets bearable.
There are usually some options to living with hunger in the countryside, but these are the cruel ones of debt and bondage. The money-lender is always there in times of need, but the rates of interest that he charges are frequently upwards from 5 per cent per month compound. If there is no land to pledge, the only asset of the hungry is their bodies. These are given in bondage, which remain rampant even though bonded labour has long been outlawed. I have met men who have lived 40 years in bondage; others have received this as an inheritance from their parents and may pass these on to their children.
Bondage may also be annual in return for an advance in the cruel summers of want and empty grain stores. In return, entire families migrate to brick kilns, quarries and construction sites. Older children work long hours, side by side with their parents. Younger children are left to tend infants, who are starved of the regular breast feeding that they require from their nursing mothers, since creches at work sites are rare, despite being required by law.
We stereotype and stigmatise these coping strategies in many ways. Lazy beggars, dirty unauthorised migrants, rat-eating Dalits, street kids in petty crime. We wilfully deny the courage, resilience, compassion, self-denial of many of these strategies to survive the greatest odds with dignity.
In recent years, the mounting agrarian crisis has thrust even farmers to the brink. They are succumbing to the loneliest of defeats in the battle against hunger, by ending their lives. Suicides are growing into an epidemic in the Indian countryside. It is a harrowing act of terminal despair. Living with hunger has become, for increasing numbers of our people, too difficult to bear.
The Dream: a strong healthcare nexus, affordable medication!
so five year olds don’t have to die for want of medical attention!
India Encephalitis Deaths Were Preventable
By MARGIE MASON
The Associated Press
Friday, September 23, 2005; 8:31 PM
KUSHINAGAR, India — When Nand Kishore Sharma learns that his 7-year-old daughter could have been saved from her painful death by a $1 vaccine, he just shrugs. People in this remote, impoverished corner of India are used to being overlooked.
The Sharmas are victims of the worst Japanese encephalitis outbreak in recent memory. More than 1,100 people _ most of them children _ have died in India’s Uttar Pradesh state and neighboring Nepal.
India’s government has promised to immunize every child in the worst-affected areas, but it’s too late to save any lives this year.
Hospitals have been overwhelmed by a deluge of sick children who sometimes lie two to a bed, and critics blame the situation on an underfunded medical system and wasteful projects. Uttar Pradesh, where the disease has killed 850 people in the last few months, has a health care budget of $24.2 million for 180 million people _ about 13 cents per person.
“Saving children’s lives is not the government’s priority,” said Dr. T.N. Dhole, head of the microbiology department at the Sanjay Gandhi Post-Graduate Institute in the state capital, Lucknow. “Deaths could have been prevented if the government had taken preventive steps and had inoculated the children.”
Japanese encephalitis breaks out every year in eastern Uttar Pradesh, the region’s main rice-growing area.
But as images emerge of hundreds of children dying in filthy, understaffed and ill-equipped hospitals, some are asking why.
“It doesn’t mean we are not sensitive to what is happening,” Singh said. “Our government has ordered free medical help to all Japanese encephalitis children.”
“The government is seriously planning,” said Rajshankar Ghosh, Japanese encephalitis senior project manager for the U.S.-based nonprofit PATH. “I’m not able to predict, but I’m very, very hopeful.”
So am I!
Content sourced from The Washington Post