First the good news. Well, good news for someone, anyway. The collective
net worth of 311 Indian billionaires is now Rs.3.64 trillion. This is up 71
per cent from last year, when it was a paltry Rs.2.13 trillion. The tribe has
also grown. It now includes 133 new entrants who just months ago were merely
millionaires. The daily newspaper that tracks this elite club (Business Standard,
November 9, 2005) puts it simply: "India's billionaires have never had
it so good."
Some hundreds of millions might never have had it so bad either. So just before
we pop the corks on those bottles, have a look at the news from the nation's
farm households. There are millions of those, not 311. The average monthly per
capita expenditure (MPCE) of farm households across India was Rs.503 in 2003.
[At the current rate of just under 44 rupees to the US dollar, that's about
$11.50. Editors.] That is just about Rs.75 above the rural poverty line. And
it is an average across regions and classes and income groups. So even this
dismal figure hides huge inequities.
A big chunk of those households are below the poverty line. Millions of them
deeply below it. The Rs.503 figure--awful in itself--is derived from an average
that clubs States such as Kerala (MPCE Rs.901) and Punjab (Rs.828). And those
like Orissa (Rs.342), Jharkhand (Rs.353), Chhattisgarh (Rs.379), and Bihar (Rs.404).
Note that in those four regions, even the State-wide average is well below the
poverty line. More than a fifth of households in these States and Madhya Pradesh
had an MPCE equal to or less than Rs.225.
The numbers are from the National Sample Survey Organization's "Situation
Assessment Survey of Farmers." This survey was done in 2003 as part of
the NSSO's 59th round. The official press note tells us that "such a survey
has been conducted for the first time in the history of the NSSO."
Even if we take the national figure of Rs.503, the picture is quite bad. For
one thing, this clubs huge zamindars and tiny landholders together. So the average,
again, misleads. For another, over 55 per cent of this is spending on food.
Clothing, footwear, fuel, and light take close to 18 per cent.
Health spending is double that on education. The average household spends less
than Rs.17 a month per capita on education. It spends over Rs.34 a month on
health. Also remember, the Rs.503 figure is for people owning some land, large
or small. How bad would the picture be for the millions of landless?
Even for the landed, if such a great share is grabbed by food, clothing, and
health, it leaves little for anything else. That is why (also NSSO data) just
six per cent of rural homes have telephones. And that is mainly amongst those
with an MPCE of over Rs.950, a lot of which are non-farm households. It is also
why we need to postpone the joy over the spread of the Net for a bit. PCs with
Net connections almost do not exist in rural India. Just about 0.6 per cent
of rural households have a computer.
But back to the farm. The MPCE of farm households is less than that of the
non-farm homes by close to 10 per cent. The average for all rural households
is Rs.554. Which means the non-farm groups are able to spend more. And this
is the case with both food and non-food items.
Another vital fact. These numbers are about consumer expenditure. They do not
and cannot tell us how much of this spending was based on incurring debt. Yet
we do know from even the flawed data that exists that farm debt is on the rise.
And quite steeply. The NSSO seems to underestimate private moneylender debt.
Yet it shows that nearly half of all farm households are in debt. In 1991, that
figure was 26 per cent. (See BusinessLine, August 30, 2005.)
Take Maharashtra. The State ranks third in wealth in the country. But income
from agriculture has declined. Bank credit to the farm sector is dismal. Most
farmers are forced to turn to private moneylenders. Over 55 per cent of the
State's farm households are in debt. That figure would be a lot worse if we
looked at, say, Vidharbha. This season has seen a debt-related suicide by a
farmer in the region every so many hours. It should also not surprise us that
in Andhra Pradesh where farm suicides were at their worst, "four fifths
of surveyed farmers were in debt."
The data from the NSSO survey on farm spending once again points to the link
between poverty and family size. The average household size for farmers was
5.5 at the all-India level. But in those with an MPCE equal to or less than
Rs.225, the number goes up to 6.9. On the other hand, households with an MPCE
of more than Rs.950 were much smaller. Their average size was 4.1. Broadly,
the better off the household, the fewer its members. In the NSSO survey, Bihar
and Uttar Pradesh logged the highest average household size of 6.1. The poor
tend to have larger families. That is their insurance against higher mortality.
Particularly against infant mortality. The logic of "more hands to work"
cannot be wished away.
Limited as the NSSO data are, they still throw up a different picture from
the glory days' vision of the private surveys coming out of Delhi. Mostly crawling
out of the bottomless data-on-demand pit of the capital's "think tanks."
These surveys in turn get the rah rah treatment from a media dying to show how
good the "reform years" have been. In one case, a daily crowed that
"Bharat-matches-India-in-bang-for-buck." This was so over the top
that even the gung-ho authors of the survey the daily was quoting felt compelled
to write a piece saying "Don't romanticize the village."
Well, also do not romanticize the growing gap between rich and poor. And do
not celebrate gross inequality either.
When many households have an MPCE of less than Rs.225, you really need to think
of how people live. On what it is that they live. What can you spend on if the
most you can spend is, on average, Rs.8 a day? And if close to 80 per cent of
what you spend is on food, clothing and footwear, what else could you possibly
Contrast that with a year in which 133 people joined the billionaires' club.
Taking its membership from 178 to 311. (The collective net worth of this Club
was computed by Business Standard on "the basis of average market prices
for promoters' stocks in August 2005.") On their joint net worth of Rs.3.64
trillion you could run the current rural employment program for many years.
Or, if we take the yearly returns on that net worth to be around eight per cent,
then their joint annual income from it would be over Rs.290 billion. Or nearly
Rs.800 million each day. On just that, you could every year run a bigger employment
programme than anything the Government is bound to now. It could also make a
massive difference to the health, housing, and education budgets.
The point though, is that at the other end of the spectrum, the sector that
still employs the largest number of Indians is in deep trouble. Obscene levels
of inequality stare this society in the face. And there seems to be little concern
over this at the top, though some over there know things are bad. Even Union
Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar says in interviews and press briefings that
"the Indian farmer is facing a serious crisis."
It is very hard for those who have been plugging the glorious impact of the
reforms to accept this. It undermines their religion. For years now, rural Indians
have been viewed as just so many buyers of consumer goods. So we have one interviewer
trying repeatedly to get Mr. Pawar to say that things are much better than they
are. But the Minister, who took a long time to accept it himself, did not oblige.
Mr. Pawar told him the idea that the farmers' living standards have gone down
is "100 per cent correct." He also says--surprise, surprise--"the
farming community has been ignored in this country. And especially so over the
last eight to ten years."
Mr. Pawar also tells his interviewer: "You will be surprised. In the budgetary
provision, not more than two per cent money has been allocated for agriculture.
[Though that is] where more than 65 per cent of the population works."
That the Government he belongs to tries to apply as a solution that which is
the problem is another story. The effects of its approach will make things worse
on many fronts in this sector. But maybe we can at least hope for a little less
fantasy and a little more focus on the farmer in the media.
P. Sainath is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu (where
this piece initially ran) and the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.