Saturday, September 5, 2009

Rural India lags as rest of nation surges

"Drought Puts Focus on Side of India Left Out of Progress" is a front-page headline in today's New York Times. That "left out" side, of course, is rural India, with an economy still largely based on agriculture and therefore particularly vulnerable to the whims of weather and climate change. The story focuses on the impact of the recent low rainfall monsoon season, which led to about half of rural districts being declared "drought zones." The following excerpt provides additional context.
Government officials are projecting that growth will reach or surpass 6 percent this year and approach 8 percent next year, almost the pace that established India as an emerging global economic power second only to China.

But the cautious optimism about the broader economy has been tempered by a historic summertime drought that has underscored the stubborn fact that many people are largely untouched by the country’s progress. India’s new economy may be based on software, services and high technology, but hundreds of millions of Indians still look to the sky for their livelihoods; more than half the country’s 1.1 billion people depend on agriculture for a living even though agriculture represents only about 17 percent of the total economy.
Whereas rural consumer spending had helped "buttress the national economy" as the global downturn began, the drought is now forcing government to subsidize agricultural inputs like seeds and diesel fuel.

Prime Minister Singh addressed the issue of rural development during the recent election campaign (see a post here). Thus far, however, his Congress Party government has failed to announce significant initiatives to help achieve greater prosperity for the rural poor. Critics say this represents a short-term fix rather than the sorts of long-term solutions--like taking on structural problems in the rural economy--that will yield greater return. One of those structural problems is low education levels in rural places, which mean that when farmers can no longer support themselves as farmers, they also do not have the skills to move into the service sector.

Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, T. Nanda Kumar, is quoted as saying that India can manage the immediate consequences of the drought, as it has in the past, because it has vast stores of food its populace. Another of his quotes, however, I find more troubling: “We can manage the drought. ... We have managed earlier droughts. But we need to move some people out of agriculture. I don’t think that a 17 percent share of G.D.P. and a 50 percent share of employment are viable in the long run.” Maybe not, but if he's advocating a move toward greater intensive production agriculture as part of a so-called "rural development" policy that further drives an urban migration juggernaut by creating urban jobs while eliminating rural agricultural ones, India would be following a path from which the developed world is now in slow retreat.

Read Jim Yardley's entire story here. Interestingly, the print edition of this story used two other headlines, both different from the one used in the online version. The front-page headline in the print edition was "Drought Puts Focus on a Side of India Untouched by Progress." The headline on the continuing page is the only one to use the word "rural": "Drought Puts Focus on Rural Side of India Untouched by Progress."

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