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India, July 20 -- People immersed in the luxuries of a comfortable life where complaints and gossip-mongering come so very naturally to them would either have skipped or would have thought it more convenient to overlook a recent national survey-report considering it to be something that doesn't concern them. This is how insensitive we are towards the socio-economic plight of fellow countrymen.

The data from the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) on the standard of living of rural households in India released by the Ministry of Rural Development has been shocking, to say the least!

Yet, apart from a mute showoff exasperation, the indifference of those in the upper strata of society towards the disharmonious relationship between the 'haves' and 'have nots' amongst the people in general has been quite unsettling. The essay to highlight the societal disjoint between various classes would not have otherwise gone noticed in spite of media attempts to keep the issue alive.

The SECC was conducted in 2011 with the sole aim of providing data on various socio-economic indicators, and most importantly, on caste. Although the caste-factor could yet throw up a whole lot of possibilities vis-a-vis the subject under consideration, the data accumulated for rural households by state, and for Schedule caste and Schedule Tribe families among them, identifies various parameters of deprivation.

Poverty, for the country, has been an issue that, since independence, has only gained political mileage with every successive government. However, efforts to wipe out the malaise of poverty through the years have only been restricted to slogan-campaigns sans any sincerity.

A case in point has been the Garibi Hatao Desh bachao andolan which ably served to be the theme of Indira Gandhi's election bid in 1971. But, the proposed anti-poverty programs was solely designed for gaining her party independent national support based on rural and urban poor. The population of poor who continue to have a listless existence in the country over the decades has only increased manyfold.

The survey carried out in all its earnestness assumes importance as a ready- reckoner for understanding poverty levels in the country. As an exercise which primarily concerned itself with poverty assessment based on various attributes, it is for the first time that the estimates are based on a survey of populace rather than individual inputs collected.

With the world having evolved the way it has, it is unfortunate to have India still struggling with the demons of a deeply imbedded culture of the past that threatens to destroy the very evidence of growth and social development that the country claims to be treading on.

Gender disparity continues even to this day with differences in socially constructed gender roles dictating the role of woman in Indian society. Education and the advent of a more liberal economic culture have to some extent aided in the social acceptance of a woman as an equal partner in the affairs of a family.

Yet, this 'recognition' is still to get its stamp of approval in the rural areas. It is observed that female-headed households are the worst off! Hence the man of the house is almost always the principal wage earner of the house.

Be that as it may! But it is appalling to learn that the study finds that in nearly 75% rural households, the main earning family member makes less than Rs. 5000 per month, which works out to less than the mandated national minimum daily wages prescribed. What could be more astounding? In very few families, a very minor percentage of them, does the principal wage earner manage to make around Rs. 10000 per month.

In accordance with these findings it is not difficult to believe that fewer than 5% of the rural households pay income tax.

It has also been noticed that there is a substantial difference in the standard of living of India's Scheduled Castes and Tribes and 'others'. Fewer than 5% of SC & ST households have a main earner who makes more than Rs. 10000 per month; for 'others', there are twice as many households!

With rural India essentially remaining agrarian, yet over half the households are landless. With just one in ten households having a salaried job, the vast majority of the rural households derive their income mainly from casual manual labour. The countryside to this date remains unable to find jobs that can pull out families out of poverty.

The influx of a vast majority of migrant workers from the rural belts to the large and sprawling industrial estates in the country in search of their livelihood substantiate these findings.

With low mechanization, limited irrigation facilities and chiefly with little or no access to financial resources, it is argued that agriculture remains at subsistence levels. Hence the income from cultivation is miniscule. This could possibly explain people shying away from taking to farming and leaving their fields untilled. The escalating prices of labour and materials, and the low yields due to the vagaries of nature, have been another deterring factor.

At the same time, the assessment is quick to point out that given the level of education, cultivation of their fields remains the only option available for the rural population. The abysmally low percentage of rural residents making it to the higher secondary level of education, with just about 3.4% of rural households having a graduate in the family, paints a very dismal picture of the state of affairs, making skilled jobs very hard to get.

The figures on the number of rural households owning a vehicle and refrigerator may be of statistical interest, but the information that 72% of them own a phone of some sort should be taken with a pinch of salt.

I am reminded of a similar report sometime last year! The UNU-INWEH (United Nations University-Institute for water, Environment and Health) report!

According to UN experts who published a 9-point prescription for achieving the world's Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for sanitation by 2015, "far more people in India have access to a cell phone than to a toilet and improved sanitation. How embarrassing it is! In fact, scenes of public defecating in the open is not only restricted to the rural areas, it has become a civic problem for the urban dwellers as well!

The early results from the urban SECC are suggestive of the fact that though the levels of deprivation are lower in cities, they are shockingly high! However, compared to the south, the northern rural belts of the country boast of a healthy growth and have been showing signs of prosperity.

The data on rural households as revealed by the Socio Economic and Caste Census represents a grim reminder of the state of rural India. Let us not forget that even today India resides in its villages. So a study that shows that in spite of the high talks of sustained development and liberalized economic policies, that India's rural life remains deprived of material prosperity, is indeed worrisome.

Rural poverty and its alleviation have been issues that have evaded sensible answers. Even though our netas don't tire of empathizing with our garib janata, it is possibly a lack of political will that has seen this problem aggravating with every passing year.

India may like to gloat over its unrestrained growth and arrival on the global stage as a superpower. But far from it! The survey reveals hard realities about the nation's rural populace and the problems it would pose for the development of the nation. Though some may question the veracity of the statistical figures, the report has managed to capture the ills that affect the rural populace.

It is for the government to formulate policies to tackle the problems of poverty!

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Indian Currents.

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Publication:Indian Currents
Date:Jul 20, 2015
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