To revive the economy, go back to the grassroots, writes Bhupesh Baghel
To strengthen the rural economy, we need to strengthen the rural ecology too
These are difficult times. We are in the middle of a pandemic which is claiming hundreds of lives daily even after 10 months of disaster management. The economy is officially in recession, unemployment and reverse migration or ruralisation is a hard reality. Additionally, there is the farm sector crisis and the Centre cutting social sector and welfare spending. In contrast, the stock exchange is at an all-time high. Something seems missing in our reading of the situation. The pandemic has only worsened already deep inequality.
The Congress government in Chhattisgarh believes that no economy can prosper by leaving the majority of the rural poor behind. Democracy is the first in the line of fire whenever the economy is in trouble, from the same people who never realised that all economies start at the grassroots.
One pivotal argument is that we have been a consumption-driven economy unlike the export-based Asian economies, and for our true potential to be realised, we need to expand consumption patterns across the entire demography. But apart from consumption, our productivity needs to grow, and that means the health and educational standards for the poorest and remotest must improve. For this, we have taken steps to reopen the schools closed in the last 15 years in the Maoist-inflicted areas and launched an extensive nutrition program, Mukhya Mantri Suposhan Abhiyan, which aims at eliminating malnutrition in the state within the next three years. We have brought 67,000 children out of around 500,000 children out of malnutrition within six months. Coupled with mobile medical services of Haat Bazar Clinic, we wish to make healthcare accessible to all. Our special drive in remote areas of Bastar has helped in reducing malaria cases by 65% in just one year.
The challenge of this developing state has been to empower the poor and tribals with a sense of dignity and confidence to enable them to enter the modern economic system and market. To do so, we first need to give them some bargaining power, which means they get freedom from the debt trap and have subsistence income. This was successfully made a reality through higher returns of paddy, sugarcane and maize through direct cash support in Rajiv Gandhi Kisan Nyay Yojana. Under this scheme, about ₹10,000 of cash support per acre of cultivated land is given to those who are growing paddy, sugarcane and maize. This scheme was substantially supported by a sensitive public distribution system (PDS).
After taking oath as chief minister two years ago, we began this journey of enabling the grassroots by waiving off ₹9000 crores of farm loans for around 1.8 million farmers, as promised. Implementation of forest rights act (FRA) entitlements is crucial and we have ensured that land rights — both individual and societal — are transferred as a matter of top priority. So far, we have given individual FRA titles to almost 450,000 people, 46 thousand community FRA and over 5 million acres of community forest resource rights. During the pandemic, we realised that the tribal people should be empowered with accessible resources within their vicinity. An increase in the cover of minor forest produce, under minimum support price regime, from seven to 52 helped achieve this objective.
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) has again proven to be a wonderful scheme, creating huge opportunities for migrant labourers who came back after the lockdown mishap. It provided them with some cash to survive and spend on necessities.
To strengthen the rural economy, we need to strengthen the rural ecology too. Our flagship programme Narve, Garva, Ghurva, Bari tries to unify ecology and economy, and aims at improving the riverine system, both surface and groundwater availability, stray cattle and village waste management, and small backyard farming to maintain diversity. Along with forest water conservation and increasing the share of fruit-laden trees in the forests, we are trying to firm up the rural productivity which is more democratic in access and not limited to those with capital and resources.
To provide the impoverished with the necessary familiarity with the monetised economy, there needs to be a significant source of cash income. Only then will capital be able to streamline labour and make it productive. Our leader, Rahul Gandhi, had rightly advocated for minimum ensured income through Nyay.
In these difficult times, the way out for the economy is to invest heavily in the rural system. The ongoing nationwide farmers’ agitation directs us towards the lack of such pro-people initiatives. The agitation shows both the dominance of predatory market forces and how the building blocks of our economy and democracy have been egregiously offered up for exploitation.
By surviving the slowdown, Chhattisgarh has developed a new model and proved what Mahatma Gandhi had advocated to be the best way forward - strengthen the villages and poor, the country will become strong automatically. We read in school “durbalanaam balam rajah” — the power of the king or State is the strength of the weak. These are not the times when the State can withdraw under the garb of reforms.