In the temple town of Kumbakonam, near Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, where I spent Deepavali, the disconnect between the fast growing globalized India and the rural and small-town India is more palpable than ever.
In this rice bowl of the country, the fields are flush and green, with more than 80% of the paddy transplantation completed on time—the harvest at Pongal would be a normal one. A walk through the streets of Kumbakonam was revealing. They were thronged with shoppers, but it was a silent crowd. Shoppers focused on candles, flowers, crackers, fruit and sweets. The consumer goods shops and the higher end boutiques were quiet. Apparel purchases were from the street, not brand names, and on Deepavali day itself, the festivities ended early, as though people wanted to get back to their normal drudgery. Quite a change from the crowds in Chennai, in the gold marts and diamond centres, in the mobile and electronics shops. And a big difference from the splurges in New Delhi one reads about.
The reasons are not tough to find. In a few paddy fields, one sees forlorn signs of government initiatives to improve technology and productivity, but for the most, paddy is grown and transplanted in the same way as in the last thousand years. The villagers I meet testify that agriculture is fast becoming unremunerative. There are no signs of new seeds, fertilizers are hard to come by and expensive, and marketing continues to be in the hands of small traders. A majority of the graduates of the several engineering colleges here linger in the job market for more than two years, a reflection on the quality of education. In 40 years, I have seen little change in the town except in the size of its population. No sewerage, falling nutrition levels and worsening health indicators. It seems a tired town, with few expectations.
There is a visible difference between private initiative and government activity. Private buses are better and punctual, and cause fewer accidents. Private engineering colleges produce a larger percentage of employable people. Private temples are cleaner, better managed. In short, governance and government is missing. The worry is that it takes little to set it right, and that there is little attempt to do it.
The draft of the 11th Plan has been finalized, and the thrust is on indicators to measure investment in education, health and agriculture. The Planning Commission chairman’s concerns about growing subsidies, and the extent to which these would reduce public investment spending, are a sobering backdrop to the Plan. There is concern over the fact that inclusive growth is not happening and that the distance between the Sensex and the small-towners is growing every day.
Sadly, the commission merely continues to express so many concerns —one would have thought they would have practical solutions. It is possible to find ways to bridge the divide. The first is to strengthen existing institutions and focus on delivery.
The Union finance minister had promised an initiative for farm extension in his Budget speech this year, but nothing has been done so far.
A private fertilizer firm in Kumbakonam is providing end-to-end solutions for the farmer—inputs, soil sampling, advice on crop practices and marketing help by tying up with major retail chains. It is working well—an example of what institutional support can do. The farmers are aware and willing to learn. A local magazine wrote about Arokiasamy of Masilapalyam panchayat in Salem district. The villagers recognized this wage labourer’s probity and asked him to be president—he is attending diligently to all panchayat work. Ironically, his wife can’t find work without him—now they have no income and find it tough even to buy rice at Rs2 per kg. People are ready, but not the government.
In the small towns, Thanjavur, Kumbakonam, Chidambaram and Cuddalore, poor waste and water management cause many water-borne diseases. Yet, there are no large initiatives, either at the state or the central level, for urban infrastructure. More local trains and buses would enable labour mobility without adding to urbanization—note how people in Kerala travel between their villages and towns and their places of work daily, thanks to the passenger train connectivity in the narrow state.
Public health is a concern, yet institutions are not strengthened. At Gingee, Dr Rajeswari recently had to manage the primary health centre alone for three days and nights, attending to more than 500 patients, until she collapsed—thanks to the delay in posting of a full team of doctors. The real India, the aam aadmi, still has his honour and ethics. He looks for little from government other than effective delivery of what is announced: he is willing to work hard. But there seems to be little space in the political and administrative firmament, and in the media, for the poor man. Yet, it takes little to improve matters.
S. Narayan is a former finance secretary and economic adviser to the prime minister. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org