New Delhi: India has made much headway in tackling its open defecation and sanitation problems but still has a long way to go in formulating policies for the uplift of small and marginal as well as landless farmers, says Rodger Voorhies, executive director of the agricultural development, financial services, gender equality and water, sanitation and hygiene programmes at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Smallholder farmers need to be seen as an engine of economic growth, not just a beneficiary, said Voorhies who was on a visit to India last week. Edited excerpts from an interview:
The issues that you look after in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—sanitation, women’s empowerment, women’s inclusion, financial inclusion, etc. are priority programmes of the Indian government. How far do you think we have come in the past four years?
I think it depends on the area you focus upon. If you look in the area of sanitation, the Prime Minister has made “Swachh Bharat" such a focus. It’s not just a focus on building toilets. The mission has evolved to how do we eliminate open defecation and safely manage and treat human waste. We think there has been a lot of progress. We are seeing the right policies being put in place that have a long-term effect. We’re seeing the building up of local organizations who are creative and entrepreneurial on the ground to solve this. And we’re seeing a long-term resolve from the government to know that this is not something that will happen overnight. So, in that area, we feel like there’s great progress being made.
In the area of digital financial inclusion, I have all the hope in the world that India may lead the world in what an inclusive financial system of the world can look like. And when I look at the numbers going through the Unified Payment Interface, they are growing by millions every day, we are seeing hundreds of millions of people being brought into the financial system in a way they haven’t been before, and I think the question that remains for us is are we seeing the results of that in poverty impact and resilience, and I think it’s too early to tell yet, although there is some good information on how even small changes in access have poverty impact. The one area I would like to see the government move forward is in the area of smallholder farmers, and actually moving beyond the food security agenda, and into how do we really operationalize this doubling of incomes, how do we see smallholder farmers as an engine of economic growth and not just a beneficiary. I feel like we’re in the beginning stages of that and I’m hoping that continues.
It’s interesting that you mention doubling farmer incomes because in India, we have two problems. First of all, small holdings, and secondly, you do have a population of landless farmers. So how realistic is this ambition of doubling farmer incomes by 2022?
Farmer incomes are already low so I’m less worried about doubling the number than what is a long-term sustainable system. If you look at the history of agri transformation, if you look at countries like China, Vietnam, Cambodia—one of the things that stood out is they saw their smallholder farmers going through stages of market development. The first stage let us generate surplus and then let us move into diversification, and then from that, you have this process of both initial labour absorption, greater productivity and then you have off-taking of that labour to other parts of the market. And so the key ingredients of that have been good extension, good market connectedness, flexibility in land rents so that people can actually consolidate land and rent it out in a safe way. And I’m not sure if we’ve seen all those policies put in place. So, I am worried about the landless issue, but I do think if there is a sizable population of smallholding, if we have the right policies in place we would see that productivity gain, and then we see the market forces start to take over, including export markets. So, I believe the landless issue is a real challenge and the government of India is looking into it, but I do believe, let’s start with the tens of millions of farmers who do have small holdings, get their productivity up, and then work on the landless issue. We are at the beginning stages but we need to put in place incentives that allow the flexibility of the market, because they’re not the same ones that led to the green revolution.
You mention that women contribute 17% to India’s GDP. What steps can bring more women into the workforce?
I think it’s a complex problem with social and economic dimensions, and I think part of this will happen as programmes (for women) roll out. I don’t think there’s going to be this cookie cutter image of it worked in Bangladesh so it should work in India or it worked in Africa so it should work in India. And so I think we’re going to have to ask ourselves a set of questions. What are the meaningful policies that bring women into the economy? Time poverty is a real issue—issues of family leave, crèche, these seem to make a big difference. I think the next question is—what is the infrastructure women need to fully participate or pursue higher levels of secondary education completion. We’re seeing higher levels of tertiary and primary education. But then, there is this big falloff where women aren’t getting the jobs right after, and why is that? I think there is probably both an economic and a social dimension and I think that’s where we are going to have to work with local organizations, including self help groups (SHGs)—a social infrastructure created by the government of India covering nearly 50-70 million women, to understand where that disconnect is and what’s the collection of benefits that will help improving women’s access to work, incomes, and social leadership roles. What we do know from the world is that when the right policies are put in place, when the right evolution of social norms and benefits get put in place, women do respond to those economic incentives.
One of the things this government takes credit for is digital financial inclusion, Aadhaar and bank accounts. There have been reports that these systems create more exclusionary tendencies in terms of verification processes—they are troublesome, difficult. Do you think the Aadhaar system is actually not as inclusive as it should be?
I actually don’t think I’m in a position to judge where Aadhaar stands, but globally there are a few things that stand out. One is that low-income people suffer from being under-known and that makes it really hard for them to fully participate in the economy and that shows up in three ways. I don’t have or can’t afford access to all the verification needed again and again for Know Your Customer or approve my ID again and again. And that’s a frictional and expensive thing for low-income people to do. Secondly, if I don’t have a way to be known or ID-ed, I often get taken advantage of; I don’t get the benefits I am supposed to from government. I don’t feel empowered to give my voice even if I’m questioning something. We have seen again and again that in countries that have a good ID system, it improves the empowerment of low-income people, it improves their economic participation and it lowers the cost of participation. So, they access healthcare better, they access financial services better. I think a programme that is low cost, robust and allows low-income people to have an ID is a good thing. Now, how Aadhaar works is something the Gates foundation doesn’t have a view on. The last thing I’d say on that is, there are a lot of movements that said, we will build one system for wealthier or middle class people, and the poor people will have a secondary system—a different financial system, healthcare system, agri system. And I think any system that’s inclusive, which brings everybody is the right way to go. An ID is a big piece of that because we think everybody benefits from an economy that includes everyone.
What do you see as challenges for India in the areas you mentioned?
If we look at the overall development goals, while India has made great progress, there is still a really large percentage of the world’s low-income folks who live in India. And so, it’s going to be how we continue the pace of growth that reaches these low income folks. And as we go deeper and deeper into the poverty pyramid, it becomes harder to do it. That’s going to be a challenge.
A secondary challenge is, as the economy matures and grows, dealing with smallholder farmers is going to be an essential piece of growth, and I’m not sure we have figured out how we drive that productivity gain in India. And it’s one that we at Gates Foundation are happy to partner India with, to explore how we can see how we can be helpful with our global experience. And I think nutrition is going to continue to be a big one because stuntedness is such a problem.
I think that’s where we know some things work and we have to figure out how to roll those out to rural areas.