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Government has described the SECC as a useful policy tool to address multiple layers of poverty. It should use it to good effect in WTO too. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Government has described the SECC as a useful policy tool to address multiple layers of poverty. It should use it to good effect in WTO too. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Why caste census findings need to be taken to Nairobi, via Geneva

A simple but powerful case can be made that here is a comprehensive census which shows that the Indian farmer is entrenched in deep poverty

The difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician thinks about the next election while the statesman thinks about the next generation, said 19th century American author James Freeman Clarke. Reactions to the recently released Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) only reaffirms this.

Earlier this month, the government partially released the findings of the SECC, the first of its kind since the British conducted a similar survey in 1932. The exercise was commissioned by the previous United Progressive Alliance government to address the political controversy which erupted after the implementation of reservations.

Politically, the government has received flak for not revealing caste-related statistics along with provisional findings which have been released. However, this does not reduce the importance of SECC findings for policy planning in the country. SECC has enumerated people by various “deprivation-criteria". The government has said that 40% of the rural population does not meet any of the deprivation criteria and hence is liable to be excluded from the subsidy net. How this will be done on the ground is anybody’s guess. Schemes such as the public distribution system (PDS) are political hot potatoes. States are unwilling to dilute participation and hence what will likely happen is a shifting of the fiscal burden from centre to state. This is not very different from the period when the centre would only give funds to states to meet PDS requirements for people below the poverty line (BPL). Simply speaking, we are back to square one.

The prospect, however, has enthused the fiscal prudence lobby. In downsizing welfare programmes, they see a big opportunity to bring down spending and hence the fiscal deficit.

Let us set aside fiscal considerations for a moment and look at the gist of SECC findings. More than half of the rural population is landless. More than half of it earns a living by manual casual labour. Around three-fourths of it lives on less than 35 per day. Almost half does not have pukka houses. In short, a large majority of rural India lives in conditions of absolute penury. Even the biggest proponents of laissez-faire would not disagree that pro-active policy measures are needed to help this section of the population.

Fiscal constraints are only one of the problems which have to be confronted in framing such policies. Avoiding being in violation of international trade rules, framed by the World Trade Organization (WTO) is, perhaps, more harmful than fiscal strain. At least, you would not face hostile litigation for the latter.

One of the biggest promises of the WTO to developing countries was providing level-playing ground in agriculture. They would have to undertake lesser reductions in tariffs than developed nations, so it was told. Only, it was the fine print which mattered. Agriculture has emerged as the biggest source of discord between rich and poor countries in the WTO. The debate has been clinched in matters of principle. The Doha Round, agreed upon in 2001, pledged significant changes in the status-quo in the wake of demands by developing countries. The round has never been completed till now, thanks to repeated obstacles and obduracy displayed by developed countries. India played an important role in pushing the envelope in Doha. The food security issue, which India is currently pursuing, in all probability unsuccessfully, would have been clinched with many other policy reforms had the Doha mandate been honoured.

Recently, the US and its fellow-travellers have come up with a new excuse to derail the process. What was agreed in 2001 as agricultural concessions does not hold today, it is being said. The argument is that this is especially true for China and India, the world’s fastest growing economies. The premise of such an argument is that farmers in India and China do not face the same hardships as those in sub-Saharan Africa.

From India’s side, reports are coming in that opinion is being built in the government that the principle of single undertaking can be done away with, in the ongoing talks which will culminate in Nairobi ministerial conference scheduled for December this year. This basically means that the conventional principle of negotiation on all issues together would be given a go-by.

If the Doha agenda is allowed to die amid all this, it would amount to frittering away of even the limited success we have had in the WTO since its inception. This would also decisively tilt the balance against other smaller developing countries, which, like India, are faced with a situation where developed countries are extremely hostile to any demands for reduction of subsidies on the one hand, and on the other are busy framing mega-regional agreements to suit their own interest, which insulates them from any future logjam in WTO negotiations. Unfortunately, we do not seem to have a credible strategy against such a situation. Losing something in the WTO today can hurt 10 years later. Biswajit Dhar, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, noted that the government did not have much elbow room to promote exports, when it announced the new foreign trade policy with much fanfare.

In SECC, there is a rare opportunity to take the fight to the enemy. A simple but powerful case can be made that here is a comprehensive census which shows that the Indian farmer is entrenched in deep poverty. The World Bank’s definition of extreme poor includes those living on less than $1.25 per day; 75% of rural Indians live on almost $0.5 per day. A successful campaign could deeply undermine US’ strategy to create a wedge in the south-south unity in the WTO. Whether it would be done or not is a matter of foresight and statesmanship. The Congress enacted the National Food Security Act with an eye on the 2014 elections. It nearly killed it by agreeing to a four-year peace clause in Bali. This government has described the SECC as a useful policy tool to address multiple layers of poverty. It should use it to good effect in WTO too.

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