The great Indian divide

Published : Jul 16, 2004 00:00 IST

Undernourished tribal children of Puriras village in Dhantewad district in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. Family incomes in the area come from a single paddy crop and forest produce. Health and educational facilities are nearly non-existent. - PAUL NORONHA

Undernourished tribal children of Puriras village in Dhantewad district in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. Family incomes in the area come from a single paddy crop and forest produce. Health and educational facilities are nearly non-existent. - PAUL NORONHA

The sharp increase in rural-urban disparities in India after decades of planned development is alarming, for planning itself was conceived as an instrument to narrow down such disparities.

RURAL-urban disparities, particularly in post-colonial countries, have for long been one of the causes of concern for the policymakers. The disparities are seen in all spheres of human life - economic and non-economic. The extent of disparities, however, differs from country to country. The long colonial rule in India had created an urban-rural divide. What causes great concern now-a-days is the sharp increase in the level of disparities after a few decades of planning, especially because planning was conceived as an instrument to narrow down rural-urban disparities.

Rural India encompasses a little less than three-fourths of the country's population and is characterised by low income levels, poor quality of life and a weak base of human development. Nearly one-third of the national income comes from villages, but there is a significant rural-urban divide.

Agriculture is the mainstay of most post-colonial countries. It supports roughly two-thirds of the workforce. But the lion's share of India's national resources is directed to the non-agricultural sector, as is evident from the table.

The agricultural sector has been growing at less than half the pace of the other sectors. During the Seventh Plan, agriculture and allied sectors grew at a rate of 3.4 per cent, while the national economy grew at 6 per cent. In 1997-98, there was a negative growth of 2 per cent in the agricultural sector, although the national economy grew by 5 per cent.

The slower rate of growth of agriculture has serious implications for the rural-urban relationship. In an article in Alternative Economic Survey, Kripa Shankar has shown that it results in the further widening of the divide, as the following data relating to agricultural and non-agricultural gross domestic product (GDP) at 1980-81 prices indicate. The GDP per agricultural worker was Rs.2,442.49 in 1950-51, followed by Rs.3,196 in 1970-71 and Rs.3,627 in 1995-96. The GDP per non-agricultural worker rose sharply from Rs.4, 469.63 in 1950-51 to Rs.9,179 in 1970-71 and to Rs.16,715.08 in 1995-96. There has been a further steep rise after the Central government accepted the Structural Adjustment Programme. While the GDP per agricultural worker rose from Rs.3,544.98 in 1990-91 to Rs.3,627 in 1995-96, the per non-agricultural worker rise was from Rs.14,660 to Rs.16,715.08 during the same period. The data tend to show that the ratio between the agricultural output per farm worker and the average output per non-farm worker, which was 1:1.83 in 1950-51, rose to 1:4.6 in 1995-96.

The introduction of the policy of liberalisation has affected non-farm employment in rural areas. In 1997-98, the annual increase in non-farm employment in rural areas was 4.06 per cent. In 1983-84 it was 3.28 per cent. During 1999-2000 it came down to 2.14 per cent. The consequence has been a very slow reduction in rural poverty. In 1993-94 it was 39.36 per cent, in 1999-2000 the figure came down marginally to 36.35 per cent.

Agricultural investments account for 10 per cent of the total investments in the country. The neglect of agriculture and allied sectors is evident from the budgetary allocation. It has never been more than 20 per cent. In 1997-98 the Central and State governments spent Rs.12,000 crores on the police, which was marginally lower than the Central and State plan outlay on agriculture and allied activities.

According to one estimate, the average income of an urban dweller is four times higher than that of a rural dweller. Rural deprivation becomes crystal clear if we look at the data on rural India's contribution to the GDP and what the rural areas get back. Rural contribution is 27 per cent but the return is 5 per cent.

THE Human Development Report of India (1999) attempted to divide the rural and urban household on the basis of their incomes as shown in the table. The income status is reflected in the per capita consumption expenditure. In 1999-2000 the per capita per month consumption expenditure on the rural areas was Rs.486.08 and in the case of urban areas it was Rs.854.96, according to HDR 2002.

Data collected by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) show that the average per capita expenditure (MPCE) in rural India during 2000-01 amounted to Rs.499.90, which was a little over the corresponding figure of Rs.914.57 for an urban dweller. Interestingly, the gap between the average for urban and rural areas has widened by over 8 percentage points between 1987-88 and 2000-01. As 1987-88 was a drought year, the increase in the disparity level is all the more significant. The NSSO data show that while 75 per cent of the country's population in 2000-01 resided in rural areas, they accounted for less than 62 per cent of the total consumption expenditure.

If we look at the poverty data, a similar situation is noticed. India, a developing economy of over a billion people, recorded a relatively high economic growth during 1980-2000, especially during the 1990s, a decade known for noteworthy structural economic reforms. This period also recorded a decline in the incidence of poverty and improvement in parameters of human development such as levels of literacy, health and nutrition conditions. Development policies focussed on enhanced and targeted public investments in programmes that facilitated improvements in the quality of life of the masses, but the disparity remains.

THE disparities in the social development sector are mind-boggling. Rural adult illiteracy is a matter of alarming concern. In 2001, the urban literacy rate was 80.06 per cent but the rural literacy rate was 59.21 per cent. Thus, the difference in rural - urban areas in terms of percentage points is 20.85. Data released by the Planning Commission show that among illiterate people aged 60 years and above, 78.2 per cent live in rural areas. In urban areas the figure is 48.2 per cent. Of the illiterate people who are 15 years and above but not beyond 60 years, rural areas have 55.8 per cent and the urban areas 25.1 per cent.

Of the school-going children in the age group of 5-14 years, 82.4 per cent live in urban areas. The rural figure is 63.3 per cent. Kerala has been able to bring this disparity down quite considerably - 93.2 per cent in villages and 94.3 per cent in urban areas.

Data collected from the sample registration system show that while the life expectancy at birth in rural areas is 58 years, in the case of urban India it is 64.9 years. Kerala's performance again is noteworthy - 71.8 years in rural and 79.8 years in urban areas.

The disparity is noticeable even in respect of the sex ratio. Census 2001 data have shown a general improvement in this regard because in 1991 the sex ratio was 927 women for 1,000 men while in 2001 it was 933 women for 1,000 men. The Census data have also given the urban-rural break-up, which shows that while in the case of urban India the ratio is 901 women to 1,000 men, in the case of rural India it is 946 women to 1,000 men.

The Indian state has the primary responsibility to supply safe drinking water to all the people in the country irrespective of their place of habitat. But the situation is far from desirable. The National Sample Survey (NSS) data (1998, 5th round) show that while 70.1 per cent of urban dwellers have access to piped water, in the case of the rural people it is as low as 18.7 per cent. Public health facilities are so inadequate in rural areas that the death rate per 1,000 is 9.6 per cent while in urban areas it is 6 per cent. In rural areas the infant mortality rate is 77 per 1,000 but in urban areas it is as low as 45.

Data on rural-urban disparity on the availability of sanitary facilities indicate the gravity of the problem. The NSS data indicate that 84.4 per cent of rural households are devoid of toilet facilities; in the case of urban areas it is 23 per cent.

The same scenario emerges if we look at the data on households with access to toilets tabulated in the National Human Development Report, 2002, prepared by the Planning Commission. In 1991, such facilities were enjoyed by only 9.48 per cent of rural households; in the case of urban households it was 63.85 per cent.

Policymakers are of late talking about the introduction of technology to improve the quality of life of the people. Electricity is the basic requirement. In India, according to the data tabulated in HDR 2002, only 30.54 per cent of rural households had electricity; in the case of urban areas it was higher: 75.78 per cent.

The bias of the state in favour of urban areas is evident from the per capita expenditure on basic services. According to the estimate of the Eleventh Finance Commission, per capita expenditure on basic services in rural areas during 1997-98 was Rs.24, but in urban areas it was Rs.49. Rural India contributes 27 per cent to the GDP, but gets back only 5 per cent, which is less than one-fifth of its contribution.

Abusalef Shariff and others, in an article in Economic and Political Weekly (March 1, 2002), have shown that while the share of expenditure on urban poverty alleviation programmes in the total budgetary allocation by the Central government declined from 1 per cent to 0.8 per cent during the period between 1990-91 and 2000-01, the per capita expenditure for urban poor increased from Rs.11 to Rs.28 during the same period. But for the rural poor, the per capita expenditure it is just one-eighth of this.

In a post-colonial capitalist country like India, uneven rural-urban development or rural-urban disparity is not unusual. While it is almost impossible to bring it to an end, it is possible to reduce the disparity to a tolerable level. It may be recalled that Gandhiji emphasised on rural growth and pleaded for village swaraj. He wanted the engine of India's development to start rolling down from the villages. But it became clear from the discussions in the Constituent Assembly that it would not happen. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar characterised villages as "a sink of localism, ignorance and communalism". Nehru felt that villages were culturally backward and no progress could be made from such places. Urban bias was clearly reflected in the attitude of the policymakers. This seems to be continuing unabated.

In the Human Development Index prepared by the Planning Commission, there is a significant divide. The value for rural areas is 0.340, in the case of urban areas it is as high as 0.511. The index is a composite of variables capturing attainments in three dimensions of human development namely, economic, educational and health. The same is the situation in respect of the Human Poverty Index: rural 42.25 and urban 44.8.

Given the situation, what can be done to reduce the level of disparity to a desirable level is a matter that calls for serious consideration. There is no doubt that India's rural economy cannot grow without agricultural development. Capitalist agricultural productivity is constrained by the system itself. Effective land reform coupled with non-land input support to the beneficiaries can result in an increase in agricultural productivity.

Apart from taking steps to increase human development facilities in the villages, such as health and education, and develop appropriate infrastructure such as roads and marketing facilities, there is the need for generating employment, which can better the living conditions of villagers. We need to adopt a long-term policy, keeping in mind the requirements of the rural and urban areas. A close look at the development plan exercises tends to demonstrate that ad-hocism permeates the policy processes.

In the rural areas there are many resources lying unutilised. It is time to identify these and make proper use of them. The application of Information Technology can be of great help in identifying what is lying unutilised or underutilised.

In West Bengal, it is being done in some rural and municipal areas. Jalpaiguri has done a remarkable job in this regard. It is the only district in the State to go in for participatory decentralised planning. Under this programme, the people themselves prepared village registers, electoral constituency-wise (gram sansad). These registers are mines of information, and they record the people's perceptions of development. The database is important for the development planning exercise.

Kerala has shown the way through the people's campaign for decentralised planning. Rural-urban disparity is the least in Kerala. There is a rural-urban continuum, rather than a divide. The people's campaign has definitely helped to make further improvement in the situation. The fact, however, remains that these steps at the State level, no matter how significant they are, cannot fully take care of the problem unless there is a shift of policy at the national level. This calls for sustained pressure from the bottom, that is, rural India. Secondly, urban development in a country like India has to dovetail with rural development. Otherwise, rural out migration will upset the applecart.

The author is Centenary Professor of Public Administration, Calcutta University and Honorary Adviser, Institute of Local Government and Urban Studies and State Institute of Panchayats and Rural Development, Government of West Bengal.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment