Maharashtra: Neoliberal road to poverty

In 125 villages in Maharashtra, the writer Heramb Kulkarni finds the poor trapped in a cycle of poverty and unemployment.

Published : Jul 29, 2019 07:00 IST

Heramb Kulkarni

Heramb Kulkarni

Heramb Kulkarni is a well-known and respected writer in Maharashtra. Troubled by the condition of his home State, he undertook a personal journey to try and understand the ground reality of poverty. From July 2017 to February 2018, he visited 125 poor villages in 24 rural districts of Maharashtra. His report on what he saw says nothing new—and that in a sense is the tragedy, that things have remained the same. What is important is that what he says is not motivated by any political thought or ambition but stems from his observations and compassionate discussions with poor people. The report, entitled “Exploring the Status of Poverty in Maharashtra” and published by Pune’s Samakaleen Prakashan, affirms one thing above all: that India’s economic liberalisation has not had a trickle-down effect among the majority of the population.

Kulkarni says the idea of the survey germinated in 2016, the year that marked 25 years of India’s shift to economic liberalisation. There were “conflicting reports in the media on whether this had indeed led to a decrease in poverty”, and Kulkarni decided to see for himself. “The study was undertaken purely for my own enlightenment and was not on behalf of any organisation,” he says.

To present a fair representation of the State, he chose mainly districts in Vidarbha and Marathwada. In north Maharashtra, he chose Nandurbar and Nashik. In the Konkan, he picked Raigad, Palghar and Thane and in western Maharashtra, Satara and Sangli. Then, he chose the two poorest taluks from each district and picked about five of the poorest villages in these for visiting. In Yavatmal district, however, he visited 13 villages because the district had seen a very large number of suicides by farmers. These 13 villages were selected on the basis of discussions with people who had worked in the area.

Using the focus group discussion style, Kulkarni spoke at length with a variety of people. His was “not a research project in the usual sense of the word”. When he visited a place, he would “request people to informally assemble and then carry out detailed discussions of their lives, earnings and experiences”. In this way, he touched on their daily lives, and judging by what he has penned down, his sincerity seems to have touched a chord.

The failure of liberalisation to change the lives of the poor is in evidence everywhere. While few families starve in the actual sense of the word, the food they get is neither adequate nor nutritious with only meagre inputs of fresh vegetables and proteins. The creation of employment, trumpeted as one of the benefits of the liberalisation policies, has turned out to be a mirage and “within State” migration for work remains rampant.

Kulkarni writes: “Seasonal employment for sugar cane harvesting, work at the brick kilns and stone quarrying have always been the major drivers of such migration. However, tribals migrating for working at the plantation crops and villagers migrating to cities and towns seem to contribute now an additional five million or so people. Out of necessity, over a long time, people seem to depend less and less on the government and have managed to find their own approaches for eking out a living [emphasis added]. They work in their own village as long as some employment is available, and then routinely move to the cities straightaway. The extreme hardships (exploitation, cheating, atrocities, inhuman working conditions, etc.) faced by these migrants in towns and cities have been so completely invisible that these have not even entered the social debates.”

Agricultural reform and revival are another liberalisation myth. Kulkarni points out how “shrinking of area under cultivation, decreasing farm income, increasing expenses, falling of employment in agriculture and the decreasing of wages have been operating inexorably to push farmers further into poverty and, tragically, suicide”. He says: “One cannot help getting the feeling that the government policy is to downplay the seriousness of the problem by deliberately reporting lower figures in the official data, etc. The same unfortunate story can be heard from most of such suicide-affected families—repeated crop failures leading to depression that ultimately drives the farmer to take his own life.”

“Who are the poorest of the poor is a question that I am asked quite often,” he writes. “Nomadic tribes seem to constitute one such group that has remained completely untouched by any kind of development. The situation of those belonging to the lower rungs of the social ladder even amongst these castes is particularly tragic. It is impossible even to know the number of people belonging to this class—even the Chief Minister of Maharashtra will be unable to obtain the relevant statistics. How can then any development process ever reach these people about whom such absolutely basic information as the population size itself remains unknown? Even today, these nomads stay in the temporary hutments outside the town that they are currently visiting. Problems are far too numerous—no toilets for women, water gushing into the hutments during monsoon, children forced to beg for food….

“The most disturbing aspect of poverty is the appalling state of availability of health-care services. This is the most serious of the problems that needs urgent attention. The government hospitals and dispensaries function very inefficiently, and costs of availing services of the private medical sector are totally beyond the reach of the poor. As a result, it is impossible for them to face any serious illness—deaths by thousands is the result. One runs into this stark reality everywhere. One of the main reasons why so many families have to avail loans again and again (and thus getting pushed into the debt-trap) is the high expense of medical treatment of an ailing family member. The biggest factor driving people into poverty seems to be the expenses related to availing medical treatment.”

Rampant corruption

Kulkarni provides no solutions because that is not what he set out to do. His observations reflect the reality, and he hopes that the pathos of the situation will be powerful enough to force the hand of the administration. But he is not too optimistic either.

“Corruption seems rampant in irrigation projects, road construction projects and (ironically) in the various government schemes meant for benefiting the common people. The Marathwada region seems to be most severely affected by this malady. A young recipient of the ‘Chief Minister fellowship’ for conducting research, while compiling the lists of eligible beneficiaries of the various schemes, started coming across bigger and bigger scams. Instead of setting matters right, the BDO [Block Development Officer], who was in charge of these matters, berated him for what he had found! This example should provide eloquent testimony to the all-pervasiveness of corruption at the ground level. One cannot help feeling that the quantum of money siphoned off due to corruption is more than adequate to eliminate poverty! One normally cites lack of adequate funds as the reason for many poverty-removal schemes not proving to be successful. However, the real issue is not of the lack of funds, but that of the available funds not being properly used for the intended purpose.”

His report notes the “complete failure of the administration… the gramasevaks do not even regularly visit the villages assigned to them. The government officials have become so completely habituated to behaving callously and with complete impunity that people have lost the will to question them. The governments regularly announce many beneficial schemes with great fanfare but due to such bureaucracy, the implementation is pathetic. The ‘group panchayat’ system currently in force has its office located in a major village, with several not-so-near villages affiliated to it. As a result, most of the development is restricted only to the main village and the far-off villages suffer from almost total neglect.”

Employment and education schemes are also implemented without thought. An example: “A large number of unemployed youths are seen everywhere. Gratuitous advice that they should work is freely provided to them. However, work related to agricultural activities is seasonal…. The real problem is the lack of employment in this remaining period. When I asked a young man from Pandharkawada in Yavatmal district, who was a trained wireman, as to why he did not take up any wiring-related assignments, his despondent reply was: ‘In our taluk town alone, there are 122 trained wiremen. How will there be any work for all of them every day?’”

In the context of unemployment, Kulkarni raises an issue that is hardly spoken of: “The number of young people dying due to excessive drinking is seen to be disturbingly high in most places. This problem too never seems to figure in discussions about poverty any more.”

Kulkarni says he had a “distinct feeling that there are two different Maharashtras within the single State of Maharashtra. The rapidly developing Mumbai-Pune-Nashik triangle seems to be totally disconnected from the situation seen in Vidarbha, Marathwada, Palghar, Nandurbar, etc.”

Asked what he hoped to achieve by undertaking his tour of poverty-stricken villages, he said: “I hope it will provide a reference or feedback to those organisations, intellectuals, journalists, students and researchers who wish to study the problem of poverty.”

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