The Unchanging Face of Rural Poverty in India :
(Text of a keynote speech delivered by Dr. Abraham George at the GOPIO (Global Organization of People of Indian Origin) Conference in New York, 12 September 2002.)

'India lives in its villages' - this axiom is as true today as it was when the country became independent 55 years ago. Over 70% of the population lives in rural areas. Agriculture and related activities in rural India contribute to 33% of the Gross Domestic Product, and is responsible for the employment of over 60% of the workforce. Hence, when one talks of socio-economic progress in India, what is mostly relevant is how the lives of the rural people have changed. Overall statistics such as the national GDP could mask the reality in the rural life.

One of the great success stories of India is the nation's achievement in food production. The Bengal famine of 1943 was responsible for the deaths of over 4 million people and catapulted the Green Revolution in 1967. New agricultural methods incorporating the use of genetically improved seeds, double cropping and expansion of farming land brought about national self-sufficiency in grain production. Constant innovations in farming techniques continue to increase unit output, but this remarkable success has not yet fully insulated the country from the impact of drought and declining water sources. Nor has the contribution of the rural sector to the nation's economic prosperity brought about the desired improvement in the lives of the 300 million poor who mostly live in the villages. That is a story the nation cannot hide.

Most of us, the urbanites or the so-called "outsiders," have a nostalgic view of rural India. We think of villages as peaceful havens where people live simple lives, where the air is pure, and the land is green as far as the eye can see. Some of those images are indeed true, but the realities of day-to-day life for a majority of the rural people are nothing short of cruel. It is a living story of economic deprivation, social injustice, and hopelessness that outsiders cannot comprehend.

The real story of rural India must be told with over 300 million characters who live in poverty with less than a dollar a day in income for a family of four, and whose social status in their communities is relegated to below the holy cow, the potent snake and the spirited monkey. It is a land where the elites of the villages - the upper class and the landlords - prey on the helpless, often in collusion with government officials who are supposed to help and protect them. It is a life where hope for a better future is as distant as the burning sun, and nothing that happens around them, including the so-called "IT revolution," brings about solace.

I do not consider myself to be an "expert" on rural India, nor will I ever be in this land of diverse peoples and problems, but my work for the past 7 years in the poverty stricken Dharamapuri District of Tamil Nadu has made me more conscious, if not sensitive, of the predicament of the poor whose lives depend on the benevolence of the politicians, the wisdom of the bureaucrats, and the generosity of the rich. I find a different world from what the national statistics paint, but then, I may be seeing only the half empty glass. But it is what we must focus on, for it is what we must strive to change.

Consider the national statistics on adult literacy; it is claimed to be around 65%. Rural literacy is slightly lower. Does this statistic really reveal anything meaningful? Most of those "literate" village folks have hardly benefited from the schools they might have attended wherein poorly trained teachers irregularly hold overcrowded classes that often combine several grades or standards for want of enough teachers. Similarly, primary health care is delivered to the rural population through a network of over 150,000 primary health centers (PHCs) and sub-centres, but the reality is that the system is badly broken, as revealed in the words of one Central Health Secretary (in a private conversation with me), it is "beyond redemption." While grain production has been growing at an average annual rate of around 1% in recent years, only a handful of farmers have the means to cultivate or own cultivable land in most villages. Rural infrastructure is barely visible beyond those villages that are close to rural towns; interior villages still wait for electricity, and their muddy roads get washed away with each heavy rain. There are claims that great strides have been made in the economic empowerment of women through entrepreneurial activities with micro-credit, but the poor illiterate women I have come to know can hardly hope to succeed from such programs. Discrimination based on caste has been prohibited from the early days of the nation's birth, but the dalits of India still huddle in broken huts within the secluded sections of villages. To deal with all these situations, considerable funds are being allocated by central and state governments, and bilateral and multilateral agencies are also making their contributions, and yet, the intended beneficiaries have realized only marginal gains in the past fifty or so years. Even to a layman it is obvious that something is awfully wrong, and something different must be done if we are to expect the situation to improve in the next fifty years.

To the rural poor, deprivation is both economic and social, which in turn is the direct result of exploitation and lack of opportunities. The condition of life for the rural poor is characterized by malnutrition, illiteracy, sufferings from diseases and long-term health problems, inadequate shelter and unhygienic conditions, high infant mortality, oppression of women, and social treatment devoid of human dignity. Much of it is concealed from view, as outsider interaction is usually limited to village heads and "authorities," unless one chooses to study the Harijan colonies and interior villages that are not easily accessible. That is not to say that government programs do not target these people, or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) do not work in these areas. What is missing is adequate emphasis in dealing with the root causes of these closely interrelated problems.

The hindrances faced by the poor in overcoming their deprivation is not limited to the lack of opportunity to gain a good education and to have a steady source of income. These people are the victims of what appears to be a permanent social and economic arrangement wherein the local elites - landowners, merchants, money lenders, officials - maintain a choke hold over the poor by consolidating more wealth and power through appropriation of additional land (either by purchase or through government lease allocations), and by employing the poor at low wages, while enforcing "discipline" and silence through punitive measures. Urban interests also gain from market-based exploitation wherein rural products and services are kept at such low prices that without government subsidies, there is no profit to be gained. Similarly, urbanization of villages for cheap labor may generate employment for some of the poor, but it also perpetuates their exploitation and misery. Excess supply of labor, limited access to markets and market information, and financial weakness of the rural farmer all contribute to this inequity. This powerlessness of the poor is clearly evident in their inability to obtain even those benefits intended for them from the government, without the local elites and administrators siphoning out most of the financial resources for themselves. Many of the programs currently in place benefit their administrators more than their intended beneficiaries.

The poor get even poorer when they face social obligations such as dowry and weddings, when they are unable to work due to illnesses, or when natural disasters strike their sources of livelihood or their dwellings. They get more indebted to landlords and moneylenders, a condition they can hardly expect to overcome in their lifetime. Without an external social support system and an income-generating asset, there is no reasonable way out of this human bondage.

Altruism, idealism and a spirit of service motivate many to do good. Needless to say, compassion is not enough; what the poor want is financial and material help, and guidance and support to create opportunity for themselves. The poor do not prefer handouts over permanent and sustainable solutions to overcome their condition. Lasting solutions can be found only when the nation is prepared to face and deal with the root causes of this social and economic injustice. Some big steps in new directions need to be taken, combined with many small steps forward; diversity in approach is fine as long as the ultimate goals are consistent.

When we talk about real solutions, we also make assumptions about the preconditions necessary for success. To start with, the most essential condition is democracy itself where all people, regardless of their religion, caste and gender, have the freedom and equal opportunity to make the best of their lives. Good governance in public and private sectors, based on performance as opposed to corruption, bribes and favors, make it possible to achieve desired results through vigorous competition. Enforcement of just laws, contracts, property rights and social justice permits fair economic activity to take place. The focus on sustainable development, wealth creation and rightful distribution of assets and income offers prosperity for all. Transparency in public activity, and a free press ensure the necessary accountability. When one or more of the above conditions are absent to any degree, real solutions will be harder to achieve.

Perfection is only for the Gods, as they say, while we constantly try to improve the pre-requisites for success. In the mean time, we must start from where we are today, as imperfect as it may be. My experience in dealing with poverty in rural South India has taught me very valuable lessons, especially about what does not work today. It has also given me some insight into what can be done by way of new approaches to solving many of the perennial problems faced in several of the interrelated issues: education; healthcare; empowerment of women and socially deprived people; community and legal support; income generation and asset creation; land, water and energy management; access to markets and competitive pricing ability; and rural partnerships within a redefined role for the government. In all these issues, the real solutions lie in good public governance, building strong human foundations through education and healthcare, creating economic opportunity, and ensuring social justice. Through The George Foundation that was established in India some seven years ago, we approached these issues more or less concurrently in an integrated fashion. The observations and conclusions that I would like to present to you today are based on our experience working on a number of projects in these areas. Let me briefly elaborate them.

The purpose of education is not simply to make one "literate" by the definition of the census bureau. Without knowledge, information, and the ability to comprehend, education offers very little. Literacy as the national goal for the poor is a disservice to their future prospects, as it offers very little. Instead, the goal should be universal high school graduation under acceptable standards for reading, mathematics, and general knowledge. For quality education, the investment should be made in trained teachers, not in today's high-tech tools that are thrust upon many rural institutions at considerable expense in the name of bridging the "digital divide." All the gadgetry in the world cannot equal the impact that a skilled and dedicated teacher has on a child, even in the most rural of settings. Teacher incentive programs in the form of training and financial incentives, based on student evaluations conducted by independent private organizations, are the key to good education. The commercial interests of technology companies should not be the priority in education.

Excellence in education is hardly ever associated with the poor; it is only for the rich, for those who can afford it. But there are children among the poor who have the god-given capability to reach great heights, if only they also had the chance. If somehow these impoverished, but talented children could be given the opportunity, they would one day become the role models for other children in their communities; role models for a better future. This noble goal is something that the wealthy non-resident Indians should consider embracing; after all their own lives have benefited from excellence in their work.

Primary healthcare is the backbone of the health system in rural areas. It is where patients initially come for medical help, it is the first (and sometimes only) line of treatment against major health problems - malnutrition, viral infections, contagious diseases, and a host of other ailments. Despite considerable financial investment in the PHCs by the government, most of these centers are not meeting even the basic needs of the population. Inadequate infrastructure, absence of physicians, and lack of accountability have turned these centers into ineffective institutions. The solution lies in the three "M"s - management, mandate, and mobilization.

Each PHC should be managed by a small team, trained and appointed by a private healthcare company, that should be responsible for daily workflow, patient record keeping, and administration at the PHC. Further, it has been successfully demonstrated at the Bagalur PHC in Tamil Nadu that disease diagnosis and treatment recommendations can be made by an expert computer system for a great majority of cases, even in the absence of a doctor. The goal should be to leverage upon the limited number of physicians who are willing and available to serve in rural communities. With adequate infrastructure, proper administration, and staff incentive programs based on performance, a much smaller team of government health workers than are currently assigned at the PHC can be motivated to deliver far superior service. The work carried out by the PHC staff may be assisted by NGOs and other volunteers who can be mobilized from the community. The above strategy does not require higher budget spending on PHCs; it fact, streamlining of PHC workflow and automation of many functions could result in lower operating costs. Successful private-government partnerships at PHCs are possible only when governments give the necessary mandate and authority for private management teams to effectively administer the delivery of healthcare.

Modern farming using precision agricultural tools is the key to increased output and profitability. Reliance on traditional methods by the small farmer is necessitated by a lack of adequate funds; hence the goal should be to teach new techniques and offer financial credits to implement them. Once again, private institutions can be appointed by the government and rewarded on the basis of crop output from those farms they oversee. It is important to ensure that the farmer receives all the subsidies and other incentives that he is entitled to, instead of the officials who administer them. Special incentives should be provided for dry-land cultivation, and water management using drip irrigation, "fracturing" of wells, and water collection and storage. Use of solar and wind energy can be a good alternative to conventional power in most areas, as there is usually plenty of sun and wind during most of the year. Once again, lowering the cost of such technologies and long-term financial credit can pave the way for reducing the cost of farming. Vigorous competition among private companies in these product areas will assure the introduction of superior technologies and cost effective solutions.

Most small farmers lack access to non-local markets for their produce, mainly as a result of inadequate market information and transport costs. The government can assist small farmers by helping them form cooperative marketing arrangements, and by offering daily price information. Further, seasonal fixed price purchase arrangements can be negotiated by the cooperatives with buyers and processing companies. The goal here should be to find ways to improve the collective bargaining power of small farmers, without direct involvement by government officials in the determination of prices.

In a society where men control the destiny of women, how is it possible to empower women? Simply encouraging women to resist the wishes of men would not only fail, but would create mistrust of any goodwill attempts from "the outside" to help rural communities. Women will gain power only when both men and women begin to respect and accept the contribution of women. Developing women's capacity for income generation without threatening men is key.

Past experience has taught us that attempts to control the number of children through behavioral changes in men have failed because families do not see the benefit of fewer children. Children, especially boys, are viewed as extra hands that can provide income and help with family chores. The poorer the family, the more children they seek. Hence, it is evident that the economic status of the family plays a major role in family planning. Birth control and reproductive health of women are behavioral issues affected mostly by economics, access to health care, and education. Until this reality is accepted, and effective strategies are put in place, the desired changes may not be attainable in the foreseeable future.

Education plays an important role in bringing about awareness of women's rights. When both boys and girls grow up with mutual respect and understanding of their capabilities and roles in the society, women are more likely to find their rightful place within the family and the community. But, sadly enough, rural education perpetuates the myth that boys are inherently superior to girls. This is further reinforced by the family where even mothers tend to give more attention and opportunities to their boys. These ingrained attitudes towards women can be changed by a persistent nationwide effort using classrooms and mass media, especially television, to impact people's prejudices and social behavior.

Behavioral change can be initiated and promoted only by those who have earned the trust of the people they claim to serve; government officials are amongst the least trusted, and hence, they are the most ill-suited for the task. People listen to those whom they trust, but still may not act without financial incentives that are offered through economic opportunities, and without actually seeing the infrastructure for delivery of services. Hence, projects run exclusively by private and non-governmental institutions (assisted directly by government, international agencies and private donors), without unwanted governmental interference, have a better chance of success.

Poor women, especially from backward communities and lower castes, are mostly illiterate, untrained, and have very little social and economic status. In India, there are over 300 million such people, mainly in rural areas. The unemployed are nearly 150 million, a great majority of them belonging to these deprived sections of the society. Without meaningful skills, social status, and economic power, they are unable to do any business on their own even with financial assistance.

In order to develop adequate skills and to help them save sufficient funds, we at The George Foundation devised a plan for empowering poor and socially deprived women. The key ingredients of this program are summarized below:

1. Adequate training in modern farming is provided through a "learn while you earn" program involving several acres of vegetable and banana cultivation;
2. Use of superior technology such as drip irrigation, deep ploughing, precision application of fertilizers, etc. to obtain better output and higher profits;
3. Creation of financial assets from profits generated from the sale of produce, over and above wages received;
4. Ownership of physical assets from the use of financial assets to purchase cultivable land of approximately ½ acre per family;
5. Sharing of resources such as wells, tractor, etc. among several farmers who purchase the land;
6. Provide a support system that addresses concerns, difficulties, know-how, etc.;
7. Give access to information and markets, such as knowing what high-value crop to grow and when, which markets offer higher prices on a given day, and tie up long-term purchase and export contracts.

Though the final chapter on this program is not yet written, the concept of getting each poor family a piece of land to cultivate high value crops is unquestionably sound. If all the "paramboke" or waste government land can be transformed into fertile cultivable land, the poor as well as the nation as a whole will benefit. It is becoming increasingly clear to us that good management and dedicated work by the labor can assure good profitability in an otherwise commercial venture that is designed to directly empower the poor. Ownership of cultivable land and the ability to successfully grow high-value crops year after year will ensure a permanent change in the economic and social condition of the poor. It is a partnership between an NGO and the poor farmer, with the government offering financial assistance in the form of subsidies for electricity, fertilizer and so on. These and other models that focus on physical asset creation for the poor in return for their dedicated work represent new bold concepts that need to be looked at for reducing rural poverty.

NGOs can play a very effective role in "community activities" involving counseling on personal and legal problems, health education, sanitation projects, organizing savings programs, and fighting for individual and human rights. Vocational training in fields, from tailoring to computer data entry, is also valuable for future employment. In all their work, lessons learned from the past have convinced the NGO world that sustainability is a key issue, and that is possible only by making people self-sufficient. Consequently, NGOs are now employing the strategy of working through the people. In order to make quick and meaningful progress, most NGOs work with groups instead of individuals. All benefits to the community go through these groups. However, project interventions, such as capital required to dig wells, are funded through the NGO. Another new thrust towards sustainability is the focus on maintenance of programs. For example, if a water and sanitation program is funded initially by the NGO to build toilets, get hand pumps put up, etc., then the NGO may subsequently help form a village management group that would maintain these assets.

There are many partners involved in a program. Most NGOs prefer to stay away from government assistance due to the bureaucratic hassles involved. But, any money is welcome. The government has also found that it is easier to get their work done by NGOs and hence, it is willing to fund projects through them. One could find an NGO doing work in a village on health, another on education, and a third on watershed -- all funded by different agencies. NGOs often act as a coordinating body, with implementation tasks often given to local officials. Looking at the evaluation reports of projects carried out by some of the NGOs, it is evident that there is a definite positive impact in their intervention areas.

Notions that the government "owns" the poor, and only bureaucrats have the compassion and wisdom to help them must be discarded. The poor do not need patronizing from anyone, but what they want is a helping hand, an opportunity to help themselves, and social justice. Further, good governance and transparency can bring about the necessary trust and effectiveness. The time has come for the world to realize that new rural partnerships among and between the poor, and all the outsiders - government, private institutions and NGOs - need to be formed to solve this unacceptable human rights issue.

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