Title: State of India’s Livelihoods Report 2016
Authors: Girija Srinivasan and Narasimhan Srinivasan
Publisher: Sage Publications and ACCESS Development
Price: Rs 1,250/-
Torn from their families
Mothers go hungry
To feed their children
But children go hungry
There’s so many big men
They’re out making millions
When poverty’s profits
Just blame the children.
— If There’s A God in Heaven by Elton John
The State of India’s Livelihoods (SOIL) Report, published annually since 2008, documents the everyday challenges faced by poor Indians. It is the only document that aggregates the experiences of and trends within the livelihoods sector, analyses case studies, and reports progress of both government and private-run programmes aimed primarily at poverty alleviation.
The task is indeed gigantic. According to most recent World Bank estimates, India is home to one out of every four of world’s extreme poor. And though the ranks of middle-class Indians have swelled – particularly after the economic reforms were unleashed more than a quarter century ago in 1991 — much of this newly-emergent segment of Indian population remains fragile, making it vulnerable to falling back into the poverty trap.
Consider the plight of marginal and small farmers. Despite remarkable progress in agricultural practices and infusion of technologies, three lakh farmers committed suicide in the 20-year period between 1995 and 2015. “The rising trend in farmer suicides is symptomatic of the pressures faced in farm-based livelihoods”, explain SOIL, adding that “the causes are many, but economic causes have mostly been at the root.” For instance, if one were to calculate the net returns to farmers from different crops at the prevailing Minimum Support Price (MSP), one finds that out of 14 major kharif crops, seven provide a negative net return whereas three other offer a net return of less than five per cent!
Added to this is the continuing specter of jobless growth and the fact that higher growth rates have failed to generate commensurate employment potential. The report aptly quotes Narendranath of Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN) saying: “The rising water can only lift boats. What if the people in the water did not have boats?” The shrinking employment market is bound to adversely impact the younger Indians who are ready and eager to join the workforce. “India’s demographic dividend or challenge comes from the 264 million people who are in the age bracket of 15-25 years today or would be in this bracket in the coming five years,” reveals SOIL report.
Since poverty and employment continue to dominate India’s economic and political discourse – and will remain the same for long time to come – the SOIL report has dedicated its longest chapter on evaluating a decade of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Touted as world’s largest employment-generation initiative, it confers the right to demand employment upon the workers for at least 100 days in a given year. In doing so, it stresses on creation of durable productive assets that can, in turn, strengthen the livelihood resource base of the poor and vulnerable.
In reality, though, the average employment days for each participating household have been less than half. Moreover, “the percentage of households that completed 100 days have been very low and has never crossed 15%. While it touched the lowest level of 6% in the year 2014-15, the average performance has been about 10%,” SOIL report reveals, adding that work too is not easily available to participating households. More crucially, “in spite of being operational for 10 years, the system of timely wage payment to workers is not streamlined.” In 2015-16, for instance, 65 per cent of the amount paid in wages was delayed beyond 15 days, whereas 10 per cent of such payments were late by more than three months. “Reports from the field also suggest that wage payments are often less than the notified wage.” A tough situation for the poorest who exist from day to day.
However, a positive fallout of the Scheme has been the somewhat stable and higher participation of women. One reason is that men tend to undertake jobs in the market wherever such wages are higher than the MGNEGRS while women seek employment under the scheme. Secondly, women tend to prefer MGNEGRS work since it is mostly in public spaces and is less exploitative than wage labour in privately-owned farms and enterprises.
Another equally informative chapter of the SOIL report concerns climate change and its impact on the farming sector. “Climate Change Vulnerability Index…has ranked India the second most vulnerable country to climate change next to Bangladesh due to the acute population pressure and a consequent strain on natural resources,” the report says in opening remarks. Among others, the report also comments on the ongoing ‘politically-charged but economically-incorrect’ debate on cow protection. “Extra males/unproductive females are very difficult to be disposed of which has increased the uneconomic stray cattle population….This is also another cause of concern as they tend to compete with common pool of available feed resources apart from generating emissions leading to global warming.”
A novel initiative organized by the authors of SOIL report was a roundtable comprising practitioners involved in designing, implementing and funding livelihoods at various levels. The report carries their discussions verbatim in a separate chapter.
On the whole, the report is informative and insightful. But its optimism is tentative, particularly when it feels that the “rush of new policies and schemes dare us to dream.” Such laundry-lists were furnished by all the post-Independence governments – be it ‘roti, kapda aur makan’ or ‘India Shining’ – but none could make a dent on continuing levels of destitution and deprivation. Poverty isn’t a technical problem which could be solved with policies alone; it’s a social curse which requires far more fundamental changes within the system. That takes time and above all, the political will. Any takers?