NREGA programme in implementation in a Tamil Nadu village
It is not a vote for stability. This verdict is for dal-roti.
In May 2004, an angry rural protest vote had driven out an arrogant Shining India brigade. Five years later, in 2009, rural anger seems to have mellowed down. Probably for the first time, dal-roti has taken precedence over the competitive caste calculus. The rural poor certainly voted for those who gave them their daily bread. Political stability at the national level was not on their minds, it never was.
It is also not a vote for reforms. In fact, if the Congress is back in saddle it is despite the reforms. Corporate India's excitement at the verdict is obvious, but if the Congress gets swayed by a corporate-controlled media which continues to chant the reform mantra day and night, it will script its own demise.
A year back, Rs 60,000-crore farm loan waiver was announced in Budget 2008. The loan waiver was subsequently raised to Rs 71,000-crore. Before the loan waiver came, the UPA had already launched the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Promising to provide a guaranteed employment for at least 100 days in a year to an adult member of any rural household, it was launched on Feb 2, 2006 in 200 districts. In April 2008, at the insistence of Rahul Gandhi, the NREGS was expanded to cover the entire country.
Reports of corruption and misuse notwithstanding, the NREGS has certainly changed the economic profile of the landless workers. Ever since the scheme was launched, daily wage of workers have at least doubled. In Bihar, from Rs 50-60 in 2007, the daily wages have now gone up to Rs 120-130 in 2009; in Andhra Pradesh, from Rs 70-80 to Rs 140-150; in Maharashtra, from Rs 65-75 to Rs 150-180 and in Gujarat, from Rs 70-85 to Rs 150-160.
Both the NREGS as well as the farm loan waiver were strongly opposed by neoliberal economists. It is well known that the Planning Commission and the Ministry of Rural Development had initially opposed the launch of NREGS. Later, the World Bank opposed it saying that the NREGS actually created barrier for free movement of labour.
The third, and an equally important decision that has weighed heavily in favour of the ruling UPA is the quantum jump in the procurement price of wheat, rice, cotton, and also in some other crops like sugarcane, soybean, tur and arhar. It really is a significant hike, unprecedented since the days of the Green Revolution. In the past three years, wheat procurement prices have risen by a whopping 69 per cent, whereas that of rice by 61 per cent. Cotton prices have been raised by 50 per cent, from Rs 2050 a quital in 2008 to Rs 3000 a quintal in 2009.
During the NDA regime, procurement prices had remained more or less stangnant.
With wheat prices rising by approximately Rs 300 a quintal in a span of 2-3 years, Punjab and Haryana farmers had enough reasons to cheer. In Uttar Pradesh, media reports highlighted the distress sale of wheat in the absence of regulated mandis. Wheat farmers had to take their produce to neighbouring Haryana and Madhya Pradesh to realise the procurement price of Rs 1080 a quintal. If only the State government had stepped in at the right time, probably Mayawati's electoral fortunes would have been a little brighter.
In Bihar, Nitish Kumar not only streamlined the law and order machinery but also focused on programmes like NREGS, Mid-Day meal, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Bihar voted for an able administrator and not for national stability. West Bengal too uprooted the Corporate driven industrial salvation. By voting for Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, West Bengal has given a clear verdict against land acquisitions in the name of development. Again, Nandigram and Singur became a symbol of the Corporate efforts to snatch dal-roti from the poor, and the people resisted. The underlying message is crystal clear: land is the only economic security for the poor millions.
In Andhra Pradesh, Y S Rajasekhara Reddy could feel the pulse of the masses, and prepared himself accordingly. Rs 2 kg rice for the poor, health insurance through the Argoaysri scheme under which the poor can get surgeries upto Rs 2 lakh free, Indiramma houses for the poor and the old-age pension scheme have paid him rich dividends. At least, 1.85 crore families living below poverty line gained from the Rs 2 kg rice scheme alone.
In addition, YSR has made heavy investments in irrigation projects, not all of which can be justified, but still has generated hope for the farming community. Free power to farmers definitely proved to be the clincher with the rural masses.
In Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh, the BJP rode back to power last December by promising Rs 2/kg rice for BPL families. Chhatisgarh's existing Rs 3/kg rice scheme which benefits 3.7 million BPL families is ready to be converted to Rs 2/kg scheme on the lines of Madhya Pradesh. In Orissa, Navin Patnaik too picked up and launched a Rs 2/kg rice scheme for the poor benefiting 55.79 lakh families. In these three States, the poverty-stricken beneficiaries of the laudable food security scheme certainly had reasons to vote for the ruling parties in the State rather than aim at national stability.
Besides making available cheap rice, MP government's popular 'Ladli' scheme wherein the government makes deposits in the bank accounts of every girl child attending school has also been able to woo voters. Under this scheme, the state government buys savings certificates of Rs 6,000 each year for five consecutive years for every girl born into a family. The girl gets Rs 2,000 after she completes the fifth standard, another Rs 4,000 after she completes the eighth standard, Rs 7,500 after she completes the tenth standard, Rs 200 a month in her eleventh standard, and a lump sum amount of Rs 1,18,000 after she enters the twelfth standard, or, alternatively, attains the age of 18 years.
In Tamil Nadu, media reports say that in the run up to the 2006 assembly elections, the DMK had announced free colour televisions; rice at Rs.2 per kg (once in power this was reduced to Re.1 a kg); two acres of land for the landless; free gas stoves and Rs.300 cash doles for the unemployed; maternity assistance of Rs.1,000 for all poor women for six months; as well as free power to weavers. Subsequently, in 2009-10 budget, Tamil Nadu has allocated Rs.2.79 billion for supply of free power to farmers and Rs.12.51 billion towards free electricity connections to huts and places of worship and subsidised connections for homes and local bodies; Rs.5 billion for free distribution of 2.5 million colour TV sets and Rs.1.4 billion for free gas stoves and connections.
The voters in Tamil Nadu certainly preferred DMK over national stability. By and large you will find that the verdict is clearly in favour of the ruling parties that provided more income and food in the hands of the poor. Providing poor with life-saving support, whether in the form of food or transfer of cash, is also an economic stimulus. Call it 'populist' or 'electoral compulsion', there is no other way to ensure inclusive growth.
Devinder Sharma is an award-winning journalist, writer, and researcher globally recognised for his analysis on food, agriculture and trade policy. After completing M.Sc. in Plant Breeding and Genetics, he started his career as a journalist. A decade later, he quit active journalism to research on policy issues concerning hunger and food security, biodiversity, genetic engineering and IPRs. He writes and speaks extensively on these issues and has written more than 10,000 articles till date.