Economics unmasked: The farmer and the bank officer – II
by Rahul Goswami on 21 Aug 2017 3 Comments
The under-secretary of a large central government ministry was in conversation with a botanist. The under-secretary, whose stellar career in administration began with a high rank in the IAS examinations, and who has during his 30 years in central administration served on numerous high-level committees apart from being deputed to international agencies, took a dim view of botanists.


They were at a lunch table during a function organised by the Ministry of Environment. The under-secretary by attending was doing a colleague a favour. He would rather have not been there (missing in the bargain a meeting called by visiting specialists from the Asian Development Bank), but old boys are old boys after all. It might have been less disagreeable without the botanist to have to talk to.


“Can you not do something sir so that knowledge of environment is not only a subject in schools but can become a true career for our youngsters, just as medicine, law, management or finance are?” the botanist had asked.


“I’m sure enough young people are taking to it,” replied the under-secretary crossly, “but they are more likely to select those professions that give them good jobs, raise their standards of living and at the same time contribute handsomely to the growing GDP.”


“Excuse me sir,” persisted the botanist, “but it might interest you to know that in the Arthashastra, it is mentioned that different crops are suitable for cultivation according to rainfall, which I think is a very early environmental statement to have as an inspiration for our youngsters, for instance ‘kodrava’ the kodo millet, ‘til’ and ‘varaka’ are to be sown at the start of the rainy season...”


“We have well-qualified crop scientists, who are well advised by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, and the best American agricultural universities,” the under-secretary interrupted. “They can direct farmers to do what is necessary whatever the season, my dear man, and the Arthashastra reminds us that GDP is necessary to lift people out of poverty.”


“Of course you are right sir, but nevertheless it is recommended by Kautilya that ‘mudga’ which is black gram or black lentil and ‘masha’ which you may be familiar with as green gram or mung, are to be sown in the middle of the rainy season, and moreover...”


But the botanist had lost his irascible audience. Under-secretaries of the central government see no utility whatsoever in historical accounts of agricultural practices, even if they are contained in the Arthashastra. They see scant difference between botanists, entomologists and anthropologists. What they need to know about horsegram, safflower, barley or lentils of any colour and shape they prefer to get from a commodities ticker.


An encounter such as this is almost certainly unlikely today, and is poetic licence given to one like it that I witnessed several years ago. Today a botanist would at best be tolerated for a few minutes by an administrative officer fourth grade.


Yet the tone and manner of the under-secretary in this little cameo is commonly to be seen at the higher echelons of planning and administration, not only in government but in the tight web of industrial sectors and finance that surrounds government. Environment and ecology dare not intrude, nor can knowledge systems that are considered beyond the pale of finance, conventional macro-economics and technology.


The result is a distancing from field realities that has crippled - quite needlessly - a subject which actually ought to thrive on more variety and not less: economics or arthashastra. In every single Economic Survey of the last 20 years, in every Union Budget speech, in every single monetary policy statement of the Reserve Bank of India, in all assessments and prognostications made about the economy of India by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank, the World Economic Forum, and a host of so-called global consulting agencies, agriculture is invariably referred to as a sector that contributes some percentage to the GDP yet employs so many, and that the sorry equation presented would be vastly improved were ‘productivity’ to rise and farmers to find something else to do.


What does a ‘national’ economy mean to most of us? Not a thing. Here is why. There are 152 districts in which the ratio of the number of rural households to urban households is eight and above. This means that in 152 districts, rural households outnumber urban households by a factor of at least eight and that also means eight households which cultivate food crops (and non-food crops) or are in some way connected to the movement of crops, their processing, or mandi trade. In 102 of these districts, this happy ratio is 10 and above, in 45 of these districts the ratio is 15 and above, and in 24 districts the ratio is at least 20.


It is no idle exercise, for the dependency ratio of food consuming households to food cultivating ones is vital as much in any tehsil as it is to the country. In the 1951 and 1961 Censuses of India, the question was not so much about growth of population but ratios such as this which had become visible. Since the 1980s, they have slipped into invisibility, which only means that a vital part of the true economics equation has likewise become invisible. Nonetheless it is noteworthy that among districts which have a high ratio are Ramban in Jammu and Kashmir, Sheohar in Bihar, West District of Sikkim, Anjaw in Arunachal Pradesh, Bhabua in Bihar, and Baudh in Odisha.


We can safely vouch that arthashastra in Ramban, Sheohar, the West District of Sikkim, Anjaw, Bhabua and Baudh is quite different from what gentlemen like the under-secretary described above and his old boys network imagine it to be.


In the same way, there are 174 districts in which the rural farming population, that is, the number of working adults who are engaged in cultivation of their plots or as agricultural labour, is 80% and more of the total rural working population of that district. In 90 of these districts the percentage is 85% and above, in 25 districts it is 90% and above.


And furthermore there are 211 districts in which the number of rural households is 3 lakh and above. Of these in 161 districts the number of rural households is 3.5 lakh and above, and in 129 districts the number of rural households is 4 lakh and above. From among these 129, there are 29 in Uttar Pradesh, 19 in Bihar, 15 in West Bengal, 15 in Maharashtra and 13 in Andhra Pradesh. What these illustrations mean is that there are at least 152 and probably 211 kinds of rural economies in India, for which there can be no uniform prescriptions of GDP, much less uniform prescriptions of routes out of any definition of poverty.


The Arthashastra did and indeed can instruct us a great deal, if only we pay sufficient attention to the detail, for none was too small to be excluded - as the botanist would remind us - and no advice that it brought to us, amplified by the extraordinary pen and mind of Kautilya, should go unheeded. Perhaps more important is that the Arthashastra of old and the one we need today have no use for GDP.



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