As published in Hindustan Times (National Edition) on June 25, 2020
Migration has accelerated exponentially over the last decade in India. Current estimates of the total number of migrant workers range from 72 million to 110 million. India has the second-largest migrant worker population in the world, second only to China. One in four workers in India is essentially a migrant. The lack of authentic data on their numbers, their living and working conditions and perpetual uncertainty in their livelihood prospects have been brought in to sharp focus with the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the best effort of both the central and state governments, the mass movement of nearly 10 million migrant workers has brought into sharp relief the urgent need to shift to a new paradigm of economic development and urbanisation in which migration under economic distress or due to the lack of amenities is brought down. This can be done if we can convert the Covid-19 crisis into an opportunity to rethink and reimagine our development model. Fortunately for us, an alternative model that minimises migration is available in the works of Mahatma Gandhi, the late president APJ Abdul Kalam and social activist and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue Nanaji Deshmukh.
The aspiration for self-reliant development at the village level began with the Gandhian model of swaraj. From the time of his return from South Africa, Gandhi immersed himself in village movements in Champaran (1917), Sevagram (1920) and Wardha (1938). He visualised a comprehensive programme of constructive work, which included economic self-reliance, social equality and a decentralised political system at the village level.
For Gandhi, the model of self-reliant villages was the basis of a free democracy. He declared, “My idea of village swaraj is that it is a complete republic, independent of its neighbours for its own vital wants, and yet interdependent for many others in which dependence is a necessity.” His was not a model of a closed economy and a village economy perpetuating itself at the lower levels of income, but one in which local populations could be employed locally but with rising incomes and higher productivity. It is not well known that in his quest for technological improvement, Gandhi had put out an advertisement for a better version of the charkha in British and Indian newspapers in 1929, and even offered a handsome reward of ~1 lakh for it (about ~2.5 crore today).
Kalam, the missile man, had his own model called Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas (PURA). His vision was to develop rural India through a cluster development system where 50-100 villages with common competencies and/or mutual markets could be horizontally or vertically integrated as PURA complexes. These villages would be linked through “four connectivities” — physical, electronic, knowledge and economic. The goal was to provide income and quality of life opportunities to all within PURA complex. While some rural-rural migration would be acceptable, rural to urban migration would be minimised. He envisioned 7,000 PURA complexes at the cost of ~130 crore per unit built through public-private partnerships.
Deshmukh called for self-reliant villages based on a model of integral humanism where harmony was also a pivotal force. In his work across 500 villages in India, especially in the Chitrakoot area, the successful implementation of the model called not just for zero unemployment and no one below the poverty line, but also zero internal legal disputes and no widow being denied remarriage. In Deshmukh’s model, the collective social consciousness that promoted collective well-being was considered to be a cornerstone to next-generation rural development.
Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi implemented the model of rurban development when he was chief minister of Gujarat. This was sought to be replicated at the pan-India level through the launch of the Shyama Prasad Mukherji Rurban Mission in 2014. The model follows a cluster development design to create social, health, education and economic infrastructure across villages.
In order to make 650,000-plus villages and 800 million citizens self-reliant, technology will have to play a critical role. We need to create a rural knowledge platform through active collaboration between the public and private sector. This will provide the expertise to take cutting edge technology deeper into villages and generate employment. Today, the Internet and artificial intelligence are being used extensively around the world to facilitate sustainable agriculture. Large-scale and real-time data collected from farming practices and collated with global price and production numbers can be used to offer more profitable choices to our farmers.
In a survey of urban migrant workers, 84% of them reported that their primary source of livelihood in their villages was casual work. Only 11% stated that agriculture was their primary source of income. This indicates that there is a need to create jobs in rural areas far beyond just augmentation of agriculture. In fact, agriculture itself will shed jobs with the addition of technology.
To finance this ambitious re-engineering of our development model, Atmanirbhar Village bonds could be issued to raise resources. Part of the mandated priority sector lending by scheduled commercial banks could be used to finance these bonds. We need to prioritise self-reliant village projects to be funded from such lending. We need to create a fresh curriculum in engineering, medical colleges and business schools to train the workforce to operate in villages.
The capacity of India’s youth to innovate needs to be unleashed in villages. India needs to build the nation, village upwards and not city downwards. We need to eliminate the division between Bharat and India. This can be achieved bringing Gandhi’s and Kalam’s ideas of developing a rurban India to the centre of the development model.
Rajiv Kumar is vice-chairman, NITI Aayog
Srijan Pal Singh is CEO, Dr Kalam Centre, Delhi