Aatmanirbhar for the poor, and nanny state for the rich
On an average, top paid person gets more than 200 times the median, and the highest pay ratio is 750 times
The government's approach seems to be "aatmanirbhar for the poor, and nanny state for the rich," says Reetika Khera, a development economist with a keen interest in social policy and rural areas, in an exclusive interview with Bizz Buzz.She has taught at IIM Ahmedabad and is currently at IIT Delhi
Given this experience, the government could consider scaling up its intervention for millets, pulses and other crops as per the prevailing agro-climatic conditions. This could help diversify out of wheat and rice into more nutritious foods as well as into crops that are better suited for local agricultural conditions
To me what is worrying is that Aadhaar's Kafkaesque world is increasingly becoming normalised. For instance, they now want to link the Covid-19 vaccine to Aadhaar. More broadly, the Aadhaar project has contributed to the weakening of (already fragile) democratic institutions and practices in India
The government says that it is ready to hold talks with the farmers and amend the Act accordingly. But the farmers are not ready to talk!
As far as I am aware, farmers have participated in discussions with the government. Yesterday was apparently the 10th meeting they had, with another one scheduled in the coming week. Perhaps what you are referring to is the fact that the farmers were earlier holding placards which said "Yes or No?", alluding to their demand to repeal what they call the 'black laws'. I believe there are two important reasons for this.
One, they are unimpressed by the shortcuts that the government took to democratic process for the passage of such laws. Initially, they were brought as ordinances, and later when they were introduced in Parliament, even there the Bills were not sent to a Parliamentary Standing Committee, which is the norm. In fact, at the time of voting, while Opposition members were asking for a count of votes, the Speaker allowed only a voice vote. There was complete mayhem.
Two, the farmers are taking this seemingly "hard" stance, whereas in fact, they are rejecting the over-arching framework within which the government is operating. As another commentator has put it: "What capitalism calls the "freedom" of the producer (to sell her produce ostensibly where she wishes) is in fact a cover for the withdrawal of State regulation, protection and support, and hence it will function, on the contrary, as the freedom of the corporate buyer to set the terms of exchange. Hence the farmers are insistent: we want nothing less than the repeal of these laws."
What is your view on Minimum Support Price (MSP)?
I believe the MSP story is quite complicated. It needs more expertise than I have. But there are some basics that are worth repeating. One, the MSP is announced for 23 crops – only - and most of the government procurement is concentrated on just two crops (wheat and rice).
Two, this twin support – MSP and open-ended procurement – has benefitted farmers from across the country. Initially, primarily in Punjab, Haryana and western UP, but in the past decade even farmers in MP, Odisha, Chhattisgarh have been selling to the government in large numbers.
Three, simultaneously, there have been some adverse consequences of our twin policy. For example, Punjab is not well suited for paddy cultivation (as it is a water-intensive crop).Yet became a major paddy producer, leading to a fall in water table levels.
Four, given this experience, the government could consider scaling up its intervention for millets, pulses and other crops as per the prevailing agro-climatic conditions (say, by having state-specific lists of crops that are supported by MSP and procurement). This could help diversify out of wheat and rice into more nutritious foods as well as into crops that are better suited for local agricultural conditions. Finally, it is worth noting that the government can, does and should intervene other ways to can support farmers. Dairy co-operatives are an important example. Even for sugar, the government has a way of intervening without engaging in procurement directly. All these forms of support should be explored.
The government has transferred Rs 18,000 core in the accounts of farmers. Is it the right way to tackle the situation?
I think everyone understands the impulse behind the timing of these transfers to farmers.
During the lockdown, the corporate honchos saw constant rise in their salaries, while bloodbath was on down the street in the form of lay-off, pay-cut and winding up of operations.
The lockdown did indeed force many rich Indians confront the shocking levels of inequality that we live with. With Meghan Yana, we recently look at the "pay ratio" in the NIFTY50 companies. Pay ratio looks at ratio between the highest paid employee and the median pay. We found that on an average the top paid person gets more than 200 times the median, and the highest pay ratio was 750 times! These same companies were in the same breath begging – successfully, as it happens - the government for relief measures to deal with the economic blow resulting from the lockdown. The government's approach seems to be "aatmanirbhar for the poor, and nanny state for the rich".
You have written an article on Aadhaar and creation of barriers to welfare. Why do you feel so?
To enrol for Aadhaar, you need to provide demographic data (such as address and date of birth) along with proof that is acceptable to the enrolling authority. Many might not have, say, a birth certificate or a school leaving certificate to prove their date of birth. Further, you need your biometrics to be recognised by the machines in use, and that has also been a hurdle for many, especially the elderly, manual labourers, even leprosy patients or blind persons. In principle, the system is supposed to be able to accommodate such cases, but in fact, it does not. There are also cases of people enrolling but never getting their Aadhaar number, or the card getting lost and not being able to retrieve it, or the demographic or biometric data needing to be updated, but not being able to do so. This is just the first step. The subsequent steps - i.e, linking your Aadhaar number with the required government benefit or authenticating your biometrics at the point of availing that benefit throw up similarly large number of loopholes and errors.
In 2019, we studied the use of Aadhaar in the programme for maternity benefits for women in the unorganised sector (the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana) in a six-State field study. The scheme is meant to provide support to pregnant and lactating women through a cash transfer of Rs 5,000. At a time that women need rest, we found that they were being made to run around to correct Aadhaar details, figure out where they money has gone. According to a NITI Aayog study 28 per cent of PMMVY payments are credited to the wrong account.
To me what is worrying is that Aadhaar's Kafkaesque world is increasingly becoming normalised. For instance, they now want to link the Covid-19 vaccine to Aadhaar. More broadly, the Aadhaar project has contributed to the weakening of (already fragile) democratic institutions and practices in India. For instance, by-passing due Parliamentary processes (eg, its introduction as a Money Bill, not sending the Bill to a committee) and over-riding the Supreme Court's authority (eg., a section on commercial use was struck down by the majority view in the Supreme Court judgement on Aadhaar, but the government has brought that clause back through the backdoor).