Back to roots: Why India needs to shift its policy focus on rural revitalisation
The rural to urban migration is neither economically efficient nor ecologically sustainable
All it requires is a rethinking, a radical overhaul of the economic design that has led to accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few, and reversing the urbanisation process that has made cities responsible for as much as 70% Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The news is disturbing. There are more job openings available than there are job seekers. In America, there are 11.2 million jobs available, but there are only 5.6 million people who are looking for jobs. This isn't something peculiar to the United States; many of the rich developed countries face a similar dilemma.
At the same time, whether it is in the US or in India or for that matter in South Korea and Germany, increasingly people are becoming disenchanted with the kind of jobs that the cities are providing. The disenchantment is also because of the lack of adequate and appropriate job opportunities. That's the reason why for instance, in America, quite a large proportion of the employed who quit during the days of the pandemic haven't returned back. In India too, a significant proportion of the estimated 100 million workers who walked back, interstate and intrastate, after the lockdown was first imposed, are still not back. This comes at a time when in an article in the Financial Times, chairman of the Rockefeller International, Ruchir Sharma, says the growing gap in employment is being filled up by robots. In Japan, for instance, every year 400 robots are being appointed to take care of jobs that an estimated 10,000 people were looking after earlier. In the next three years, China will need another 3.5 million workers in the manufacturing sector. The emphasis on automation therefore is increasing.
An employment survey by Manpower Group shows that India faces a shortage of 83 per cent in getting suitable workers for the job, meaning people who lack the appropriate skills for the jobs applied. Globally, based on a survey in 40 countries, 75 per cent companies are not able to get the right people for the right job. Not finding the right kind of people for employment may be a major reason for the growing disenchantment, but on the other hand, as the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) has sometimes back said that as many as 900 million people have given up on seeking employment. This growing disillusionment is because there are not enough jobs coming. It is therefore a combination of factors that is actually keeping people away from seeking employment.
With Artificial Intelligence taking over, more and more jobs are likely to depend on remote-controlled electronic gadgets. Even in this age of automation, a new phenomenon that is slowly taking over is the return of the educated to the villages. With digital technology and efficient communication spreading to the rural areas, the educated find it convenient to move back to the villages.
China is an illustrious example. Its success story of moving people en block from farming to manufacturing is known was applauded for having pulled over 100 million out of poverty. However, with agricultural production not keeping pace with domestic requirement, and relying heavily on food imports, China is now in the midst of shifting a sizeable population back to the villages. To bridge the gnawing inequality that has arisen, China is toying with the new found concept of 'common prosperity', which relies heavily on revitalising the rural economy.
China is sending million of youth back to the villages. According to a report in Global Times, 10 million young people from the universities and institutes were to be encouraged to return to the villages; taking newer technologies and skills to "help promote cultural, technological and medical development in rural areas." I am not sure how the plan has worked out so far but the earlier economic design that forced rural to urban migration, which has been at the hallmark of the global economic growth model, is now increasingly being questioned. In South Korea, for instance, a rural revitalisation programme has seen more than 3.8 lakh people, mostly below the age of 40, returning back to villages in 2021 alone. The number is increasing every year, with 2021 seeing a 15 per cent rise since 2015. Interestingly, most people who have opted for reverse migration are finding solace in reviving farming.
In France, architect Sebastien Marot, author of 'Taking the Country's Side: Agriculture and Architecture' explained how after the pandemic he is seeing a new trend developing with the rich increasingly moving back to the countryside. This is quite in contrast to India where the poor labour force is staying back in the villages following a huge reverse migration that the country had recently witnessed. Whatever be the reasons, perhaps the decoding of the rural revitalisation is the beginning of a process that reverses the economic growth design that, as I had said earlier, had relied on pushing people from the rural to the urban areas.
Instead of joining the mad race to become stinking rich, more and more people are dropping out. There may be different reasons for different people, but the rethinking is certainly happening. And if the global trend is to be believed, with several studies pointing to the new trend, a reverse migration to the countryside is now becoming clearly visible. From the days of "Get Big or Get Out" that the then Agricultural Secretary, Earl Butz, had infamously remarked at the time when Richard Nixon was the US President, the world is now beginning to see the futility of that statement. It relied heavily on the outdated theory of Trickle Down, which has so far failed to pass on the economic gains to the majority population. The rich continue to amass vulgar wealth. When I see a renewed effort being made in India to expand the MNREGA programme to urban areas, it is quite clear that we as a nation are relatively slow in catching up with the world. A former Chief Economic Advisor had even suggested that the minimum wages for the urban NREGA programme should be higher than the NREGA that operates in the rural areas for the simple reason to attract more labour force to the cities. In my thinking, this is a hangover of the colonial economics that has outlived its utility. Economics too needs to change with times; and economists cannot go on preaching the same outdated thinking that prevailed in the 20th century.
The 21st century must embark on a new pathway; and this will be possible only when we see economics getting free from the confines of the TINA (There is no alternative) factor. The alternative is there; in fact a much healthier alternative exists for the future. All it requires is a rethinking, a radical overhaul of the economic design that has led to accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few, and reversing the urbanisation process that has made cities responsible for as much as 70 per cent Greenhouse Gas Emissions. This is not sustainable, neither economically not ecologically. Back to roots, the economic and policy focus needs to shift to rural revitalisation.
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)