The image of an aspiring India gradually beginning to prevail over the twin demons of poverty and illiteracy, has taken a severe beating with the second Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) of 2011-12 released recently. The first such census had been carried out when the country was still a British colony back in 1931-32. India has been independent for 67 years, with successive governments spending much on welfare with socialistic ideals. But the results are such that the Central government has released the second socio-economic census data as ‘deprivation data’. Even a cursory reading shows it to be a damning report of deprivation, painting a particularly grim picture of rural India. It begins with a familiar piece of data — that nearly three-fourth of India still lives in its villages. But rural no longer means solely agricultural. In fact, a majority of rural households, as much as 56.25 per cent, do not own any agricultural land. Only 30.1 per cent of rural households depend on cultivation as their main source of income. More than half of rural households, 51.14 per cent to be exact, eke out uncertain sustence through manual casual labour. Economists are pointing out that increasing fragmentation of land holdings is making it tough for farmers to support themselves. This is apart from poor agricultural infrastructure and lack of crop insurance, support prices and other critical agri-inputs.
As for income, almost three-fourth of rural households’ highest earning members earn less than Rs 5,000. Only five per cent of rural families have a member with salaried job in the government, 1.1 per cent in public sector undertakings and 3.57 per cent in the private sector. In the war against illiteracy in the villages, there has been considerable backsliding in the last few years. The overall literacy rate in the country was pegged at 73 per cent in the 2011 general census and expected to rise to 80 per cent by 2015. But the socio-economic census reveals that more than a third of the country’s 121 crore population continues to be illiterate. Despite the country having a law since 2009 granting fundamental right to elementary education, a shocking 44.72 crore people remain illiterate. Of them, 20.45 crore are women living in rural areas. The fact that the Union budget this year slashed the allocation to education by nearly Rs 13,000 crore — with elementary education, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and mid-day meal bearing the brunt of massive cuts, strongly indicates misplaced priorities by the Central government. There is a particularly shameful piece of statistics in this socio-economic census. Manual scavenging is banned in India, but as many as 1, 80, 657 households are still engaged in cleaning out and physically carrying human filth for a living.
In 2011, OBC leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav of SP, Lalu Prasad of RJD and Sharad Yadav of JD-U had demanded that like the first SECC eight decades back, the second such census should also provide for caste-based enumeration. Fearing new demands for caste-based reservation, the then UPA government hemmed and hawed and later the NDA government too decided to avoid giving the caste count altogether. Even then, dalits, adivasis and most SC-ST groups have been shown to be languishing in this report. The Central government now argues that it needs only data related to general economic backwardness, so that it can target welfare programmes more effectively to raise living standards of certain sections of people. So the second socio-economic census should play an important indicative role, like the Rajinder Sachar Committee report in 2006 showed up how badly Muslims in India are faring. Economists are now calling to combat poverty not just as a one-dimensiol problem of low income and nutrition. As a multi-dimensiol problem, poverty needs to be tackled through rural infrastructure building, equitable land reforms, employment generation, labour law reforms, accurately targeted subsidies, broad push towards non-farm manufacturing and services, expanding fincial inclusion and reinforcing the Aadhaar database with the latest SECC data. However, a multi-pronged strategy against poverty has to be considered against the backdrop of economic growth without sufficient job creation, as well as the clashing ideologies of ‘dole versus growth’ that has seized the country’s policymakers.