New Internationalist

Bomb drops on Indian countryside

Issue 440

Jaideep Hardikar reports on the fallout from explosive economic growth.

Jaideep Hardikar
Ratnamala Tekam, a widow with her two children in Mangi village, in the cotton producing belt of Vidarbha. Her husband killed himself in March 2009 amid mounting debts, hunger and crop losses. Jaideep Hardikar

We have no right to dream.’

This is what a woman peasant in central India’s cotton-growing regions told me the day after her husband, a marginal peasant farmer, took his own life. His forlorn cotton fields had been wrecked by drought. She was the latest to enter widowhood; her husband the latest to join an ever-lengthening list of rural suicides. Between 1995 and 2010 more than a quarter of a million peasant farmers have taken their own lives in the Indian countryside.

The widow’s pessimism points to a striking contrast. Since 1995, rural Indians have became poorer, even as urban Indians have swelled in material prosperity. As the top 10 per cent grow in unprecedented affluence, the bottom 50 per cent are famished. There are now Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Worlds within the Third World.

As P Sainath, one of India’s frontline commentators, puts it: ‘Inequality is the fastest-growing sector of India.’

We have 24 billionaires with a combined worth of $335 billion – or a third of India’s gross domestic product. At least 836 million Indians live on less than 50 cents a day, according to a 2007 government report. More than 200 million of those get by on half that. Their world is one of perpetual recession.

The lives of so many millions of rural poor were wrecked so severely by economic ‘liberalization’ in the 1990s that the spate of suicides never got discussed at all. The vast majority of rural Indians were consigned to sub-human conditions. The meltdown of the world’s financial system has made little difference to them.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) – the central bank – did step in quickly and tightened the screws on the banking system, thanks to its former Governor, Yaga Venugopal Reddy. Today he is praised for the conservatism he was widely criticized for at the time, accused of blocking reform.

About 70 per cent of the Indian banking system is nationalized. Reddy’s contention was that markets are not always right. ‘Given that most Indians still live hand-to-mouth,’ he told the New York Times in 2009, ‘proposals to give freer rein to investors and banks to do as they see fit could backfire.’

The RBI actually did a lot to advance reforms, but resisted changes that would have made India more vulnerable to crises. It’s an irony that the government is today fast-tracking the so-called reforms, handing over publicly controlled resources to the private sector.

Vijiay Jawandhia, a leader of peasant farmers in the Gandhian district of Wardha in the state of Maharashtra, points out that India devalued its currency between 1991 and 2000 as it integrated its economy with global markets. Inflation rose. Organized sectors and civil servants were compensated with higher wages, but not rural Indians.

That was like dropping a bomb on the countryside. Everything, says Jawandhia, went up in that period – the cost of fuel, healthcare, education and producing food – except for the income of peasant farmers. City life has been subsidized, leaving the villages to feed urban affluence.

Is a skewed, high-growth model really better than a slow, sustained, more inclusive and ecologically healthy growth? The answer depends on which of the many worlds you inhabit.

Jaideep Hardikar is a journalist based in Nagpur, India.

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  1. #1 Eugene Rapi 07 Apr 11

    Nuclear reactors

    Why so silent about the dangers of nuclear reactors?

  2. #2 Nawaz 08 Apr 11

    The only way forward for the countries of the sub-continent,i.e, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Srilanka is to educate and skill their human resources.
    Investment on education is less then 2% of the GDP in all countries of the region, except Srilanka, which has attained a higher percentage of education. Education of a minimum of 12 years should be mandatory and responsibility of the state, free with books and transportation to be provided by the State.
    Imparting of skills is another important aspect which needs to be addressed. The educational institutions in the West are connected with the industrial sector to harness the future generations in accordance with the upcoming manpower demand. This should be included in the vision of the educational institutions.
    It is just a matter of readjusting the priorities and within ten years the population of these countries will be changed for ever.
    China is a greta example, which attained freedom in 1949, two years after India. But the Chinese leadership insisted upon imparting education to all and now they are reaping the fruits of their early years input.

  3. #3 Maya Babla 16 Oct 11


    These issues of economic disparity are really affecting urbanization. Thanks for providing the background into why it's happening. A post by Jessica Castillo argues that much of the challenge for India now is in being able to address the sudden migration into big cities-- and that its reputation in the world depends on this ability. You can read the full story here: and I would be interested to hear your thoughts!

    -- Maya

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This article was originally published in issue 440

New Internationalist Magazine issue 440
Issue 440

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