Though I am not really well versed with economic jargon, my own interest in the field is mainly based on having read our locally trained economist, Mr M. K. Gandhi, so I was trying to listen in if anything familiar can be found.
Unfortunately, through the thirty minutes of opportunity to learn from internationally trained experts, all I heard about was corruption, bad policies, trade deficit, fight over GDP calculation method and even communalism but there was no mention of the two words without which one can’t discuss Gandhian economics, i.e. city and village.
It was as if Gandhiji and modern economists had been to the same room with an elephant, but the former had walked around with open eyes while the latter went in blindfolded.
If you read Gandhiji talking about poverty, it is all about a new-age conflict created by birth of the cities. Cities, as per MKG are monsters that caused all the problems to the villages, more specifically poverty.
As per MKG’s understanding, Indian villages were once small self-sustaining economies/communities where a social system ensured “equitable” distribution of resources and earnings making poverty an alien concept.
The problem that he saw was the caste-based social system with built-in entitlement mechanism where some people were extremely marginalised. As people had accepted this system, the “poverty” caused by unequal distribution was not always felt by those subjected to, but it was clearly an evil that needed to be eradicated.
So, caste system was cause of a kind of poverty that needed to go and Gandhiji focused on it the most, but he also saw another devil on the rise, i.e. arrival of cities where industrial revolution had changed the way humans lived.
Cities, with their massive economies consumed human life as villages knew it to be. They acted like furnaces that need more and more resources to keep burning and thus reached out to villages to exploit and enslave, a process that infected villages with a new kind of poverty that only money can cause.
So, Gandhiji saw isolation of a village economy by making it self-sustaining as a solution to the problem of rural poverty. It made some sense in the era where Gandhiji walked the earth, as the isolation that he imagined looked plausible.
Unfortunately, in an open world where technologies have started breaching geographical barriers, the ship of MKG’s solution may have sailed, but is it possible to look at Indian poverty without understanding the city and village connection?
When our foreign-educated economists talk about Indian poverty, the issue that is most often lost is the rural-urban dimension of India poverty.
Unfortunately, rural poverty of India is likely to be a completely different beast that needs its own solution instead of getting clubbed with urban poverty.
To start with, rural poverty looks more horrible to us city-slickers because we can’t see that it belongs to a much smaller economy. If a village was an isolated entity and city life was not a context as it has become, rural poverty may not have become so bothersome in many cases.
It doesn’t mean that abject poverty that Gandhiji saw along with the horror of caste-based entitlement is not existing today. It still infects a large part of rural India and still needs Gandhian solutions. In addition to working on the social aspect of it, rural poverty can be best removed by connecting village economies better with city economies whereby information gaps are plugged to prevent one-way exploitation of village’s production capabilities.
On the other hand, urban poverty has little in common to rural poverty. In a city, a larger economy ensures that migrant labour can earn more than the richest man in his village and yet can be considered poor. So, it is a poverty of scale and is felt more when a man finds himself swimming in the ocean of money but is unable to access opportunities to move up in life.
Life of an urban poor feels worse because our cities are unable to offer hope and equal opportunities. So the way to eradicate urban poverty would be to remove the new age caste-ism and the way to do could be enforcing the rule of law. If India can treat everyone equally under the law, the rich and the poor, it will actually change the way our economy will function.
At this point, all of us preach morality to a cab driver for charging ten rupees more but don’t feel the same moral pressure while finding ways of not paying income tax. The fact that the rich can steal with impunity and the poor can’t is the root cause of urban poverty. Once this malaise is cured, people can develop faith in putting hard work and escaping poverty and thus will no longer feel poor.
Above and beyond this, there is also an issue of rural-to-urban migration, now augmented by urban images of obscene gratification streaming into rural homes. It is this movement that keeps adding to urban poor.
While Gandhiji liked to believe that this can be solved by making villages comparable in infrastructure to cities, it is unlikely that infrastructural facilities will break the charm of a city today because city is now a place where new ways of gratifying senses are constantly discovered. So, there is no option but to admit and plan for massive urbanisation that is looming ahead.
This means that India needs to work the hardest on the tangent of equality under the law.
That is the only way a meritocratic economy can evolve. If the law will not treat poor and rich the same way, there is no real way to bridge the opportunity-gap between haves and have-nots.
The first poverty that needs to go is the poverty of justice that the poor suffer from and the rest will automatically fall in line.