The much talked about rural employment guarantee scheme of India, the MNREGS, is a flawed economic wellness scheme for mitigating poverty and joblessness in rural India.
Most of it is unproductive labour which creates no genuine valuable assets and also not sustainable for long, whereas the problem of poverty and unemployment in rural India not only will continue but also increase.
Urban poverty provides the painful evidence of it.
If the conclusion of the economic thinkers is that rural poor can only have the opportunity for seasonal labour intensive work in the rural area itself, then the MNREGS gets reduced to a glossy unemployment dole with many opportunities for the rent seekers to swallow a large chunk of the funds by maintaining fake muster rolls and underpayments. That has largely been the fate of the scheme.
Unfortunate though it is, this has been the fate of almost 120 other centrally sponsored schemes and hundreds other state sponsored schemes.
So what is the alternative? The Gandhian economics which envisions work to each hand and food for each mouth through promotion of khadi and village industries, instead of simply putting Gandhi’s name to fancy schemes like the MNREGS.
It is incorrect to consider the products, productivity and income generating power of the K&VI sector as of inferior quality. The tag of village industries is not very appropriate. It instantly pulls them down to an inferior status in comparison to modern industries.
They are village industries because they cater to the local markets and are owned & managed by local people with local tools and raw materials. 80% India lives in villages or depends on villages.
Is edible oil extraction a local product or an export one too? Wasn’t cheese making a cottage industry in the West before it developed into a billion dollar export industry? Is khoya making restricted to domestic consumption or can it also be developed into a roaring export industry to meet the taste of foreign consumers? What about the downstream products made from khoya? The word burfi is now part of the glossary of most tourists who have visited India.
These Village Industries need the same technological support which cheese received in Switzerland and other countries. We can follow the Swiss in making even the wrist watch industry in to a Cottage Industry only if we seriously ponder over the strengths intrinsic to these industries and their potential for employment and growth. The village industry sector deserves a SWOT test right away. They can compete with any producer provided they get technological support and obtain Trade Mark, GI tag wherever applicable, Patent and all other kinds of IPRs.
What is made by hand is considered superior in Europe and priced higher. They add value to the craftsmanship to hand made goods, whereas we reduce the value of all goods made by hand. Swiss watches offer the best example because they claim to be handcrafted and hence a collector’s choice.
As against this attitude and economic logic of the industrialized world, we have not been able to establish a brand name even for the Rajasthani Jootis/ Kolhapuri chappals, which are appropriate footwear considering the climate and cultural choice of the consumers. They are all handcrafted products. There are a number of such products.
If we applied modern technology to this sector as a competitor to industrial products, we would have reduced to a large extent all prevailing food adulteration in the country.
Sensibly worked out data will throw up amazing results such as value of products more than 200000 Crore rupees and self employment opportunities for more than 5 million people in one product or a basket of some products.
Industrialization creates jobs but robs natural wealth of society in the form of pollution, migration, ghettoes, crime & grime, happiness and social support systems. The jobs created by industries are not well paying for the labour class. The birth of socialism & Marxism immediately after industrialization in Europe is testimony to it.
The remedy lies in creating livelihood opportunities for the people by creating work at their doorsteps, without fixed working hours involving commutation which disrupts normal life and adds unnecessary cost to reaching work place. As against it, the village industry worker has the flexibility to do the work according to his or her convenience, with or without help from other members of the family, and continuing with farming activities.
The residence and work place being the same place, costs of production are reduced and price advantage makes marketing competitive. Besides, the artisan adds additional value by way of individual touch to the quality or aesthetics of the product.
Such products have always been in good demand in the domestic market and export market is also quite promising if the tourists’ purchases are any indication.
A national economist, superior to the Nobel winners, can work out schemes to take an integrated view of the entire KVI, handloom & handicrafts sectors. The potential is enormous, the possibilities unlimited, the opportunities for sustainable quality livelihood assured.
India, an ancient civilization, is caught in a unique time-space warp, if I may describe it so, where we neither love wealth nor decent incomes (we treat wealth as Maya & hate it; we show contempt to labour & artisans, paying them depressingly very low wages). If we get out of this civilizational black hole, pay decent wages to the working class and improve our business model to allow wealth creation as an honourable activity, we can improve living standards of our people.
It alone is a guarantee for rural employment; others are hollow slogans.