A Dalit Critique of the Approach Paper to 11th Five Year Plan

Anand Teltumbde

Neoliberalism, during its theoretical cobbling stage had a classic quarrel with central planning, identified with the then socialist regimes, particularly Soviet Russia. It is a cruel irony that today its protégées are heading the central planning establishments of most countries in the world. Going by the nature of plans that have been dished out over the last two decades, our Yojana Bhavan is certainly no exception. Year by year it has only helped people to know its ideological moorings in Neoliberalism. The Approach Paper (AP) for the 11th Five Year Plan being hotly discussed by the academicians should put any doubt in this regard to rest. Although the AP may at a glance look vague, evasive, lacking in direction and so on, it is absolutely consistent and fully focused on its ideological stance of neoliberalism.

Any planning document, whatever in theory it may be meant to do, serves in practice as an instrument for the rulers to exhibit their concerns with vast masses of the people they rule. In corollary, it also serves as the consent of people for the broad agenda embedded in it that serve the interests of the ruling classes. The Five Year Plans that have variously sung the song of poor and oppressed but facilitated enrichment of the rich and powerful are the testimony to this process. In this perspective, to look at any budget or plan, much so the approach paper for them appears potentially a pointless exercise. Open up any budget document and one is stunned by the plethora of schemes the government runs for the development of the Dalits. But take a careful look at the outlays they all sum up to and one gets a reverse shock that they barely constitute 0.02 per cent of the total plan outlay. All the noise made in the name of 18 per cent of the population of such hapless people as Dalits does not add up to even a pittance! It is revealing that the only concrete measure the AP in question proposes for the Dalits is the abolition of manual scavenging and bonded labour during the 11th plan period. The fact that such abominable systems survived despite the active planning for over half a century itself shows how concerned the planners in the country are and how committed the implementers are for the dalit plight.   

Such cynicism, howsoever justified eventually helps perpetuation of the status quo. It assumes away the possibility of change. While the desired amount change may not appear forthcoming at a given point, it is never desirable to give up struggle merely on assumptions. One must keep therefore speaking out ones viewpoint irrespective of what result it entails. This note follows this logic and presents a critical viewpoint on the AP from a dalit perspective.

Foremost, let us take the title of the paper itself. The title indicates that the AP aims at faster and more equitable growth. Now faster growth is acknowledged to be potentially in conflict with any kind of equality even in the neoliberal camp. It is a known fact that inequality in the world has galloped at unprecedented pace at every level during the recent decades of neoliberal regime. That neoliberal growth is naturally inimical to the notion of social justice, is almost an accepted fact. Unless it is regulated with extraneous means, it would not produce social justice. Therefore togetherness of these adjectives in the title represents a fundamental contradiction. In the context, their order in the title becomes more problematic insofar as it implies primacy given to ‘faster growth’ over ‘equitable growth’. Next, the usage of the comparative clause! While the ‘faster growth’ correctly implies the intention of bettering the fast growth rates achieved in the recent times, ‘more equitable’ reads absolutely presumptuous in the light of the fact that we never had equitable growth. If the mandarins of the Yojana Bhavan still rear the notion that they have given equitable growth, it just shows their obliviousness to the cruel reality of the suffering masses of this country.

As we read the AP further, this initial impression goes on getting reinforced. In the first para itself it chalks out the agenda for achieving the GDP growth of 8 to 9 percent as a panacea for all the ills the country is suffering from. This growth fetish despite the contra evidence that the unprecedented annual average growth of 7 percent during the 10th Plan has not been able to solve any of the problems of unemployment or poverty and on the contrary has led to aggravate them only reveals the resolve of our planners to adhere to their neoliberal ideology without any concern with the facts. As for ideology, the experience is incontrovertible that despite economic growth the pace of poverty reduction or even the employment generation during its reign has been far inferior to that before. According to the latest data, the percentage of poor in 2004-05 has come down to 28 percent from 36 percent in 1993-94, which means that there was 8 percent reduction in poverty over an 11 years period. The government would only state this half truth to the public to claim that its neoliberal reforms have led to poverty reduction. What it would not tell is that this reduction is nearly half of that accomplished during the preceding pre-reform years. Even unemployment situation both for men and women in rural as well as in urban areas shows sharp deterioration during the above period from 1993-94 to 2004. Needless to say, the victims of this worsening poverty and unemployment situation come disproportionately from the Dalits.

Dalits predominantly are a rural people. 81 percent of them live in villages; of them nearly 56 percent are the landless laborers, 24 percent are the cultivators in the marginal and small category; and just about 4 percent are occupied in household industry. Even in urban areas, barring a small number that finds itself in organized sector with the help of reservations, a vast majority of Dalits are to be found in the unorganized and informal sector eking out their livelihood in precarious manner. It is obvious that they constitute disproportionately high percentage of both the rural as well as the urban poor. Without any productive asset, the only source for them to rise above the poverty line is employment. If the impact of the neoliberal reforms on both these two parameters- poverty and unemployment- has been adverse over a long enough period of a decade as the statistics reveals, it should alarm anyone concerned with equitable growth.

However, the AP seeks to pursue more of the very same policies, which produced these worrisome results. Despite concrete evidence that mere economic growth does not help in improving lives of poor, it still willfully suffers from the growth fetish. It is Neoliberalism unadulterated that the AP projects economic growth as the plan objective and relies on the worn out ‘trickle down’ theory. Neoliberalism basically believes in social Darwinism and hence does not have to care for the poor. However, it can ill afford to present itself in its naked form to the people inundated in poverty and hence has to feign concern for them. It skillfully used this trickle down theory to thwart their apprehensions. Notwithstanding, its presumption about the free market bringing in economic growth being tenuously supported by theory, if at all, and not being borne out in practice, such a growth to trickle down necessitated permeable social structures, which needed to be consciously created and could not be just assumed to be extant. In absence of it whatever growth that materialized logically gets disproportionately grabbed by the upper layers leaving the bottom layers poorer than before. This is what precisely happened all over the world during the last two to three decades of Neoliberalism.

Any way, Dalits, having been excluded from the developmental process and oppressed for centuries would want accelerated development and not the trickle as promised by neoliberal reforms. This is what our founding fathers also wanted and enshrined their desire in the Constitution. The neoliberal dictum militates against this constitutional mandate. The AP proudly claims to pursue equitable growth but in reality it proposes to do everything that denies it, both by commission and omission. As for commission, it valorizes private over public, advocates marketization of most public services and favours foreign capital to domestic one. Under omission, one could count deliberate ignorance of certain theoretical principles of economics and suppressing fully or partly pertinent facts that may not fit in the preconceived neoliberal framework. Examples of both are aplenty but we would focus only on those that relate with areas that are of critical importance to the Dalits. These areas are represented by the questions of land, employment, agriculture, food security, and provision of essential public services such as education and health.

Land symbolizes not only a productive asset but also a social standing in rural areas where 81 percent of Dalits live. In fact, it constitutes a large part of solution to the caste question. It is a veritable triumph of the anti-dalit attitude of the neoliberal reforms that the land question is completely eclipsed today. As apprehended the adverse results of these policies are there for anyone to see. The NSS data on landholdings show that a declining trend of landlessness from 1960-61 until 1991-92 has suddenly reversed and jumped to a new high. The percentage of landless households in 1991-92 was 21.8, having come down from 26.1 in 1981-82. It jumped to 31.9 percent in 2000-03. The rising input prices coupled with volatility of output prices and decreasing institutional credit, all due to the neoliberal reforms have caused this shocking phenomenon. The increasing non-viability of cultivation has pushed small cultivators to sell their land and join the army of landless labour. The trend of increasing landlessness in the countryside is even confirmed by the corollary of falling percentage of marginal landowning households. Their percentage in 2000-03 at 47.1 shows a fall from 48.3 in 1991-92. This shocking evidence however failed to shake our planners, who with all their pretensions for equitable growth have not even perfunctorily referred to the land question in their approach paper.

The fact that Dalits have preponderance among the landless and marginal land owning people shows that they also constitute the biggest part of the victim of this trend. While on the one hand there is increasing landlessness because of the structural crisis of agriculture, on the other, there is an increasing displacement of people from their land by the pro-rich development process. The people so displaced by irrigation projects, industrial projects, urbanization, transport network and now the SEZs, which would gobble up thousands of acres of land each and which are being estimated in hundreds to come, do not have any rehabilitation as far as alternate land goes. The displacement problem is best exposed by the Narmada Bachao Andolan on behalf of its hapless tribal and dalit victims. While the AP takes cognizance of the problem of huge displacement and dispossession of people, it proposes apparently a weird solution in terms of dilution or removal of Urban Land Ceiling Acts of the State Governments. It is unashamedly transferring the precious urban land in use of the poor to the rich industrialists and builders. The massive slum demolition drives that are continuing in cities are but a part of it. Since majority of Dalits live in urban shanties, they are the worst sufferers of these drives.

The AP thus indulges in an act of omission of the importance of land as the crucial asset for rural poor and especially for the Dalits, and the fact of rural crisis that neoliberal reforms have engendered. While it takes a note of the need to rehabilitate people displaced from their land due to infrastructure projects, it proposes such a solution that would surely aggravate the problem further in reinforcing monopolies of the landlords in urban areas. While these policies are detrimental to all poor, as manifested in the current rural distress, Dalits, both in rural as well as urban areas, are bound to be their worst victims.

The second issue that is of crucial importance to Dalits is employment. However, it does not find even a place in the list of challenges the AP perceives at the beginning. While there is a casual discussion on the need to shift the pattern of employment from agriculture to non-agriculture through higher growth in manufacturing and service sectors, and even the AP provides indications of the labour intensive sectors like food processing, textiles, tourism and construction, it totally lacks in strategic direction to explain how this growth would actually materialize. Instead it jumps on to its neoliberal agenda of reduction in tariffs on non-agricultural products, liberalizing the entry of foreign players in retails sector, reducing the list of industries reserved for the small scale sector and the labour market flexibility.

Each of these policies can be seen to have adverse impact on the employment situation. Reduction of tariff is a direct threat to the small scale producers as they cannot compete with the cheap and strategically priced imports from abroad. This is no more hypothetical; there already being a bitter experience with huge closure of these industries throwing some 3 to 4 million workers off the jobs by 2000. The entry of foreign players in retail trade would throw millions of petty retailers out of business and even reduce employment in net terms. De-reservation of industries for small scale sector would directly render huge mass of poor people jobless. The shift of production from small scale sector to large industries not only reduces the number but also the profile of jobs. The jobs in large scale industry are more techno-oriented and hence tend to attract more qualified people as against the labour intensive small scale sector. There is a virtual caste division of labour between the large and small scale industries; the upper castes being in the former whereas Dalits manning the latter. The elasticity of employment of most industries being close to zero, there is no hope of any incremental employment coming through these industries. Labour market flexibility, as everybody knows, actually means doing away the protection to workers in the organized sector through Industrial Disputes Act and the Contract Labour (Abolition and Regulation) Act. The government has been using this phrase as the instrument for promotion of employment although there is no justification, theoretical as well as practical, for such an assumption. Considering the fact that the organized sector in the country is only 9 percent, there may not be much of significance of this policy, but it displays the attitude of the Yojana Bhavan towards labour in general. If the security to workers in the organized sector is sought to be withdrawn, one can very well imagine the plight of the workers in the unorganized and informal sector where majority of Dalits are employed sans any protection.   

As could be seen from the above, each of the propositions in the AP is going to be detrimental to Dalits. Reduction in tariff and de-reservation of industries in small scale sector will directly hit them as majority of them are employed in this sector. The shift of production from the small scale to large scale is a virtual shift of jobs from the low caste to high caste in this country. The entry of foreign players in the retail trade will affect Dalits adversely as it is the sector where they are found in significant numbers as petty shopkeepers, peddlers, as well as employees.

Agriculture, on which a vast majority of Dalits depend, is in utter distress, which is manifesting in a horrific epidemic of farmers’ suicides. More than 30000 farmers are said to have killed themselves during the last five years and they are continuing it with accelerated pace. Though there is no information on the castes of these hapless farmers, there may not be many from among the Dalits. Dalits having been always on margins perhaps possess relatively better capacity to cope with crisis. Considering their relatively more pitiful state, it depicts however a stark fact that Dalits, though not resorting to an extreme step of commuting suicide, suffer as much distress as the worst victims of it. The causes for this rural distress are by now established as the increasing non-viability of cultivation, particularly the dry land cultivation, on account of increasing input prices and volatile output prices, coupled with non-availability of the institutional credit. Most suicides are attributable to an ignominy felt by the farmers of not being able to pay back a small amount of debt. This crisis is clearly engendered by the neoliberal policies followed by the government.

While the AP acknowledges this crisis, it tends to take it as a general agrarian crisis relating to productivity, and not as a particular crisis of peasant agriculture that characterizes agriculture in this country. The AP therefore proposes diversification into horticulture, development of modern marketing infrastructure, encouraging corporate investment and contract farming. While the rural India is burning, Nero in the form of the AP appears playing his neoliberal fiddle of such simplistic solutions! Instead of trying to save peasant agriculture, it proposes corpoartization and contract farming, which will surely and speedily render the peasants landless. The specter of such policies has already become visible in the rural areas in terms of increasing landlessness and aggravation of food security for poor. In the cultivator category, the majority of Dalits being marginal farmers, relatively more vulnerable than the non-dalit farmers, they are bound to lose their land faster than others.

Beyond these structural solutions to the agrarian crisis, the AP waxes vocal giving its diagnosis of the problems facing agriculture. It identifies provision of subsidized power, under-pricing of canal water and subsidy on fertilizer to be the problems. It advocates their withdrawal displaying its faithfulness to the neoliberal dictates. It argues that the price distortions on account of these subsidies have led to the over use of these inputs and stagnated agriculture. Now it is a well known fact established by many experts that the strategy of green revolution necessitating heavy usage of fertilizer and water has been injurious to the agriculture in the long run. Instead of correcting this strategy, the AP wants to pursue more of it but by only removing price distortions. It is only the hardcore neoliberals that can rely on prices to rectify even the technical features of the system!    The removal of subsidies as of now as advocated in the AP will only aggravate agrarian situation further by raising input costs of farmers, and thereby their indebtedness. It would also lead to impairment of food security of people through the general price rise of food items. The implication of these policies to Dalits is certainly adverse.

The entire prescription of the AP to the agrarian crisis is thus inimical to the interests of small peasants. It is not only dalit cultivators but even the dalit landless labourers would be affected very adversely by such policies. Their rank has been swelling by growing landlessness, creating pressure on wages and corresponding accentuation of crisis. The social crisis in village setting necessarily manifests in caste strife and atrocities. The increased incidence of caste atrocities during the decade of globalization as compared with that during the pre-globalization period testifies to this fact.

The importance of food security to the poor people like Dalits cannot be overemphasized. The approach paper is just silent on this vital question. The neoliberal policies of the government pushing agriculture to market oriented cash crops have already created shortages and consequent price rise of essential food items like wheat, sugar and pulses. It has impelled the government to import these items first time in 30 years. Some scholars had already pointed out the per capita availability of food grains for human consumption having fallen substantially during the last decade of reforms. Experts even predicted the danger of food security looming large over the country. Despite these indications, the approach paper has been oblivious of this critical issue.

Food security does not mean adequate availability of food alone; it means adequate food at affordable prices to the poorest people. There was a mechanism in the country in the form of Public Distribution System (PDS) and Essential Commodities Act 1955 that proved fairly successful in providing food security to the people. Both these components of this mechanism have been run down by the neoliberal policies. While the PDS has been virtually dismantled, by complicating it as the targeted PDS, the Essential Commodities Act, which enabled the government to monitor and control the prices of essential commodities, has been diluted in its scope as well as its effectiveness. In terms of scope, many commodities were taken out of the list of essential commodities. For instance, the number of commodities coming under this Act has gone down from 70 in 1989 to just 15 during the 10th plan. The dilution took place in terms of relaxing licensing requirements, stock limits and movement restrictions on specified food items. It allowed dealers to freely buy stock, sell, transport, distribute or dispose any quantity of such items. It has given fillip to hoarding and reckless profiteering by the traders. Another factor that has helped in threatening food security is futures trading in commodities permitted by the dilution of the Forward Contracts (Regulation) Act, 1952. It has unleashed large scale speculation by traders in commodities exchanges. The volume of trade in these commodities exchanges and price rise appear to correlate during the last two years. Of course, the advantage of such price rise is confined only to the middlemen and does not reach the producers at all.

The approach paper instead of learning from the past data persists with targeting the PDS and proposes shift of agriculture from food crops towards the cash crops. The targeted policies advocated by the World Bank have not worked anywhere. There is a hard evidence brought out by none other than the Planning Commission itself, who authored the approach paper in question, that as many as 57 percent of the families were excluded while taking stock of the BPL families for the PDS. The direct consequence of this exclusion has to be malnutrition of the inmates of these families. The majority of these families are expected to be Dalits.

The AP notes the provision of essential public services such as education and health to large parts of our population as the most important challenge and aims at rapidly moving towards universalisation of secondary education. In the matter of health, it similarly acknowledges that the poor do not have even minimum access to health care and in related services such as maternal and child care, clean drinking water and access to basic sanitation facilities. To improve the primary health care system, the approach paper proposes integrated district health plans and later on block specific health plans and envisages them to ensure involvement of all health related sectors and emphasize partnership with NGOs. Acknowledging that the present health care system suffers from a severe shortage of trained personnel, it proposes mobilization of doctors who are trained under Indian Systems of Medicine (ISM). There is a plethora of such ideas in the approach paper but there is no suggestion as to how these ideas would be implemented or what outlay would be committed in the Plan.

The AP then makes its fond suggestion of “a system of private-public partnership”, “entitlement system” and “professionally supervised delivery” for pregnant women, which will empower them to exercise choice, as well as create competition in the health service sector. The private-public partnership model, in reality is politically constrained expression which in reality means privatization. The entitlement system as we know is the World Bank language. The latter is equivalent of public financing of the private scheme without any control being exercised by the former. The private enterprise operates with the logic of profit, which can never cater to the needs of poor people like Dalits. Further, the AP even tends to adopt outsourcing model in the health system. It says, “contracting out of well specified and delimited projects such as immunization can help enhance accountability”. There is thus distinct inclination to create opportunities for the private sector and minimize the responsibility of the State towards such a critical issue as public health.  
It is only a corollary of this motive that the approach paper later proposes raising user fees. Already the health system in this poor country is one of the most privatized in the world. The consequence of this is glaringly seen in terms of poor health indices of the people. It is in this background that the approach paper sings the song of neoliberal economics to advocate the user fees for public services. It is obvious that this approach will exclude most Dalits and consequently deteriorate their already precarious health. The approach paper proposes that providers should be paid only if they actually perform a service or otherwise satisfy the customer (the patient or the village health committee). Fees for health services delivered will encourage accountability. Such a suggestion of productivity linked remuneration for the heath workers can be counterproductive. There are number of alternatives to bring in accountability in the public systems beside reliance on market mechanism. The latter may work but never on its own. Every alternative as such demands some role by the State. The reliance on market, as the AP proposes by linking the remuneration to productivity of the health workers, can be potentially very dangerous.

The AP has rightly diagnosed poor quality of instruction as a major problem of elementary education in India and identifies lack of accountability as one of the major causes. It suggests authorizing panchayats and citizens’ education committees to oversee teacher performance for increasing accountability. The reliance on panchayats for any and everything these days sounds progressive but its goodness in the context of Dalits is not sans problematic. If not overseen by some independent agency, the panchayats could turn to be the fiefdom of village lords against the dalit interests. The AP goes on to propose a ‘voucher system’ that would enable parents of poor children to choose any school that provides quality education without having to pay its fees. The voucher system is not only for secondary and higher education but also for primary education. The AP thus imagines that by enabling people to choose between available public or private schools would create competition among schools. Such a proposition smacks of ignorance of the ground reality of our public schools, particularly in villages, where one-fifth of schools do not have a building and more than 15 percent of the elementary schools function with only one teacher and another 20 percent with only two teachers for five classes. While the public school system stands nearly discarded in urban areas, the rural population does not have any option than making use of it. In the matters of education, there is a total divide between rural and urban and also public and private, as far as primary education is concerned. It is just amusing to read in the AP that its ideas would bring in competition between the dying village schools and the prospering private schools. After years of ignorance and deliberate promotion of private there is just no scope for such a competition.

The voucher system that is proposed for education is also a World Bank prescription. It is meant just to reimburse tuition fees in the private schools. The AP in projecting it as a solution for the quality divide between the public and private reveals its ignorance of the reality around the rural poor. Where does it think such schools are available for the rural poor? How does it think the rural poor cope up with expenses of such schooling other than tuition fees? Those who can afford these expenses may as well bear even the tuition fees as the latter would constitute a small fraction of total expenses. The voucher system is favoured in neoliberal circles because it allows the governments to avoid public provisioning. It knows that the expenditure on such an impracticable pay-as-you-go system would not be much because not many would actually use it. However, theoretically it cannot be objected to easily because it appears equivalent to direct provisioning for the public good and additionally promising a choice to the users. The fact is that nowhere in the world the voucher system has been successful in meeting its professed objectives. In the case of Dalits such a gimmickry to escape the state obligation of providing universal quality education would not work.

The AP is fraught with such neoliberal fundamentalist ideas. They are intrinsically oriented to benefit the elite, native as well as international. Unless the AP demonstrates that it has shun the neoliberal path and has genuinely embarked upon finding the solution to peoples’ problems, there is no possibility of it being favourable to Dalits.         

Referred by: Mukundan CM
Published on: April 21, 2001
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