The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- If there is no work, give people time and resources to invent it

Last week I strayed into rural Jharkhand. I took a bus far away from pucca roads, and drove miles on village paths. Then I realized the secret of Tata Motors' success (I preferred its earlier name ' TELCO ' Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company; although, soon after TELCO was founded, Nehru's government set up its own factory and deprived TELCO of the market for locomotives, the old name was redolent of history ' of a company that started with 5-ton trucks and reinvented itself to make Indicas). Over the years, it took a technology developed for the smooth roads of Europe and adapted it to India's unpaved roads. That is why it took it nearly 15 years to master the art of making a car; when it wanted to learn to make trucks for the precision-built highways of other countries, it had to buy Daewoo.

Anyway, the aged Tata bus (it may not have been very old; it may have aged prematurely) gave quite a comfortable drive on the village lanes. That was partly also because we did not meet a single motorized vehicle; if we had, I do not know who would have reversed for miles to let the other one pass. And ' this was a surprise to someone used to the environs of Delhi ' bullock carts are still the preferred mode of transport in Jharkhand. They are long and narrow, and the bullocks were obviously the pride of their owners.

Jharkhand is hilly, and most of the hills are still wooded. The paddy crop had just been harvested; but there were enough trees to make the valleys inviting. And the houses ' I have seldom seen such beauty in rural India.The thatched huts had solid walls painted in a striking dark red, sometimes with stripes of green and white. Behind those elegant huts was a centuries-old craft of building in wood and earth, and a quiet pride in the homes.

At the end of our road was a tree; under it was gathered a village self-help group made up of about 20 women, organized by a Catholic charity. The women could sign their names: that was one of the things they had learnt by joining the SHG. They signed in Devanagari, for the official language of this state is Hindi. But nothing of what they said was comprehensible to me; nor do I think they understood much of what I said. They were all Toda or Munda women; they spoke a language, or languages, which were at least as different from Hindi as Gujarati or Bengali. I thought ' why can their children not learn their own languages when Gujaratis or Tamils can their own' Why does their schooling have to be in a language as foreign to them as Hindi is to Bengalis' How many of their children avoid school because what goes on in schools is incomprehensible to them' I think that the imperialism of Hindi has done tremendous harm to the people of northern and central India whom it annexed; I wondered how far this imperialism was responsible for the backwardness of the North.

What these women had done was to contribute Rs 5 a month to the SHG; the money collected was then lent out to the women in the group that needed it most. This system has a long history in the South; there they call it chit funds. It was so widespread and important that the Reserve Bank tried to regulate it; it wrote such draconian regulations that chit funds have faded into obscurity in the South. And yet, they are such a boon to groups such as those village women that if the choice were between abolishing chit funds and abolishing the Reserve Bank, the latter would be preferable. For what their chit fund did was to free these women from the clutches of the local moneylender. And since the only thing they could pledge to the moneylender was their land, loans had also the instrument of depriving the tribal peasants of their land and turning moneylenders into big landlords. When I visited them, the women had saved Rs 11,000 through their SHG. They had a surplus beyond their needs, and even lent to a few women outside their membership.

With so much money, what did they plan to do next' A chit fund is only an instrument of redistribution of income from the moneylender to the farming households; I wondered if they had thought of increasing their incomes. Yes; they were thinking of buying sewing machines and making their own clothes. How about weaving their own clothes' Spinning yarn for the clothes' No; they had not considered these Gandhian alternatives. None of the saris the women wore had the slightest local touch; they were gaudy saris printed in the back lanes of Calcutta. Not surprising, I thought, considering the immensely higher productivity of mechanized cloth manufacture. Once I compared the purchasing power of wages in Akbar's time and Nehru's; I found that the only products which had become enormously cheaper in modern times were clothes and sugar ' both obviously because their production had been mechanized.

Sewing has also been mechanized; electric sewing machines are probably a hundred times more productive than needle and thread. But it still employs large numbers because Western fashion is conquering the world; shirts and jeans, blouses and dresses need so much sewing, whereas if India had conquered the world instead of Britain, everyone would have been wearing saris and dhotis, and there would have been no need for so many tailors.

Anyway: after sewing, what' There are few productive uses for labour in villages. Ideally, people should move out of villages; they should go into towns as they have done all over the world. But there is nothing for them to do in towns also; and those men from the villages I went to who went to Calcutta brought back AIDS. The fact is, that mass industrialization is pass'. Technology has advanced; achievable industrial productivity is so high that no country needs more than a tenth of its workforce to produce all the industrial goods it needs.

So what would the rest do' The UPA has thought that it will give every villager 100 days of employment a year. But employment in what' Making roads' It is inefficient to make women break stones, and men to pour tar; it is cheaper to use machines. What then' If there is not enough work, let people invent work; give them time and resources to invent. If India's governments are giving 15 per cent of national income in subsidies, that money can be used to give every villager a bounty equal to a quarter of per capita national income ' about Rs 6,000 ' every year. That is Rs 120,000 a year for that SHG of 20 women ' ten times more than they saved in three years. Give it to them, unconditionally.

Some will waste it; but that is better than the government wasting it for them. Most will do something productive, something innovative. Let us not break people's backs in the name of giving them jobs; let them use their brains. Let a billion flowers bloom.

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