India is Asia’s third-largest economy. Its first ever SocioEconomic and Caste Census (SECC) paints a grim picture of poverty and deprivation. Of the 179 million households covered, nearly half are rural.
“Despite over six decades of independence, millions still continue to languish in depressing poverty, deprived of most social benefits like job security, education and a roof over their heads. Policy makers and economists have been keeping their eyes closed. Government after government is guilty of this criminal neglect of the disempowered,” said Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research. “ It clearly demonstrates that the benefits of high economic growth have not percolated down to large sections of the population despite billions being funneled into schemes for poverty-alleviation, ‘education for all’ and job-generation.”
The countryside remains unable to find jobs that can pull families out of poverty while agriculture remains at subsistence levels, with low mechanisation, limited irrigation facilities and little access to credit. More than 60 percent of the surveyed rural households qualified as “deprived” on 14 parameters. In over 51.8 percent of rural families, the main income earners barely manage to keep their kitchen fires burning by working as manual or casual labourers making less than 80 dollars per month (four dollars a day). Of India’s 1.2-billion-strong population, 60 percent are of working age according to the Centre for Social Research. Yet only a small percentage has been absorbed into the formal workforce. Rural poverty is an outcome of low productivity, which leads to low incomes.
Across the country, 56 percent of households don’t own any land. Few households have a regular job and an insignificant number are taxpayers. Only 7.3 percent of households who fall into the scheduled castes category, and only 9.7 percent of all rural households in total, have a family member with a salaried job. About 30 percent of those surveyed list themselves as cultivators, and manual casual labour is the primary source of income for 51.14 percent of households. Just about 14 percent have non-farm jobs, with the government, public or private sector.
The statistics are even bleaker for scheduled castes and tribal households: despite decades of affirmative action, only 3.96 percent of rural SC households and 4.38 percent of ST households are employed in the government sector. This plummets to 2.42 percent for scheduled castes and 1.48 per cent for tribal communities in the private sector. Fewer than five percent of rural households pay income tax. Even among rich states, like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, this number hovers around the five percent mark.
Despite state-mentored flagship schemes like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the education for all movement aimed at achieving universal elementary education, 23.52 percent rural families have no literate adult above 25 years. Fewer than 10 percent in India advance beyond the higher secondary level in school and just 3.41 percent of rural households have a family member who is at least a graduate. A state-by-state breakdown of the latest census shows that nearly every second rural resident (47.5 percent of the rural population) in the northwest state of Rajasthan – the largest in the country by land area – is illiterate. Meanwhile, states like West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh account for over 180 million of the over 300 million illiterate people in rural India.
Despite the existence of Indira Awaas Yojana, one of the biggest and most comprehensive rural housing programmes ever taken up in the country, which has been in operation since 1985, housing for all remains a chimera. The scheme aims to provide subsidies and cash-assistance to the poor to construct their own houses. Yet three out of 10 families, according to the SECC, live in one-room houses, while 22 million households (roughly 100 million persons or four times the population of Australia) live in homes constructed from grass, bamboo, plastic or polythene, with nothing but thatched or tin roofs standing between them and the elements.