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May 19, 1999


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'How can anyone escape the realization that mass poverty is the dominant fact in India'

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Siddharth Dube should be an unpopular man among those who anticipate a prosperous market-driven future for India, and especially with non-resident Indians who think he presents a negative image of India here in the United States.

Siddharth Dube In his book In the Land of Poverty: Memoirs of an Indian Family 1947-1997, published recently in America by Zed Books, Dube chronicles the saga of Ram Dass Pasi, landless "untouchable" laborer, and his family from Independence through to the present. Through Ram Dass and his family's eyes, Dube discovers that few benefits of development have actually filtered down to the poor and that their existence remains as oppressive and unjust as ever. He suggests that without comprehensive land reforms "in the future, as in the half-century past and in centuries earlier, India is destined to remain the land of hunger, want and suffering."

In addition to the nationalist brigade, this bleak conclusion has also upset skeptics who consider Dube's dismissal of growing political decentralization and lower-caste mobilization in India too casual. After Dube recently spoke at a South Asian Journalists Association meeting, an irate SAJA-lister posted a message asking why the organization had invited Dube. Wasn't he running down Mother India the way The New York Times does, asked the reader.

Dube is not surprised by the criticism. But he wonders at times how many of his critics have actually read his book.

Amitabh Dubey, a Ph D student in Political Science at Columbia University, who is not related to Dube, met him recently in New York to find out why the book has created such a fuss. Dube has also presented his arguments at Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas and is scheduled to participate at an Asia Society discussion in New York on June 29, as well as in Chicago and Washington DC. His next book, Sex, India and AIDS will be published in January.

When the entire world appears convinced that the reforms of the 1990s have unleashed a new era of growth for India, why are you striking such a discordant note? Many Indians would argue that economic growth will eliminate poverty, that socialism is what has failed India, and that the land reforms you advocate are impossible to implement. Even Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze have focused more on health and education than on the land reforms that you advocate.

The testimony in my book of this family, and of the poor, is the most compelling evidence of the need to get rid of poverty, inequality and oppression, and how important owning land is in the fight against rural oppression and poverty. This is routinely overlooked because we treat poverty as simply an economic issue which can be fought with programs. There is a lot of evidence that small farms are very productive and that land reforms are a key to increasing rural productivity and wage rates. Very few policy people would disagree with this.

Dreze and Sen have also spoken of land reform. It's just that they’ve focused more closely on improving health and education, probably because it's more feasible. I also have no problem with the overall direction of the economic reforms, although I do have reservations about intellectual property rights, biodiversity, etc. If you say land reform is unfeasible, let us then accept the consequences and search for a feasible alternative.

One proposal in Bihar is to have the state buy land at the full market price and to redistribute it. International donors like the World Bank could easily loan money for this. Existing tenancy reforms have yet to be implemented. You can enforce existing laws on benami land. Break up visibly large holdings held by politically powerful zamindars and industrialists. If you really want political emancipation, it can be done with existing laws.

One reason for this widespread conservatism is that international institutions are dominated by the United States which prefers conservative policies. What's more, all those involved in "development" are also elite from different countries who are comfortable with doling out money and uncomfortable with the idea of redistribution. These jet-set interests drown out other voices. I'm just trying to make these other voices heard.

The book is really trying to show what the poor themselves think about the causes and solutions to poverty. To them, the lack of land is the single most important cause of rural oppression and inequality, and the most important avenue to social and economic emancipation.

In your book you say that Panchayati Raj hasn't worked, and that lower caste mobilization is exaggerated because the lower caste parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party are led by the middle classes and not by the poor. But even in Ram Dass' family his son Shrinath tells us that upper caste oppression has eased. Ram Dass himself says that the scheduled castes now refuse to tolerate Thakur insults, unlike in the past.

His grandson Hansraj says that ever since the scheduled castes in UP won reservations to the panchayat, and many of them became pradhans, the upper castes have begun to treat them with greater respect. So hasn't rural oppression eased because of political changes in the absence of land reform?

Part of the point of the story was to take a particular family and to place it in the context of the country's development. Even if these people are sanguine about their own village they will point to the next village and show that the factors that have enabled them to progress, viz the ownership of some land, are entirely absent in the next village. They will themselves point to the lack of redistribution in the rest of Uttar Pradesh and the continuing oppression.

More importantly, is even this incremental change and the resulting diminution of oppressive poverty sufficient? I would argue that the book shows that even though there has been change, its pace has been so slow that its effect on mass poverty has been insignificant, given the numbers and proportion of people under poverty. We really need to ask ourselves what kind of change we need to take huge number of the poor out of poverty.

It seems a bit of a stretch to conclude that India is doomed to man years of widespread poverty from the experience of a single scheduled caste community in Uttar Pradesh. After all not only are the scheduled castes particularly badly off compared with other poor groups, but Uttar Pradesh has been a poor performer even within India. Haven't other groups and regions done much better?

I think the generalization is quite valid. In terms of income, Uttar Pradesh is quite close to the national average and in fact helps define the national average because of its size. The poorer northern states represent a huge percentage of the poor in India. In health and in education, Uttar Pradesh is a bigger failure that many other states, but other states aren't great successes either.

The only real successes have been a few states like Kerala, Himachal and Punjab, and these are definitely outliers. Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, for example, have performed better than Uttar Pradesh but not much better.

But what makes you so pessimistic? At the end of the book you say that India is doomed to many more decades of poverty.

Siddharth Dube It sounds logical to me to be pessimistic. If decade after decade, election after election, and speech after speech we've been told that poverty is going to disappear when in fact it has not, and has even become worse in some ways, then there is reason to be skeptical. What is there to suggest that there will be a real reduction in poverty? You have the same oppression, inequality and lack of public investments as you had earlier.

The only thing we are told is that fast economic growth will take care of poverty. It would be foolish for me to believe this because the record of other countries shows that growth without redistribution makes the poor stay poor, and Brazil is the perfect example of this. Its per capita GNP is ten times that of India yet one-third of its population lives in conditions not very different from the worst poverty in India!

How can anyone who goes to India escape the realization that mass poverty is the dominant fact in India? There is so much deprivation and hunger that one would have to be willfully blind to fail to recognize widespread suffering. It's misplaced jingoism to blame this on Western reporting and vested interests.

Given your pessimism about the prospects for quickly removing poverty in India, what do you hope to achieve by writing this book?

If we believe in democracy and an informed public, it's important to widen the debate beyond academic and policy circles. That is why I have avoided the inaccessibility of the academic literature and written a serious book for the general reader. Rather than swallow what policy elite tell us, we should learn and think about the issue of poverty ourselves, just as the poor seem to do. And we can't keep saying that calling for land reforms is simply an outdated socialist idea.

I have tried to bring out what the poor think about their situation in modern India. I still get shocked by some of the insights they have. If you realize the poor do in fact understand their lives, you will see that they have the same desires and aspirations as the rest of us. They have a powerful sense of injustice. It was important for me to write a book not just about numbers but about people.

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