‘India is a nation of two planets: rich and poor’

PALAGUMMI SAINATH, the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, who was recently named as a recipient of the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award, spoke to Sunil Sethi, the books editor of NDTV, over the weekend:


What has changed in the last 10 years: “We are in the middle of the greatest agrarian crisis since the eve of the Green Revolution. We are seeing a collapse of agriculture; hundreds of thousands of people are leaving villages for cities in search of jobs which are not there; we are seeing a collapse and tanking of prices of cash crops which people were persuaded into growing; and we are seeing some of the largest numbers of suicides (112,000 in the last ten years) in our history.”

What is happening on the ground? “The ruled are no longer willing to be ruled in the old way, the rulers are unable to rule in the old way. People are far more conscious of their rights, and assert them more positively. The devolution of governance is a major advance as is the upsurge of the oppressed classes and castes. However, while there is a devolution of power at the village level, you have a huge centralisation at the global level. You have a WTO (World Trade Organisation) which makes sweeping decisions that crack at your agriculture. Your village sarpanch cannot handle that.”

The gaps are gigantic, and growing: “Who you are, where you are, and what you do matters a great deal in India today. If you belong to the top 10-15 per cent of rural India, or the top 15-20 per cent in urban India, you are experiencing a lifestyle you never dreamed of. If you belong to the bottom 40 per cent of either urban or rural India, you are experiencing a deprivation you never imagined. The gaps are just gigantic and they are growing. When the national rural employment guarantee scheme (NREGA) was launched, in Andhra Pradesh, in less than 7 days, 2.7 million people had queued up and given applications, included landed farmers.”

It’s not a cliche; rich are getting richer, poor poorer: “If you look at Forbes, the oracle of capitalism, India ranks 4th in the number of dollar-billionaires, after America, Germany and Russia. More recently, some gentleman paid Rs 15 lakh to get a preferred number for his cellphone. Yet, we rank 126th in human development, behind Botswana. The average farm household’s monthly per capita expenditure is Rs 503 out of which 60 per cent is spent on food, and 18 per cent on fuel, clothing and footwear.”

Our definition of poverty is a farce: “Our definition of poverty excludes education, health and sanitation… Hunger keeps rising, food per capita available keeps falling, unemployment keeps rising, migration keep rising, but poverty keeps falling. It is as if poverty has a separate existence, independent of food intake, lifestyle, employment and education.”

We are eating less under liberalisation: “In 1991, the food grain available per Indian was 531 grams per day. In 2005, it had fallen to 437 grams. Meaning, the average Indian is consuming 100 grams less per day than he did 10 years ago at the cusp of liberalisation. On the other hand, you and I are eating better now than we ever did. It raises the question, what the heck are the bottom 40 per cent eating?”

The basic inequality of our society remains: “The four or five basic issues of Indian society have never been resolved. Today, we can get an SEZ (special economic zone) cleared in six months; we have not managed land reforms in 60 years, except in three States. We not have resolved tenancy reforms, regional issues, or caste. Basically, the unequal nature of our society has changed only for the worse. It’s like building a penthouse on the 50th floor without a foundation.”

Healthcare has gone for a toss: “Of the monthly per capita income of a farm household, which is Rs 503, Rs 34 is spent on health and Rs 17 on education. Over 200 million do not seek medical attention because they simply cannot afford it. This is the same country that boasts of medical tourism, and hands out of billions of rupees to corporate hospitals on the promise of reserving 30 per cent of their beds for poor people which they never do.”

Not two nations, two planets: “The urban poor are rural poor who have migrated. We are pushing people to cities but not designing cities to accommodate them. Those who come from the villages are neither farmers nor workers. They are the in-betweens, domestic servants and the like. It is no longer a two-nation divide, it’s two planets. Vastly different lifestyles, vastly different living standards, and vastly different levels of stress and distress.”

Photograph by Sadanand Menon

Also read: Will private agriculture colleges kill our farmers?

10 Responses to “‘India is a nation of two planets: rich and poor’”

  1. Rags Says:

    This article makes a grim reading. But these are facts. I think we are heading for a agrarian disaster under the name of economic growth. For us economic growth is only corporate growth. We are going on a SEZ approval spree without realising the impact of it on rural population and on small landholders and marginal farmers. And the excuse we give is economic growth.
    The pwers that be only know a urban defintion of growth and nothing else. Economic growth can also mean providing good roads in villages, bringing in scientific methods in agriculture, good education and healtcare etc.
    The very thought of fertile land being gobbled up in the name of growth makes me scary. I only hope that something dramatic happens to reverse this trend.

  2. Arun Says:

    It is rather sad that in a time which seems to be a time of plenty, we have left behind majority of people who have no influence of anykind. And even worse, there are few who care – not the leaders, not the administrators, and not the most of us who are seeing the time of plenty.

  3. Madhu Says:

    Shocking to say the least.At this rate, we will only see the Red Corridor expanding by the day, taking more poor into its fold.The Establisment is continuing its “doling out sops” without addressing the basic issues involved.Perhaps, the issue is much larger than what the states can chew.Needs a different,bold approach at the Centre, which is not forthcoming.

  4. Nastika Says:

    This guy speaks numbers. Hope he doesn’t nurture screwed up ideas like the Leftists :)

  5. vsesh Says:

    Palagummi Sainath has sketched the pathetic picture of rich and poor divide with at most concern. It can as well be taken as rural and urban divide. The sad state of affairs of the rural mass in general and all the deprived class in specific has been pushed under the Persian carpet of liberalization and globalization. The rat race to grab opportunities in the ever growing metro cities is turning the rural pockets in to deserted villages. At this rate India may be a nation of several city states in near future.
    How long can this process continue? , is the moot question. Repercussions of such whole sale migration from rural to urban places are simply mind boggling. How long the cities can with stand the influx of population? How many jobs can be created to accommodate the incoming human sea? Can the dream of every migrant to find a roof over his head and stomach full of food be ever realized? None can answer these questions
    The agrarian sector in the country side is facing the toughest problem in finding the laborer for the various agricultural operations. The question of profit or loss is a different matter but the very sustenance is at stake. The rural workers find any other work in the nearby town more lucrative than the work in the field. Most of them prefer masonry carpentry and any other odd job to agriculture related work. Naturally they demand higher wages resulting in heavier loss to farmer. In planting season they want to take up the work only on contract basis and refuse to work for daily wages. For instance, Harvesting of sugarcane alone costs. Rs 3oo per ton, forget about the transportation.
    The point of less consumption of food than what people used to eat a decade ago has many facets. It is acceptable if only the quantity of food is taken in to consideration. Now we rarely come across the gluttons who can eat Roti in dozens and consume rice in heaps with bucket full of curry.
    It is really amusing to remember those days of yore when some people used to win the bet of eating hundred Laddu and Jilebi in the last course of meal during wedding feasts. Still the money spent on food is comparatively more today. The price of an ordinary plate meal has been almost doubled in the last three years let alone the price of eatables in posh restaurants. With the popularity of North Indian meal, even a plate of Dal costs more than the price of the full meal of a common man.
    Even in rural pockets junk food like chips and lays rule the roost. Naturally cost is more and content is less. No body had ever dreamt of buying drinking water just 10 years ago. Now all most all travelers carry a water bottle even if they do not have luggage. It is generally believed that the expense towards food reduces with the increase in the income. But there is one fallacy in that argument. The expenditure definitely increases along with the earning power but only the percentage of income spent for food declines.
    Health care system itself is really in need of medicine. Number of super specialty hospitals has grown to a great extent but only to cater to the need of the wealthy or people who have health cover. Now it is a very difficult task to find an ordinary doctor who can treat a common cold or normal fever. Now it has become order of the day to rule out the chance of having several other diseases before diagnosis of the particular disease patient is suffering from. The lengthy process wastes precious time and lightens the purse of the patient. The government too has several welfare schemes on paper to help the common people but close scrutiny reveals the bias towards the benefit of the doctors rather than patients.
    The long term policies which can improve the life of common man rot in the files but decisions that can be of immediate benefit to a privileged few are expedited only because the kick backs to the concerned are very attractive.

    The idea of not two nations but two planets is true except both belong to same species. Of course it is true the persons living in the world of affluence may not consider the people in other place as human beings like themselves. Only the consolation is still rich have to be dependent on the poor for so many things at least for the present.

  6. Manik Basha Says:

    Falling prices of agri commodities, rising number of suicides in the last 10 years. Then why not liberate farmers to choose his buyer? Why such a stiff resistance to APMC or mandi reforms? Why APMC alone should buy from farmers. APMCs are the number one culprits for farmers’ misery. They buy and pay later, pushing farmers to distress. The APMC traders are misleading people and the government by posing as farmers and resisting amendments to APMC Act. Having suffered APMC monopoly all these years, why not experiment with the reformed agri marketing and see how it works. Can we go on shedding crocodile tears for farmers, and do nothing on ground to save them? We want everything from private sector – mobile, air travel or cars. But farmers should rely only on the monopolistic APMC. Is this what we owe our farmers?

  7. tarlesubba Says:


  8. Danny Says:

    Of course, there is some truth to this, but I cannot agree in total. In many places — in fact, in more places — there is a narrowing gap. Competition in all castes and classes is improving the country at every level. Some times it’s hard to “see the forest for the trees.” One can always find an exception to the rule. But who would disagree that India has not leaped forward? And as a westerner, privileged to live in India, I would NEVER want to go back where they are visibly falling apart. The future is India and it belongs to India more than to any other country. Allow me to say why:

    Every human is body, spirit & mind. So is every country. In terms of “body” India leads the world with billion more people than the USA. She belongs to an elite nuclear club that the rest of the world tends to forget. (Yes, so does Pakistan, but is she not also Indian?) India is second against the cumulative world holdings of gold, and gold has always been money, is money today and will always be money. When the world gets tired of their own brands of fiat “paper money,” India will be so far ahead everyone else, the world will feel like giving up. And this is coming faster and faster every day.

    In terms of “spiritual” interests, India is far ahead of the rest of the world. In western countries God has been kicked out of everything, and the resultant crumbling is invisible to no one except to them. I’m encouraged that the educated Hindu is admitting his belief in One God instead of the 33,000,000 supposed gods. Rig Veda should be more influential than it has recently been. It knew of and taught only one God. Nevertheless, I compliment Indian society, because while the westerner laughed at Indians prostrating themselves before carved images, Indians have stood their ground which has resulted in a more stable society.

    In terms of “mind,” India again is leading the way. I ought to know. I came to India to exploit the doctors, nurses, teachers and engineers for the west. Technological talent is tops in India, and more and more of the lower castes are being educated and becoming a vital part of India’s body, spirit and mind. I got sick and ran into some Americans who had started a medical tourism company, in India, called America’s Medical Solutions. I was taken by the hand to have my own medical procedure done in Mumbai at a low cost contrasted by medical skill, technology and hardware that rivals anything else anywhere in the world. India became my treatment of choice! Those who think China is going to be the leading country in the world should only note that they are not exporting their technological talent around the world. Actually, all of Asia is to realize a great awakening, wealth and world respect, but India will be and is already foremost to all of them.

    Problems are here, and most of the rest of Asia doesn’t really like us. There are reasons for that which only we can improve. Firstly, if we are to have friends, we must show ourselves friendly. In the most part, I believe we do, but I shall talk about one area, below, that undermines all the good we have done. Secondly, in the area of “body” I have only one important counsel. Figure out a way to honestly monetize your gold. Figure out a way to trade it in electronic grams of pure 24kt gold that can be traded for goods and services instantly and irrevocably on the Internet. This body of awareness must then be properly tempered by “spirit” and “mind.” Some other time I’ll have to say why “irrevocably.” But there is good reason for it.

    For “spirit” study carefully the ancient ways, and do not exaggerate beyond truth. Demand truth. For instance: the greatest problem in third world countries is lying, exaggerating and stretching the truth. (This obviously includes bribery). When I catch an Indian in a lie upon which I was considering, the choice of which would have made a bad personal or business decision, he will say, “no, no, no, no, it’s not like that,” and then he will begin to explain away his lie. Stop this! I find this problem worse in India than anywhere else I’ve lived. This is the problem I mentioned I’d speak about, above. Simply tell the truth about everything to everyone and even to yourself. Find out what God thinks about lies. Follow Him resolutely in this one point, as this is the only mortar which will hold India together.

    For “mind” keep on, keeping on! Be sure there is very good English medium education for all children, not necessarily in public education. Look what’s going on in the west once again for a rule of what not to do. When “education” becomes a business for teachers it won’t be teaching anything. Focus strictly on reading, writing and math. Forget everything else and India will rival the world.

    Honestly, I think India will rival the world. I see the spectrum of body, spirit and mind moving that direction and those who would try to stifle these good changes are not good for your country. Absolutely punish anyone who deprives any other of their life, liberty or property. Exalt all those who champion that maxim. Simply don’t listen to anyone or anything else.

    Keep on, keeping on as India is the future!

  9. larissa Says:

    The worst is when farmers commit suicide. This is the most tragic of all. How can a nation not take care of its farmers who feed the nation?

  10. Joshi Says:

    Rich people in india thinks they own the laws , police, land power everything because they know how to bribe people in india even CBI takes bribe they have agents who talk deals if some rich person is in trouble. Indias court system is poor no witness protection shit load of corruption, caste diffrence, no implementation of law if some powerful or rich person is in trouble…
    It is a thrid world country …it will always be a developing country till they balance the gap between rich and poor…get rid of corruption…police should not have any pockets so they wont take bribe…if nations law and enforcement system gets honest and implemented then half of the population will be in jail and govt will have to make lot of jails n provide food for them.. This way their gdp will go down… A developing nation cant be called developed nation on the basis of gdp.

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