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Covid-19 crisis: Why states need to replicate Kerala model to 'empower' rural poor

By Bhabani Shankar Nayak*
The spread of Covid-19-infused crisis has huge impact on all aspects of life and economy across India. It is particularly posing a serious challenge to the social and economic development of rural poor, migrants and farmers. The local businesses and communities are significantly affected by the pandemic.
The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on May 12 that his government would provide a relief-cum-stimulus package of Rs 20 lakh crore. It is 10% of Indian GDP. But the reality came out in open when Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman revealed the details about the package.
It is clear now, that the stimulus and relief package announced by the Government of India is just 1% of India’s GDP. It is too little to provide relief to the poor and rehabilitate the Indian economy. It puts rural development in jeopardy; thereby creating conditions for long term rural distress and destitution.
The agricultural market reforms led by the BJP-led government in New Delhi are not panacea for the serious agrarian crisis in India. The reduction of tax on consumption and goods and services tax (GST) rate is a welcome policy initiative in right direction. But the reform of the Essential Commodities Act led to the removal of cereals, edible oil, oilseeds, pulses, onions and potato from its purview.
Such reforms destroy both food security of the rural poor and destroy the farmers confidence to produce these items. The universal approach to food security by public distribution system was diluted and destroyed by the previous Congress governments in center.
The BJP government is following the path initiated by the Congress government and ensuring permanent damage to food security and agricultural economy in the country. The policy of private investment in agriculture will create new landlords. What to produce? How to produce? When to produce? What will be the price of the product?
The answers to these questions will be decided by the market forces. It will take away from farmers the freedom to decide the production processes and price of their own products. Market forces will control farmers, creating conditions for the growth of a new era of neo-feudalism in India.
The announcement of the allocation of Rs 1 lakh crore by the Government of India is a bonanza for the private corporations for the development of agricultural and food processing infrastructure. The history of tax credit and fertiliser subsidies reveals that farmers are not beneficiaries of agricultural subsidies. 
Therefore, the Government of India and state governments need to redirect their policy focus to empower farmers and rural poor to expand rural economy. There are several alternative policy options available within the existing development frameworks to revive the economy by reinvigorating rural development programmes. 
The existing cash transfer programmes in different states like the Rajiv Gandhi Kisan Nyay Yojana (RGKNY) in Chhattisgarh, Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation (KALIA) in Odisha, Krishak Bandhu (KB) in West Bengal, Mukhya Mantri Krishi Aashirwad Yojana (MMKAY) in Jharkhand and Kishan Kerala are some of the good policy initiatives by the state governments which led to the creation of the PM Kisan Yojana. 
Cash transfer policies are beneficial in short term. But these are not enough to reinvigorate rural economy or revive agricultural distress
The cash transfer around Rs 15,000 crore under the PM Kisan scheme by the Modi government provides temporary relief. These cash transfer policies are beneficial in short term. But these policies are not enough to reinvigorate rural economy. These policies do not have potentials to revive agricultural distress. It can have long term positive impacts if it is supported by long term investment in agriculture and agricultural infrastructure.
The Government of Kerala has the most comprehensive, and sustainable rural development policies in India. The Government of Kerala’s policies follow an integrated approach by combining several policy initiatives together. For example, increasing rice, vegetables, spices and coconut production is combined with organic and technology intensive planning.
The biodiversity conservation and farm diversification combined with institutional mechanisms of the Agro Service Centers and Regional Farm Facilitation Centers creates sustainable policy foundations that addresses rural economy and development issues in a permanent manner. The policies of crop insurance schemes, integrated pest management and group farming immensely help the rural poor and farmers in Kerala. 
The Government of Kerala also provides contingency programmes to meet natural calamities including pandemics like Covid-19. Public participation, decentralised development plans, market intervention support system, training programmes via virtual university and Rural Infrastructure Development Funds (RIDF) ensures confidence among rural poor and farmers.
The involvement of Panchayat Raj institutions in the processes of policy formulation to policy implementation ensures sustainable rural development and revitalises rural economy. The existing Kerala model can be adopted immediately and replicated in different states as per the conditions and local requirements of the people in the rural areas.
The consequences of coronavirus pandemic demand urgent attention on rural development. The rural development policies need to be revamped to address the serious issues of rural agrarian distress in different states in India. The specific objectives of the policy need to focus on farmers, agricultural workers and rural poor. The policy makers in India need to move away from technocratic short term policy objectives by which the state can play a significant role in the revival of rural economy. 
Investment in rural health, educational, sports and recreational infrastructure can help in reducing rural to urban migration. It can reduce the pressure on urban infrastructure. Investment in irrigation, electricity, rural infrastructure, seed and fertilizer subsidies and higher minimum support price can encourage farmers to produce. 
It can generate rural employment in agricultural and regional rural crafts in different parts of the country. Such internal mobilisation of resources and labour power can revive rural economy and contribute immensely in reducing poverty, food insecurity and unemployment.
There is nothing radical about these policy suggestions. Most of the developed countries provide massive subsidies to farmers to increase agricultural production. Developed countries invest massively to reduce the gaps between urban and rural areas as a result of which rural areas are better in Europe than the European cities.
India as a country has all resources, skills and labour power, only political resolve is missing. The political commitment to better public policy focusing on rural development can recover Indian economy from the brink of Covid-19-led catastrophe.
States can never be powerful with weak citizenry. Success and failure of a state depends on the partnership between the government and citizens. The disconnect between the government and citizens led to failure of states and empires in history. Propaganda can only give temporary relief by diverting public attention but in long term people revolt against the state and ruling class that discriminates and disempowers them.
The idea of peace depends on prosperity and the pursuit of prosperity depends on creating conditions for greater equality and liberty in political, social and economic sphere. India can do it if the governments of India show their political commitment for the all-round development of Indians. India lives in its rural heartlands. The future of India depends of the future of poor, farmers, migrants, women, students and youth in rural India.
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*Coventry University, UK

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