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Quiet numbers tell district tales – rural and urban India, part 6

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In north-east Mumbai (Bombay), open land under high-tension cables becomes a place for many cricket games on a Sunday afternoon.

Census 2011 also informs both the incumbent ‘sirkar’ and us that there are 22 districts in which literacy rates for the rural female population are above 74% (all 14 of Kerala’s districts are included). However, it is in the next 10% range of literacy rates – 74% to 64% – that gains since the 2001 census must be protected and this set includes 82 districts. It is a widely dispersed set, comprising districts from 21 states and union territories.

There are 11 from Maharashtra (including Sangli, Bhandara and Gondiya), 9 from Punjab (including Kapurthala, Gurdaspur and Sahibzada), 7 from Orissa (including Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara and Bhadrak), 7 also from Himachal Pradesh (including Una, Kangra and Solan), 6 from Tamil Nadu (including Thoothukkudi and Nagapattinam) and 5 from Gujarat (including Navsari and Mahesana).

In the background, some of the most expensive office space in the world, Mumbai's Nariman Point business district. In the foreground, temporary shanties on the beach.

The Office of the Registrar General of India, which administers the Census, has cautioned that all the data releases so far are still provisional figures. However, the implications are now plain to see, and give rise to a set of socio-economic questions which demographic and field research over the 12th Plan Period (2012-17) will enlarge and expand upon. Is there for example a correlation between districts whose rural populations have unfavourable female to male gender ratios and districts in which female literacy ratios are low? Comparing the bottom 100 districts under both conditions shows that there are only 12 districts in which both conditions are present (5 in Uttar Pradesh, 2 in Rajasthan, and 2 in Jammu & Kashmir).

A valley in the western hills of Maharashtra state in summer, exhibiting denuded hillsides and scant grazing for shepherds. From villages such as this one, youth and families make their way to the cities.

Most encouraging is that there are 40 districts in which the ratio of the number of literate females to literate males (this is a different ratio from literacy rate), is 0.90 or better, ie there are 900 or more literate females to 1,000 literate males. In this set are all Kerala’s 14 districts but also 13 districts from the Northeast (from Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland).

The remainder are from island Union Territories, from the southern states (3 from Karnataka, 2 from Andhra Pradesh and one each from Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Puducherry), from hill states (2 from Uttarakhand, 2 from Himachal Pradesh) and one from Maharashtra. It is these districts that provide abundant reason for the allocation of a minimum 6% of GDP allocation for education – a long-standing commitment – which must begin to be fulfilled in the 2012-17 Plan period.

Thane district, north of the Mumbai metropolitan region, has experienced one of the fastest growths in population in India over the last decade.

How will the Government of India consider these early indicators from Census 2011? How will India’s civil society and the great breadth of organisations – voluntary groups, people’s movements, rural foundations and the like – which have been delivering development ‘outcomes’, year after year, without the benefit of budgetary support but motivated by the plain fact that inequity still exists, how will this group see these indicators?

The Government of India revels in presenting contradiction as a substitute for careful, evidence-based and inter-generational planning. When downward trends – such as those seen in female illiteracy and in the gender ratios of the 0-6 age-group – have been slow over the last 25 years, there is a need to set long-term objectives that are not tied to the end of the next available Plan period, but which use a Plan direction to help achieve them. In this, the Approach Paper to the 12th Five-Year Plan has failed quite signally, because its authors have not drawn the only possible conclusions from the Census 2011 data presented till date. Yet others have done so, notably India’s civil society and its more responsive group of academics. Hence the abundance of contradictions in all major documents – the Approach Paper being the most important, annual Economic Surveys being another type – which seek to reassure one section while in fact underwriting the ambitions of another.

Rural labour pitches camp. Mobile populations such as this one move from more disadvantaged districts to less, as even intermittent agricultural wages and harsh living conditions are better than debt.

So we see that a state which must ensure provision of Right to Education to every child up to the age of 14 years, because it is constitutionally bound to do so, complains in the planning phase itself that scarce resources constrain it from carrying out its duties and therefore advises its citizens that measures like public-private partnership (PPP) should be resorted to. How will such cunning better the lives and present culturally relevant opportunities for the rural populations in the remaining 591 districts which are under the 0.90 ratio for literate females to literate males? What will the emphasis on vocational training (for the urban job pools) instead of people’s empowerment mean for the rural populations in 403 districts where this ratio is less than 0.75 – which means the number of literate rural females is under three-fourths the number of literate males – and in 69 of these districts it is even under 0.60 (25 in Rajasthan, 14 in Uttar Pradesh, 9 in Madhya Pradesh, 6 in Jammu and Kashmir)?

[This is the sixth of a small series of postings on rural and urban India, which reproduces material from my analysis of Census 2011 data on India's rural and urban populations, published by Infochange India. See the first in the series here; see the second in the series here; see the third in the series here; see the fourth in the series here; see the fifth in the series here.]

Quiet numbers tell district tales – rural and urban India, part 5

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Teenager on a bicycle in rural Maharashtra, western India. At the current rate of migration from rural districts to urban centres, this youth may not stay in the farm labour pool for much longer.

What effect has this imbalanced ratio, so common in the rural populations of districts, on literacy and education? Census 2011 has told us so far that there are 55 districts in which the rural literacy rate is 74% or higher — this is the national effective literacy rate (for the population that is seven years old and above) which is a figure derived from rural and urban, male and female literacy rates. The literacy rates in these 55 districts are for all persons, female and male together. They range from 74% to 89%. All 14 of Kerala’s districts are among the 55, there are 7 districts from Maharashtra, 5 from Tamil Nadu, and 4 each from Mizoram, Orissa and Himachal Pradesh.

A lorry driver poses with his cargo, new tractors. The depletion of agricultural labour has turned agricultural machinery a fast-growing industrial sector. Worryingly for India, government planners see capital used for machinery and industrial agriculture as evidence of 'growth'. But food security remains uncertain for many rural communities.

The top 10 districts in this set are all from Kerala save one, East Delhi. But these 55 districts have returned literacy rates that will form the basis of study and analysis in the years to come, they are outnumbered, by a factor of more than 11 to 1, by districts whose rural populations lie under the 74% national mark, and this too will serve as an early indicator, continually updated, of the commitment of the Indian state to its implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) Act of 2009, and of the results of the first 10 years of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

Since its inception in 2001-02 the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) has been treated by the Government of India and the states as the main vehicle for providing elementary education to all children in the 6-14 age-group. Its outcome — this is how the annual and Plan period results of India’s ‘flagship’ national programmes are now described — is the universalisation of elementary education. The Right to Education Act (RTE) of 2009 gives all children the fundamental right to demand eight years of quality elementary education. For the planners in the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the effective enforcement of this right requires what they like to call ‘alignment’ with the vision, strategies and norms of the SSA. In so doing, they immediately run into a thicket of problems for, to begin with, there are half-a-million vacancies of teachers in the country, another half-million teachers are required to meet the RTE norms on pupil-teacher ratios, and moreover 0.6 million teachers in the public school system are untrained.

This is the creaking administrative set-up against which the total literacy rates of the 585 districts whose rural populations are under the 74% mark must be viewed. Of these, 209 districts have literacy rates for their rural populations which are between 50% and 60%. This set of districts includes 33 from Uttar Pradesh, 30 from Madhya Pradesh, 20 from Bihar, 18 from Jharkhand, 17 from Rajasthan, 13 each from Assam and Andhra Pradesh, and 9 from Karnataka. And finally, there are 95 districts whose literacy rates of the rural population are under 50%.

Low-cost housing in north Mumbai (Bombay). Colonies such as this are typical: unclean surroundings caused by an absence of civic services, minimal water and sanitation for residents, no route to remedy because of political and social barriers.

This set of districts at the bottom of the table includes 17 from Bihar, 14 from Rajasthan, 9 each from Uttar Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, 7 from Madhya Pradesh and 6 each from Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Arunachal Pradesh. The districts of Yadgir (Karnataka), Purnia (Bihar), Shrawasti (Uttar Pradesh), Pakur (Jharkhand), Malkangiri, Rayagada, Nabarangapur, Koraput (all Orissa), Tirap (Arunchal Pradesh), Barwani, Jhabua, Alirajpur (all Madhya Pradesh), and Narayanpur, Bijapur and Dakshin Bastar Dantewada (all Chhattisgarh) are the 15 districts at the very base of the table with literacy rates of the rural population at under 40%.

Over 11 Plan periods there have been some cumulative gains in a few sectors. Today, in rural areas, seven major flagship programmes are being administered, with less overall coordination between them than is looked for – a contrast against the ease with which the central government’s major ministries collaborate on advancing the cause of the urban elite — but which nonetheless have given us evidence that their combined impact has improved the conditions of some.

A man transports an LPG cylinder, to be used as cooking fuel, to his home in a shanty colony in north Mumbai (Bombay). Already burdened by the high cost of petroleum products, slum-dwellers are forced to pay a premium for cooking fuels and water.

The seven programmes are: the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), Indira Awas Yojana (IAY), the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) and Total Sanitation Campaign (TSP), the Integrated Watershed Development Programme (IWDP), Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), and rural electrification which includes separation of agricultural feeders and includes also the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY).

For the local administrator these present a bewildering array of reporting obligations. A hundred years ago, such an administrator’s lot was aptly described by J Chartres Molony, Superintendent of Census 1911 in (the then) Madras: “The Village Officer, source of all Indian information, is the recorder of his village, and it well may be that amid the toils of keeping accounts and collecting ‘mamuls’, he pays scant heed to what he and his friends consider the idle curiosity of an eccentric sirkar.”

[This is the fifth of a small series of postings on rural and urban India, which reproduces material from my analysis of Census 2011 data on India's rural and urban populations, published by Infochange India. See the first in the series here; see the second in the series here; see the third in the series here; see the fourth in the series here.]

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