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Moving towards prosperity

With progress and wider avenues in UP’s sugar belt, an economic base is emerging making a larger share of the family budget for education of children

Moving towards prosperity

If you happen to go around rural Uttar Pradesh, you will not fail to notice the numerous beautiful buildings on the wayside every now and then. These are grand structures almost like some five-star hotel properties. But if you are more curious and read what is written on, you discover these are schools.

Schools have sprung up with their air-conditioned classrooms and large campuses, imposing gates and fleet of bright yellow buses, making a perfect picture. These are private schools putting the familiar picture of ramshackle government schools as things of remote past.

Standing in the small shops overlooking one of these schools across the road, I asked the shop-owner about whose children attend these schools, the man casually answered: "whoever can afford". Obviously. Then he added, the schools have buses and other facilities, they hike their fees every year but nobody even as much as protests. Droves of children are attending these and even more are coming up.

Private education, particularly school education, is flourishing and this is good for the country without a doubt. The Economist magazine has written in detail the expanding role of private education in the emerging market economies and their dwindling presence in the developed world.

Looking at these grand buildings, housing well-known schools in rural India, I thought I was witnessing a live demonstration of what The Economist magazine has written in its latest issue from London.

The Economist has cited global statistics to prove its point. It is wonderful to see that the growth of expenses on education in the family budgets is rising fastest in India, followed closely by China. As for the developed world, they lag far behind.

And why not, an economic base is emerging in India making a larger share of the family budget on the education of children. It is a matter of prestige as well for families to send their wards to English medium schools, costing disproportionately more, than to send them in run-of-the-mill vernacular medium ones.

If you take UP, where I was roaming over the weeks to assess the mood of the people for the forthcoming election, I could not help noticing the apparent prosperity. Further enquires laid bare some clues.

Bagpat sugar mill accepts cane from its command area worth around Rs 350 crore a year. This sugar mill is not one of the bigger ones but counts among the smaller ones of its ilk. It takes the canes from growers and the money reaches the registered bank accounts of the farmers as per the farmers who were waiting at the factory gate to unload their tractor load of cane.

They had complaints about the arrangement for delivery of cane, like the absence of any shed for the farmers where they can wait and relax; but not about cane dues pending.

Presumably, there would be other mills where the complaint would be of the other kind: that of unpaid dues. But for political reasons and economics, the dues are getting channelled into farmers accounts eventually and within some reasonable time.

Even if we take the lower amount of Rs 350 crore of Bagpat sugar mill's annual purchase, and revise it downwards, the aggregate purchase of cane from UP cane growers would not be really small. Conservatively, and averaging out, the total dues flowing into the farmers accounts a year should be around Rs 35,000 to Rs 40,000 crore a year for 119 UP sugar mills.

That's a tidy sum. Add to that the fact that cane is a standing crop, which if you sow for one year, should yield for two years without doing too much work on it. So a cane grower would have plenty of opportunities for other activities as well. The village elders, looking like members of a leisurely class, at one of the areas where they invited us for a chat, gave indications of alternate avocations.

There are indications of the emergence of a society which is above subsistence level. If you choose to take a look at the numerous grocery and stationery shops then you get any product. From biscuits to cosmetic items, you have everything stacked up. More so, there are some fancy, so-called, cosmetic items which we thought would be solely in the preference lists of the city folks, which are prominently displayed in the rural ones.

Nor can you overlook the strong presence of automobile companies with showrooms around these areas from Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, Tatas, and Mahindras.

If the price of McDonald's burgers could be used as the benchmark for calculating some rough and ready purchasing power parity index for comparable GDPs of nations or the real exchanges rates among currencies, then why these indicators of economic well-being can't be used for estimating the level of affluence in an area, I wondered. Because even after seeing these, it looked a little incredible.

Used to the constant narratives of deprivations and abject poverty in rural India, it is rather difficult to accept that our rural areas could also be relatively comfortable. Of course, there would be those who still remain below the reasonable levels of comforts. But there is no point in not recognising the fact that compared to as recently as ten years, the level of prosperity is much more widespread.

There is also the concomitant issue that such prosperity and skewed accesses to facilities, particularly schooling, could accentuate disparity in society. If good schools and better education is available to a select few then such children will gain a head start for a lifetime. It will, of course, result in greater inequality eventually.

These call for public policy interventions and corrective measures. But that should not be crimping the gains —the easier option— than building comparable additional facilities.

Public policy should, therefore, be directed at raising the standards and amenities of all government and aided schools and not reset the emergence of a crop of good private educational institutions. Hopefully, this will be one of the priorities of the new government post the present hustings.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

Anjan Roy

Anjan Roy

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