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Ridiculing poverty

Poverty is either ridiculed or ignored by this country's urban, English-speaking elite. The advent of social media has only brightened the spotlight on such behavior. On Tuesday, the English-speaking elite on social media displayed an abominable disregard for rural India, which rarely intrudes into their living rooms. It was the story of locals in Deoria in eastern Uttar Pradesh walking out of a public meeting held by the Congress with string cots or khaats that caught their attention. On the lines of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popular yet informal chai pe charcha model, which was used effectively during the last general elections, the Congress used string cots as props to conduct their “khaat sabha”. 

The elite’s response to villagers taking away cots from this public meeting was to get #ReplaceMovieNamesWithKhats to trend on Twitter as means of ridicule. It was distasteful and insensitive to say the very least. Commentators have often observed that large sections of the English-speaking media rarely cover news of rural distress unless it has reached catastrophic levels. 

Of course, mass violence is another marker of rural distress that catches the attention of urban voters. For example, the recent Jat agitation. Even then, there is little guarantee that they will care much for the plight of their distressed rural brethren. The Indian public, especially the English-speaking elites, need constant reminders about the other half.

One reminder came in the form of a UNESCO report released on Monday. As per the report, India will be half a century late in achieving its universal education goals. India will achieve universal primary education only by 2050, universal lower secondary education in 2060 and universal upper secondary education in 2085. To the uninitiated, India was a signatory to the UN’s 2030 deadline for achieving sustainable development goals. The report indicated that India will achieve its goals before the 2030 deadline only if it introduces fundamental changes in the education sector.  

India’s under-five mortality rate averaged 48 children per 1,000 annually between 2011 and 2015, according to the World Bank. The British health journal, Lancet, reported that India’s child mortality rate, although in decline, lags behind most of its neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh and Nepal. Meanwhile, according to a National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau survey, rural India is eating less than it did 40 years ago.

The level of rural distress is really brought into perspective when once prosperous landed castes like the Patels, Jats, or Kapus resort to brute force to demand more benefits (reservations in government jobs). As argued in these columns earlier, agitations by the Jats and Patels are down to gross policy failures, inadequate job creation under the current economic model in India and a poor higher education system, which creates millions of poorly skilled graduates. The fruits of India’s development model have not reached vast sections of rural India. The dismal state of agriculture, especially for those with smaller land holdings, presents an obvious rationale for those youngsters unwilling to work on the land.
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