Boosting Employement of Indian Rural Poor

india-middle-class-ENT-wide-horizontal New Orleans Using the weekend to catch up on old papers, magazines, and whatever, allowed me to stumble on some head scratchers.  Newsweek has a new format in order to try and survive as a news-based magazine in the cutthroat environment of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle.  Sometimes they try to stir the pot to stick to the readers.  A piece almost a month ago caught my eye:  “Good Intentions are Hurting India’s Rural Poor” by Jason Overdorf.

The article takes a peek, certainly no more than that, at Prime Minster Manmohan Singh’s program to create rural employment “guarantees.”  Despite India’s huge and growing urban areas, almost half of the population still is based in rural areas in desperate poverty in many situations.

Here’s how the logic runs in trying to establish that the poor are being harmed.  A report is cited that says rural wage increases have “doubled to nearly 8 percent after 2006” when the program came into existence.  That would seem to be very good news!  Big “but” in the article though because the benefit was diluted because the price of basic commodities “rose just as fast.” The rest of the piece is too conditionalized, contradictory, and speculative to make much out of, but the basic inference, despite qualifiers, is that the program drove inflation, including some accusations that the government has stockpiled such “mammoth food reserves” that unnamed critics are saying has boosted prices by creating an “artificial shortage.”  Huh?!?

Inflation in basic foodstuffs and energy was so severe in 2006 and 2007 before the Great Recession that many countries, including India, had to step in and both release food reserves and take steps to freeze prices to prevent inflation and assure access to food and fuel for the poor.  This was a global situation, not something isolated in the Asian subcontinent!  I’m not big defender of the existing Indian government, but come on – if not for the employment guarantees the devastation to the rural poor would have been even more deadly because they would have had to absorb the price spikes without any income increases.

The message of this short piece is that good intentions are having bad results.  There’s no evidence in the article to support either the flat, judgmental conclusion of the headline or the conclusion that “good will doesn’t guarantee good results.”  The Newsweek position would presumably have been that nothing should have been done by the Indian government to help the Indian rural poor.  The article lifts up a phrase:  “the plight suggests that the rural poor need not just more jobs but better one.”  Wow!  Tell me how that is not true as well for the urban poor, for all of the poor, and in fact a universal fact everywhere for everybody, and also something that no government has mastered in creating citizen wealth yet.

How does this all happen that we get such a twisted piece flopping all over the map?  Part of it is simply subcontracting without the ability to edit well.  Turns out that Mr. Overdorf, who may be a committed and knowledgeable reporter, though this garbled piece makes it hard to know, is one of a bunch of “correspondents” or stringers for a new for profit website called GlobalPost which launched out of Boston earlier this year and is trying to get traction.  It’s business model is the ability to create a “network” of people being supported in the field for all of the news outlets that can no longer afford their own bureaus and people.  They make most content available for free and then try to up-sell special access to reporters and reports to business and others, unsuccessfully so far.

It is easier to understand that if they are trying to pitch a piece to Newsweek and others they need an angle with some edge, and that’s the way the headline rolls this piece.  The problem of subcontracted news and fewer and fewer harried editors that are trying to sort it out, is that no one along the chain has any real time or interest or resources to check the facts.

In the meantime where good intentions are really paving the road to hell is also by slapping down even this feeble $5 Billion dollar program for the rural poor at the altar of pretending this is some kind of news or commentary and undercutting the small amount of support it has as well.

And, maybe I’m wrong, too, and if it were shown to me, I’d be the first to admit I lacked the full story or the facts, but at least I want to see something really make a difference to the poor in India no matter who is making it happen, and not just sell a magazine while the devil takes the hindmost.  This is not the right direction for Newsweek.

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