Sometime ago, travelling to the quaint hills of Kumaon, I passed through Baheri town in Bareilly district of Rohillkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. The town has a population of 1,75,000 and ranks 500 amongst all Indian cities. Farming (rice, potato and sugar cane), sugar and textile industry are primary vocations of people.
For the people who want to know how India is transforming, this is a representative place to visit.
This town is one amongst the 100 chosen for the prime minister's signature smart city development project. It is one of the few towns in the state of UP that have CNG filling station for transport. It has some prominent convent schools, a franchise of DPS, and many other reputed educational institutions.
While strolling in a local vegetable market in the city I noticed that many vendors are selling fruits with a tiny round sticker pasted on them. On enquiry, I was informed that this tiny sticker costing Rs100 for 1600 stickers, fetches 10-15 percent extra price for fruits, as people are willing to pay higher price for the ‘branded’ stuff. Unsurprisingly, no one appeared to be conscious of the fact that Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) had issued direction to the vendors to avoid pasting stickers on fruits and vegetables as gluing labels on edible fruits is likely to contaminate these.
Some new trends
A vegetable vendor admitted that bottle guard (lauki) sold wrapped in a cellophane sheet could fetch you up to 20 percent higher price, as people are willing to pay more for hygiene and quality.
A casual visit to the market place adequately explained the rising preference for organised retail, branded appliances and clothes, packaged food, digital payments, good healthcare, etc. The inadequacies (or future potential) in terms of skills, market infrastructure, etc. were also conspicuous.I could decipher the following three key trends effortlessly during a 20-30 minute stroll through the market.
The threats in terms of rising redundancy of traditional trading and market infrastructure, underemployment, disguised employment, unemployment, poor compliance standards, and violation of sustainability concerns are key hindrances in faster and participatory growth. The opening up of Indian markets to foreign capital and products (FDI in retail); providing a robust digital platform; pushing people hard towards better compliance through digital payments, GST, Swach Bharat mission etc. are all supportive of a non-linear growth in many of the consumer-facing businesses. The modernisation of marketing infrastructure for selling meat, fish and poultry products alone could create massive opportunities for organised meat producers, storage solution companies (refrigeration, transportation) and packaging solution providers, etc.
Driving a few kilometers from Baheri, we had to take a little detour as the highway was blocked due to some accident. The small road (constructed under PM Rural Road programme PMGSY) took us through a small village Bhilaur.
My experience suggests that trusting Google direction fully in the hinterlands may sometimes be quite risky. I therefore like to confirm the direction by asking the local people. This incidentally also allows me to start a conversation and get a feel of the situation on the ground.
We stopped in Bhilaur to ask for directions, when we met Bhoop Ram (name changed), a typical small UP farmer.
Bhoop Ram, aged 35 years, belongs to Kurmi (OBC) community and owns 5 bigha (7 Bigha = 1 acre) of fertile land and a milch cow. He has a family of 7 to feed (self, wife, old parents, two daughters and a son). The farming income is obviously inadequate to manage the household. To supplement his farming income, he works in Rudrapur city (20 km from his village) as gardener in some households and construction labour when time permits. His wife and elder daughter help him in farming and maintaining the cow. He owns a motorcycle and smart phone.I checked with him about the status of various government schemes designed and implemented specifically keeping him and his peers in mind. His answers provide some very useful insights:
In initial years MNREGA work was tough to get. Panchayat members and BDO would usually manipulate the list. Dummy workers were paid wages. However, things started improving from 2012 onwards. Now he and his peers get regular MNREGA work and wages. It has provided stability and predictability to their life. The wages are credited directly to his bank account. Schemes for education of girl child implemented by Mayawati administration have benefitted girls tremendously. Subsequent administrations have improved the schemes. Free LPG connection is ill conceived and not sustainable. He has taken the connection but prefer to use cow dung and firewood for cooking. Last year his crop was totally damaged by hailstorm. He paid Rs 5,000 bribe to the block officer concerned for getting his land's survey done and claim admitted. He got a claim of Rs 1,500. He has not constructed a toilet in his house. A month back his wife had dislocated her shoulder. She used neighbor's toilet for a month as she could not walk to fields. His daughters are insisting on having a toilet constructed in house. His resistance appears to be softening. He finds Reliance JIO transformative and would love to see Mukesh Ambani as PM of India. He does not care about Ram Mandir or ban on cow slaughter. His village has never seen a Hindu Muslim clash, though couple of Shia-Sunni clashes had occurred in distant past. He has got PM-Kissan Scheme cash in his account and voted for BJP, even though he liked the Samajwadi party candidate more. As per him, more than 50 percent village girls are now going to school, against an abysmal 10 percent when he used to go to school 20 years ago. He has some upper caste friends, who do not mind eating at his place or inviting him over to their place. However, the administration is still prejudiced to his caste. In government offices, post office and Panchayat bhawan, caste is still a key consideration.
Read his columns
Vijay Kumar Gaba explores the treasure you know as India, and shares his experiences and observations about social, economic and cultural events and conditions. He contributes his pennies to the society as Director, Equal India Foundation.