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The rich get richer, and the poor get a breakfast of small potatoes

By John Stackhouse
First published Mar. 7, 1994

Biharipur, India

Rajinder Singh Yadev and Shankar Lal live a world apart, even though their lives are separated by only 20 metres.

In this tiny village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Rajinder Singh is fabulously rich. He owns seven hectares of land, a motorcycle and a small black-and-white television. His six children will all complete secondary school.

Shankar Lal, who lives on the other side of a mosquito-infested pond, is deeply impoverished. He is a harijan, a member of the untouchable caste. He is illiterate. His nine children all work with him in the fields.

As a landowner, Rajinder Singh's wealth has grown exponentially. As a sharecropper, Shankar Lal has seen his life marginalized. When he was a child in Biharipur, his family owned half a hectare.

Now, he and his two brothers rely on other people's land.

Shankar Lal's children sit around a smouldering fire every morning baking a breakfast of small potatoes. Poor nutrition means their mental and physical growth is stunted, but it doesn't matter much anyway; Shankar Lal cannot afford to send his children to school.

Rajinder Singh never worried about nutrition or schooling. He got a head start with a secondary-school education. With his family's money, he was able to bribe his way into a teacher's job in a nearby school, where today he earns a handsome salary in return for little work.

When his children are sick, Rajinder Singh takes them to a private health-care clinic in a nearby town.

Shankar Lal waits for the government nurse to come to Biharipur, a monthly visit which she makes twice a year.

In countries such as Canada, a progressive tax system, and better governance, would use some of Rajinder Singh's income to help pay for the village's basic social needs. But India's tax net is so full of holes that millions of farmers like Rajinder Singh slip through without paying a rupee to the state. And millions more like Shankar Lal go without schools and health-care clinics and basic sanitation.

The government system further favours the privileged through the state- controlled banking system.

Because he qualifies as a "poor" farmer yet has collateral, Rajinder Singh is eligible for subsidized loans to buy more land, irrigation pumps and maybe one day a tractor. In the name of the poor, he receives free irrigation water and subsidized fertilizer, too - inputs that make him seem industrious when he tells his sharecroppers to get to work.

With no assets and no education, Shankar Lal cannot set foot in a bank. He must turn to Biharipur's only private source of capital: Rajinder Singh. The big man happily lends money to the harijans and charges interest of 5 per cent a month. To the rest of us, that's usury. To Shankar Lal, that's life.

Through laws and customs, the elite of society - in India's case, the higher castes and landowners - find ways to perpetuate their privilege. During the state election last fall, Rajinder Singh told everyone in Biharipur how to vote. When the villagers co-operated and his man swept to victory, Rajinder Singh was duly rewarded. The village will soon get a paved road. The big man will get the contract.

And Shankar Lal will get 20 rupees (90 cents) a day on the work crew.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, the governments broke such poverty spirals by investing heavily in rural education and health care, ensuring adequate land distribution, promoting rural banks, encouraging savings, taxing consumption and allowing farmers to earn fair prices for their output.

It was not a Marxist revolution they sought, but the introduction of village capitalism. It was not individual values they tried to change, but society's. The poor were given access to capital, skills and markets. Then they were allowed to reap the rewards of their labour. No one ever doubted their ability to work.

Before the photographer and I left Biharipur recently on a Sunday morning, we asked Shankar Lal to meet at dawn so that we could photograph his family. When we arrived at his hut, it was 7 a.m. The sun was rising over the morning mist, but we were too late. Shankar Lal already was in the fields, cutting sugar cane.

We returned to Rajinder Singh's house. He was sitting down for a cup of tea.

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