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Home Again

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   Photo © Dilip Ratha/ World Bank
I was in Sindhekela (India) last August. "Home again," as Jason DeParle put it after our last trip to Sindhekela together. It was hot and humid. There were more mosquitoes than I have ever seen. But with the monsoon came a season of festivity. For the first time in decades I was home for Ganesh Puja and Nuakhai.

Ganesh Puja offers homage to the Hindu God of wisdom, so wise that He has the head of an elephant. When I visited my school, I noticed that unlike other years, the students did not install the statue of Ganesh inside a classroom. A few days earlier, an old beam supporting the roof had come crashing down while a class was in progress. Miraculously no one was hurt - thanks to Lord Ganesh! But they did not take another chance, and installed the statue on the veranda. 

   Photo © Dilip Ratha/ World Bank

- literally "new meal" - is the most important festival of Western Orissa. It marks the beginning of a new year. Farmers pray for a good harvest. Traders pray for a good trading year. In the old days, people used to pray for the well being of farm animals. These days, they also pray for the safety of farm equipment that has replaced them.

There has been economic development in my village. Many roads are paved with concrete. Houses are made of brick; many have running water. Mobile phones are ubiquitous. And people have started calling ahead of visiting, unlike in the past when they just showed up.

A few days later I visited Lupursingha, the village my elder sister, Hema, married into. This village is even more remote than Sindhekela. For three months, in the rains, the main street becomes a shallow stream of flowing water. Children bathe and women wash dishes on the road! It was a veritable adventure to reach the village by car. There was visible economic progress here as well. I took the opportunity to visit my teacher, Mr. Nabin Negi, who decided to retire in Khaliapali, about 3 miles from Lupursingha. He was among the first batch of teachers hired by my high school. After spending 37 years in Sindhekela, he is now back in the village of his parents. "It feels like a foreign country," he said. "But this is also my home to which I must return." Among the things he brought back from Sindhekela are a few dozen pigeons. At a check point, a guard asked him if he could prove the pigeons were not stolen. "That's easy. Just open the hood of the basket. I will then say, come, and they will!" said Mr. Negi. Indeed, he called them so I could record a video on my blackberry.


Home Again from People Move on Vimeo.

I have been asking myself how these villages have progressed so much in economic terms. A major reason has to be migration to the cities. In many villages, nearly half of the working age male population among the poorer castes sets off to Raipur, Pune, Mumbai, Surat, Hyderabad or Punjab for part of the year. This is seasonal migration, mostly undertaken after the crop season at home. These migrants remit or bring back a large part of their incomes (which on average can be 10 times higher than what they earn at home). They like better clothing, better food, and better houses. And they all value education for their children. They seem to be behind the eradication of starvation, the concrete houses, and every one wearing shoes and clothes.

On the negative side, people are complaining about rampant consumption of alcohol. Also, everyone is complaining about falling standards of education in Orissa villages. A woman came complaining that her migrant husband has taken a second wife in Raipur. She was not the only one with that complaint.
I heard widespread support for the 2-rupees-a-kilogram rice program for the below-poverty-line (BPL) people. This program from the central government offers 25 kilos of rice per month at Rs 3 per kg to people holding a BPL card. The Government of Orissa has introduced another rupee of subsidy and is offering the same rice at Rs 2 per kg. As the quality of the rice is not great, most people simply buy the rice and then sell it to a local trader at around Rs 10 per kg, collecting cash of Rs 8 per kilo or about Rs 200 per month. The traders then sell the rice to the wholesalers - usually rice mills - at Rs 11 per kg. The rice mills then sell the rice back to the Government at Rs 18.65, making a profit of over Rs 7 per kg. The subsidy seems to be reaching the poor!

On my way back, I had meetings with the Reserve Bank of India and several remittance service providers in Mumbai. We discussed the risk of a slowdown in remittances as a part of delayed response to the construction sector slowdown in the GCC countries. Also, many noted the need to facilitate remittances to Nepal and Bangladesh. The idea of introducing mobile phone remittances for domestic migrants sparked a lot of interest, as did the idea of diaspora bonds as a tool for private companies to access international capital.

There was less awareness of remittance-linked financial products, which surprised me. That may change soon, however. An exciting development is a scheme that allows major banks to hire local companies and gas stations as correspondent agents for providing basic financial services. This could potentially lead to another growth spurt in the Indian economy.


Post script: Recently, I received a call, from my nephew's mobile, that my sister passed away. A victim of cerebral malaria. She was 54. Tough news. It has left me sad, confused, and philosophical. Like all away from home. I am away from home, again.


Dilip Ratha

Lead Economist and Economic Adviser to the Vice President of Operations, Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, World Bank

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