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UPA's social sector scorecard

Taking advantage of an upbeat economy the central government has launched or revamped major schemes aimed at rural India. But have they really worked for the aam aadmi? Shalini S. Dagar finds out.

Shalini S. Dagar | Print Edition: Dec 02, 2007

Uttar Pradesh, the heartland of Indian democracy, can provide a good and sane dose of reality to the Rising India story. It is here that the battle for Delhi often begins and ends.

Step off at the Amausi airport in Lucknow and you have no doubt that the Indian economy is on a roll. Leave alone the large billboards, even the lamp posts are witnessing competition for ad space, with telecom service providers jostling with each other on the same pole. Each carries prominent signages of two different service providers.

Travel east another 100 km to Hardoi district and the sights and sounds change unbelievably. There are no lamp posts, and billboards— signs of a vibrant economy—are curiously absent. Living tenements are bare, plastered in mud with thatched roofs. People here live on the thin edge with just a single illness between them and abyss of extreme poverty. Land here is dry and life grim, as it is in much of rural India, which supports 69 per cent of India ’s population.

Hardoi is one of the 200 most backward districts in the country, in which the central government’s flagship scheme—the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS)—was launched. It promises 100 days of employment in a financial year to adult members of a rural household who are willing to do manual work.

 Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojana

Aims to provide: All-weather connectivity to around 66,000 unconnected rural habitations. The PMGSY is a 100 per cent centrally-sponsored scheme with half the cess on high speed diesel being earmarked for it.
GoI estimates: Up to Sept. 2007, 43,989.93 km of rural roads were connected. As per Bharat Nirman targets, 146,000 km need to be built by 2009 at an expense of Rs 48,000 crore.
Gaps: Delay in implementation. Where built, there are sometimes quality issues.
Aimed at preventing distress migration by providing local employment, the scheme was launched with much fanfare in 2005. From the initial 200 districts, NREGS has now spread to 595 rural districts across the country.

At Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s office, Joint Secretary in charge of Poverty Alleviation and other development schemes, R. Gopalakrishnan, is optimistic that the NREGS will provide a model to the world. “It is one of the largest welfare programmes running. The results will probably be visible in another three to four years.” Having come to power on the aam aadmi or common man plank, the NREGS is probably the UPA government’s most prominent effort to address its constituency.

And buoyed by the robust revenues, the government has spared no cash. The programme started with Rs 11,300 crore in 2006-07 for 200 districts; this was increased to Rs 12,000 crore as the scheme spread to 330 districts. Now spanning the country, the Rural Development Ministry contends that Rs 20,000 crore per annum would be sufficient.

A Gurgaon-based think-tank, India Development Foundation (IDF) reckons that the amount could well be Rs 36,500 crore per year. That is mean amount by any standards. Is it achieving the desired results? The answers vary depending on what one is looking for.

The structure of the scheme allows for only low-level manual skills to be used. Machines and contractors are explicitly prohibited. And since there is a positive list of likely projects that can be taken up under the scheme, most of the projects undertaken are in water conservation and water harvesting projects followed by rural connectivity.

 National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme

Aims to Provide: A legal right of 100 days of wage employment in a financial year to adult members of a rural household who demand employment and are willing to do unskilled manual work. It started with 200 districts, expanded to 330 districts and, with the latest extension, now covers 595 districts.
GoI Estimates: It has provided employment to 21 million rural households during 2006-07 creating 905 million man days of employment. Nearly 800,000 works were taken up. It is believed that the scheme will cost at least Rs 20,000 crore per annum with its expanded reach.
Gaps: Rural assets being built are temporary. Moreover, the targeted people do not acquire any new skills that can increase their employability once the NREGS works are completed.
“This sort of a positive list does not allow for flexibility in building assets that the village needs and wants,” says Amir Ullah Khan, Fellow, IDF, which recently studied the impact of NREGS.

Villagers in Bharawan block, Hardoi shrug off the usefulness of the assets that have been created even as they say that the work is not available on demand. “At best, it is 4-5 days in a couple of months,” says a villager. They have been demanding work from the Block Development Officer, and now possess receipts of demands made. (see picture) This qualifies them for an unemployment allowance.

Economists point out that the NREGS is a simple income transfer scheme, or more directly, it is a dole. Based on such parameters, the scheme is judged differently.

The launch of the scheme has meant that people are now able to get more to spend on food, says A. Murali, Director, NREGS of Andhra Pradesh, one of the leading states in terms of NREGS spends.

“In some regions, they are able to take three meals a day as against two earlier, some are able to afford more eggs in their daily diet. It has helped them continue education of children, they are now able to spend on healthcare and some even get to invest on agri inputs.”

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