Barely two weeks ago, India quietly launched one of its more ambitious anti-poverty programmes—the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM). The aim is to organize the rural poor into self-help groups (SHGs) that can lift them out of poverty.
NRLM has been touted as the next big thing after the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS)—though its ambitions are a tad lower than those of MGNREGS. The plan is to organize 70 million people below the poverty line in 600,000 villages across 600 districts.
Organizing this mass raises its own questions. What will these SHGs do? What sort of skills are required for them to get meaningful work—if that is a serious aim at all? While the framework for implementation of the scheme, released by the Union ministry of rural development, has a chapter on skill development and placement, it hardly has anything concrete to say. Once again, it is important to look at the number: 70 million. Organizing such a large number of people in the absence of proper—sustainable—employment is a recipe for chaos. Unless this is done, chances are that such groups will only become vehicles for the kind of entitlement society sans meaningful employment that now has wide political acceptability.
At one level such programmes are a silent acceptance of defeat on what to do about rural India. Any long-term solution to what ails our villages requires investment in education and skill development. Only that can make rural India employable. For example, it’s not clear what SHGs under the NRLM can produce beyond rudimentary traditional crafts. These products hardly have the kind of market that can yield sustainable incomes for a large number of people. In the end, the choice is not enviable: either manual labour in cities or SHGs that will run into problems sooner or later.
Creating employment needs patience and our political system has very little of it. In the absence of patient work other “solutions” are tried—politically funded entitlements, affirmative action and plain throwing of money at the poor.
There is no reason for despair, if the intent truly is to improve rural lives. What is required is a heavy dose of investment in education and infrastructure. The problem is that results of such investment cannot be reaped in a single electoral cycle. Hence the short cuts. NRLM is a good example of that thinking.
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