New Delhi: The ambitious flagship initiative of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to strengthen rural infrastructure in six infrastructure areas of irrigation, drinking water, electrification, roads, housing and rural telephony—a promise made under the National Common Minimum Programme of the Congress-led UPA—at an initial cost of Rs1.76 trillion over a four-year period, has missed its targets in the first two years of its implementation by a wide margin.
In the area of rural electrification, only 6% of the targeted, below-poverty-line households have been electrified in the first two years. Against a target of creating additional irrigation capacity of 10 million hectares (mha), only 2.6mha has been achieved in the first two years. And, only 5% coverage has been achieved in covering the drinking-water quality-affected habitations.
At a recent review meeting of Bharat Nirman initiatives, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed his unhappiness at the slow progress. But, in my assessment, what should worry the Prime Minister even more is the poor quality of implementation of the Bharat Nirman initiatives.
Lack of transparency, accountability and authenticity of data are other problems that plague Bharat Nirman implementation so it is unlikely that we will achieve a status when all Indian villages will have basic infrastructure. Villages once electrified become de-electrified and habitations provided with a safe water supply source relapse, often needing repeated interventions.
Unlike what the UPA government would like us to believe, Bharat Nirman is not a set of new initiatives by the UPA government. The reality is that there is hardly anything new about them. It is all about implementing old programmes in old, inefficient ways with no fresh ideas whatsoever, but creatively labelled under a new banner dubbed Bharat Nirman.
In respect to some schemes, even the targets are nothing new. The promise of construction of an additional six million houses for the rural poor in four years under Bharat Nirman is a bit of a sham. Indira Awas Yojana, a scheme that provides houses to the rural poor, has been achieving similar targets (nearly 1.5 million houses per year) even before this government took office. So, what is the big deal?
Bharat Nirman initiative, by its very nature, is focused on poor and backward states that have relatively poor rural infrastructure. Many of these states are saddled with poor governance structures and Bharat Nirman simply failed to even take cognizance of this reality and did nothing to address this issue.
Little thinking has gone into committing thousands of crores of public money. Take the case of rural electrification. The power supply is so scarce in states such as Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar that it makes no sense to connect more villages to the grid supply when you cannot supply already connected villages even for a few hours and, often, for a few days in a year. As a result, the new infrastructure created in the power deficit states at a huge cost becomes redundant. Can the ruling coalition hope to benefit politically from this ambitious flagship initiative? The Congress party has little presence in backward states such as UP, Bihar and Jharkhand, which corner a large proportion of resources in different infrastructure areas of Bharat Nirman. For example, of the 112,000 villages proposed to be electrified under the Rajiv Gandhi Vidyut Vitran Yojana, some 80,000 villages are in UP, Jharkhand and Bihar where the Congress party is a completely marginalized force.
Other states that would benefit more from these schemes are the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. If at all there is any political benefit accruing on account of Bharat Nirman implementation in these states—I seriously doubt this—the BJP would be the gainer, politically speaking.
That investing in rural infrastructure is necessary to bridge the urban-rural divide is an incontestable premise. But, we must ensure that the money is spent productively and meaningfully so that it provides an effective and sustainable solution to the problems.
The UPA government has more than a year to improvethe implementation of its flagship programmes. Here are a few tips as to how the UPA government can make themwork better: appoint an influential minister, perhaps even Rahul Gandhi, or a non-threatening proxy, such as a Jyotiraditya Scindia, to oversee all the flagship programmes;appoint corporate managers with a missionary zeal tooversee different schemes; revamp schemes rather than merely tinker with old ones and make people partners in scheme implementation.
The PM has described Bharat Nirman initiative as a “New Deal to Rural India”. But, on the contrary, it is proving to be a raw deal for rural India.
If the UPA government is unwilling to heed advice and plans to showcase these patchy and half-hearted initiatives to shore up its electoral prospects, what can you say to the good intentioned doctor, except good luck?
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org