Free food for the parents of girl children to motivate people to send their daughters to school; an increase in the Rs28,500 housing grant to the poor in rural areas; the scrapping of the Rs200 monthly rental on phones; and free text books to all children in rural areas: That’s just a sampling of the feedback the government has been collecting for over a year from villages in 100 districts across the country on 14 of its big-budget development projects, including Bharat Nirman.
A fortnight from now, various government arms will start using the feedback to refine the projects.
Last April, the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government started publicizing the 14 projects—together, they spent Rs74,293 crore over the previous year, according to numbers presented in Budget 2007.
On Bharat Nirman alone, the government plans to spend Rs1,74,000 crore by 2009. The government’s press office suggested that it might be a good idea to collect feedback on these schemes from the people they were meant to benefit.
This idea also found approval with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
“We started getting feedback from the regions for the first time last year. We now want our eight main offices and 42 regional centres to send back what people have said on all the flagship projects,” said Deepak Sandhu, the Union government’s director general of press and communications.
Last year, the government allocated Rs10 crore for the scheme’s publicity, of which Rs9 crore has been used. The 100 districts chosen for the projects either qualify for benefits under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) or the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission.
In addition, the districts are all dominated by minority communities.
“We have received tremendous feedback from each district. We are collating the most useful as policy inputs for ministries that run these schemes,” said an official who was part of the programme and helped collect responses from the panchayats and individuals in the 100 districts.
Some of the feedback is critical, and some reproving, but most merely ask for revisions in the 14 projects. In addition to Bharat Nirman, which promises basic amenities such as drinking water, electricity, telephones and irrigation in rural areas, the publicity campaign also showcases the UPA’s most prominent social-sector schemes in areas such as employment guarantees, mid-day meals, right to information, minorities welfare and child development.
Sandhu, who’s visited more than 10 project sites, said that in each district, the schemes were first demonstrated (for instance, job cards were actually issued to show how the employment guarantee scheme worked), with the feedback being collected later. “Because we got it first-hand, the feedback is proving more valuable than even we expected,” she added.
The previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government spent around Rs100 crore over a few years on a campaign it called “India Shining”, but the two campaigns differed in their objective, said Jayant Bhuyan, chief executive of India Brand Equity Fund (IBEF), a government-funded body that works towards presenting India as an investment destination to potential overseas investors.
“It is important for any government to demonstrate all steps taken towards inclusive growth, which is what the (publicity surrounding the) Bharat Nirman project is doing,” said Bhuyan, who worked with the NDA on the “India Shining” campaign. IBEF is not associated with the UPA’s campaign.
Sudheendra Kulkarni, a planner and media strategist for the Bharatiya Janata Party, the largest constituent of the NDA, said he had “nothing negative to say” about UPA’s effort to publicize its schemes in rural areas and getting feedback from far-flung districts.
“Every government needs to publicize its work, provided it is informative and goes beyond propaganda. These (Bharat Nirman) projects are ambitious and information about them must reach the people they target,” he said.
The Centre plans to take its campaign to 130 other districts that will be covered under the NREGA. This could mean an increase in its budget, said a government official close to the development who did not wish to be identified. The official also declined to indicate a possible range for the increase.