We can revisit the issue of poverty caps: Jairam Ramesh

We can revisit the issue of poverty caps: Jairam Ramesh

New Delhi: Bringing an aggressive outlook to the ministry of rural development, Jairam Ramesh, who took charge of the portfolio in July, has attempted to address and fast-track contentious issues such as the proposed land acquisition legislation and the census for identifying households below the poverty line (BPL). Ramesh spoke in an interview about his blueprint for the ministry and revisiting controversial elements, including identifying the poor and poverty caps imposed by the Planning Commission, and the contours of land acquisition. Edited excerpts:

There has been a widespread perception that the ministry is more proactive since you have taken over. What is your vision for the ministry?

This is also a ministry which depends almost entirely on state governments. We cannot do anything without the states. We provide the money and ideas, but ultimately the implementation is also the responsibility of the state governments and local administrations. To that extent, yes, the results are not immediately visible, but that does not minimize the need for innovation in the manner we have conceived and implemented some of the programmes.

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So what is your blueprint for the ministry?

I have some immediate priorities. One was clearly to bring a new legislation for land acquisition. I’d put out a draft on the 29th of July, which integrates land acquisition and rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R)... Then, reforms in (MG)NREGA (the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), without necessarily amending the Act, but tweaking the guidelines, that is very much on my agenda. Thirdly, the PMGSY (Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana), clearly a very important programme which has maximum impact in terms of social and economic indicators in rural areas, but still a long way to go. So, a big priority is how to accelerate the implementation of PMGSY. The National Rural Livelihood Mission has been a fourth area. Fifth, to bring about a sharper focus of our programmes in the 60 LWE (Left wing extremism)-affected districts. Some programmes are calling out for dramatic changes, the Indira Awas Yojana, for instance. That is clearly not something that falls in my definition of a programme that builds dignity. Sanitation, in my view, is a very important programme, perhaps the most important programme of this ministry.

MGNREGA has come under criticism for many things, including its limitations in developing sustainable infrastructure. How would you address the questions that have been raised?

Yes, there have been a lot of questions on MGNREGA, but there have also been a large number of innovations and also evaluations that have been done. There are three or four positive gains of MGNREGA for which we now have incontrovertible evidence...agricultural wages have gone up and that is good. Secondly, we have evidence to show that distress migration from certain migration-intensive districts has come down. Thirdly, over 65% of the MGNREGA funds have been used for water conservation and land development. But this does not mean there is no scope for reform.

There are question marks over leakages and misuse of funds in the scheme’s implementation. What is your strategy to enhance transparency?

I think MGNREGA is the most transparent programme. I wish there was as much transparency as there is in MGNREGA in perhaps other programmes like MPLADS (Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme). I don’t think transparency is a key bottleneck in this scheme, delay in payments is a big problem.

You have another ministry with you—drinking water and sanitation. A party colleague had refused the portfolio, apparently because of its “low profile". How critical is the ministry?

It is very important. Look at the budget. If you were to judge a ministry by the budget, it’s 10,000 crore. That is five times the budget of the ministry of environment and forests. We are a nation characterized by public squalor and private hygiene. This ministry is very crucial and its importance can only increase over the years as we begin to address questions of water quality, and hygiene and sanitation.

Are you planning to revisit the BPL census?

I would like to clarify we are not doing the BPL census. There is a caste census being undertaken by the ministry of rural development, and as part of that we are collecting a lot of socioeconomic data. That data will help rank households. Once we have that ranking based on certain deprivation criteria, the state governments would then use that information on automatic exclusion, automatic inclusion, deprivation, etc., to draw up the BPL list. So we are not doing that, it is the state governments that are going to actually determine who will be a part of the BPL universe.

The cap set by the Planning Commission, based on which the ministry would have to choose among the poor, is a contentious issue. How would you address that?

Ideally, we should not have this universe of BPL and APL (above poverty line), but can we afford a universal system? That is the first issue. The second issue is we should limit the BPL use to (an) absolutely core set of activities and not give a premium on the BPL card instead of making every programme dependent on BPL lists. In any exercise such as this, we will always have exclusions, though we do our best to minimize them.

But isn’t the issue of choosing among the poor also politically very contentious?

Yes, it is a political issue. It is not a statistical or econometric issue. Unfortunately, we tend to look at it as statistical fine-tuning, but it is a political issue. Ideally, I would have been happier had there been no survey that we are doing and if the census commissioner had done it. But the cabinet had decided the ministry of rural development would conduct this survey in rural areas and the ministry of urban development would conduct it in urban areas. So, it was fait accompli as far as I was concerned.

Even the Supreme Court questioned the need to have poverty caps. How’re you dealing with it?

The Supreme Court had, but ultimately the government has to take a call. There are fiscal limitations as well. We can revisit the issue of caps, the dialogue will continue with the Planning Commission, but that need not hold up the survey.

Another controversial issue has been land acquisition and you have put the draft Bill in public domain. Given that the environment right now is so unfavourable for the Congress and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), how do you plan to ensure a smooth passage for such a contentious legislation?

It is not controversial. I have got very good all-party support for it. I have got people from the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) who’ve told me they support this legislation. Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress chief) may have problems with some fine print, but broadly she is in sympathy with what we are doing. Nobody has said “don’t come forward with this legislation". In fact, some people are saying “come quickly". Some are saying “come out with an ordinance", which I am not in favour of doing. I am trying to meet a deadline. The cabinet note is being circulated for inter-ministerial discussions. I am still hoping that before 8 September, I will be able to introduce this legislation in Parliament.

Are the state governments happy with the draft Bill and their role in the proposed legislation?

Yes, I have written to chief ministers and some state governments have responded. The beauty of this legislation is that everything is left to the state government. What the legislation is saying is that look, the state governments are free to acquire whatever proportion. But they must acquire under certain well-defined circumstances of public purpose. They must acquire with a minimum land acquisition compensation package and a minimum R&R package. So what this legislation does is establish a base level, over and above that the state governments are free. In fact, this legislation gives maximum freedom to the states, as it should be, since land is a state subject.

How are the elements of the draft Bill—the R&R package, the definition of public purpose, etc.—being received?

Broadly, the idea of integrating land acquisition and R&R has been welcomed. The elements of the R&R and land acquisition package have been welcomed. There have been some issues that were raised on whether it can be applied retrospectively, and I have said, “Yes, we will examine under what circumstances it can be applied retrospectively." There was also some criticism that the definition of public purpose is too wide. So we have tightened the definition, made it much more circumscribed so that the scope for misuse is minimized. Another thing that has invited a lot of comment is that the legislation says under no circumstance can multi-crop irrigated land be acquired. I deliberately said “should not be acquired," it does not mean private purchase is not allowed, but they should follow a certain protocol. Another very important element of this legislation is we are saying this 80% consent is required not just for private, but also by the government using it for government purposes because in the past, some of the most liberal acquirers of land have been the government. They have acquired huge amounts of land and not used it.

Finally, in UPA-II, there have been two Union rural development ministers before you took charge. If you were to look back, are there any areas you think deserved more focus than they got, say the implementation of the scheme in Naxal-affected districts?

Both of them were also presidents of cricket associations, which I unfortunately am not! Both of them are exceedingly seasoned politicians. I am sure they were as much concerned about the Naxal-affected districts as I am. I am not inventing anything new here because this is a well-travelled ministry, unlike environment and forests, where there is a lot of room for innovation. All I can do is consolidate the ideas that have been floating around.

Overall, are you happy with this new portfolio?

In terms of public expenditure, it is the single largest ministry, next only to defence. But as I said, there are issues. First day when I met my officers, I told them we should have ACTIONS in rural development—accountability, convergence, technology, innovation, outcomes, next generation—a look at the youth—and sustainability.