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In spite of growing urbanization, India will continue to be defined by what happens in its rural areas. That rural India is changing has been evident for quite some time. For instance, rural markets have become major drivers of industrial growth. Two out of every five rural households find employment in non-farm occupations. No doubt, age-old concerns of rural indebtedness and woeful electricity supply persist. But positive structural transformations are also taking place. These provide the foundations for a renewed focus and expanded thrust on the expansion of social and physical infrastructure in rural India. Over the past two decades, these transformations have been triggered by different political parties, but they have proceeded apace even as political changes have taken place.

The political transformation is the result of the constitutional empowerment of panchayats through the 73rd Amendment first championed by the Congress leadership, but later supported by all political parties. There are now close to 240,000 gram panchayats (village councils) with around three million elected representatives, of whom about 40% are women. In future, this proportion will be a minimum 50%.

Both zilla parishads (district councils) and gram panchayats have already established themselves as important institutions of self-government. Various studies have revealed that the delivery of public services has been markedly superior in areas where panchayats have been strong and have been allowed to assert themselves. Programmes such as the rural jobs guarantee programme have not only put an upward pressure on rural wage rates, but have also empowered gram panchayats immeasurably since at least half the works have to be executed by them.

The economic transformation is the result of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY, or Prime Minister’s village roads scheme) under which around 270,000km of good quality, all-weather rural roads have been built (and another 150,000km upgraded) in the past 12 years. This programme was started when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister, but it was during Manmohan Singh’s tenure that funding expanded over fivefold. Connectivity to habitations and villages has improved hugely, although the programme will be completed in states such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh only by 2017. Last year, the scheme was extended to cover the further upgrade of old rural roads as well with the national target pegged at 50,000km. This second phase has already begun in Gujarat, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Punjab.

The social transformation is the result of the rapid expansion of women’s self-help groups (SHGs) in different states linked with banks inspired by the successes in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. There are around 2.6 million such SHGs today. More than Kerala actually, it is the Andhra Pradesh experience that has provided the model for the rest of the country. It was first put in place in the mid-1990s during the Telegu Desam Party regime, but thereafter given a big boost by Congress chief ministers.

The National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), launched in June 2011, aims to expand the number of women SHGs to around nine million by 2022 to cover some 80-100 million women as members, up from the present membership of around 30 million. NRLM has a federation architecture with individual SHGs federating into village-level organizations that then federate themselves into a block-level organizations. The new stars in the NRLM firmament are Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Nagaland and Odisha. Bihar’s achievement particularly has been very impressive.

There are, however, still many challenges. Gram sabhas are still not very active. Funds, functions and functionaries have yet to be fully transferred to panchayat institutions in keeping with the constitutional provisions. The top states in this regard are Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. The technical and organizational capacity of these institutions, especially of gram panchayats, needs substantial strengthening. With greater devolution of resources, systems of proper audit have also to be ensured. The utility of intermediate-level panchayats needs to be reassessed.

As far as women’s SHGs are concerned, 80% of bank assistance to all SHGs is in the four southern states alone. Banks need to expand their footprint in other states as well. The volume of bank support to SHGs has to increase at least fivefold in five years time from the 2013-14 level of around 24,000 crore. The synergy of SHGs groups and panchayat institutions that has been achieved in Kerala needs replication elsewhere.

Execution of work related to the village roads scheme in the districts affected by left-wing extremism is proving to be tough, quite apart from the fact that small habitations are left out of its ambit. The village roads network offers potential for afforestation and linkages with NRLM that have yet to be fully realized.

Of the three, the rural roads scheme is obviously the most visible and the most popular amongst state and federal lawmakers. But the significance of the panchayat and SHG revolution must not be minimized. They are more institutional in nature, but they have tangible impacts also that are, in the long term, as enduring as that of bitumen or concrete roads.

Even though they are not free from influences of dominant castes, panchayat bodies have given representation to the weaker sections of society. SHGs are more institutions of participation and they have given new opportunities to women to find a collective voice and assert themselves. In the last year and a half, women in Jammu and Kashmir have taken to SHGs very enthusiastically, showing the power of this approach to social mobilization.

Last September, the Union ministry of rural development had brought out the very first India Rural Development Report 2013 prepared by a consortium led by IDFC. The idea was to have an annual report that analyses the multifarious changes taking place in rural India as well as the challenges being faced. Hopefully, that initiative will be continued because policy must always be informed by what is actually happening on the ground.

The author is a former Union minister and Rajya Sabha MP.

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