New Delhi: The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government on Wednesday unveiled a package of measures to combat rural distress in the backdrop of a below-average monsoon rainfall.

The Union cabinet decided to increase the number of days of employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) from the existing 100 days to 150 days in areas that have been hit by drought or natural calamities.

In another decision, the cabinet gave its nod to the 5,142 crore “rurban" project that entails the creation of 300 “smart village clusters" in the next three years.

These will be built as economic hubs offering employment opportunities, bridging the urban-rural divide and reducing distress migration.

“Both these decisions are related as they are aimed at alleviating rural distress and spurring development," said a government official who did not want to be named.

The June-September monsoon rains have been 16% deficient so far, and large tracts of the country have received little rainfall.

The rains started on a bountiful note, encouraging farmers to sow rain-fed kharif crops, but the June showers proved to be deceptive, causing crops to fail.

The worst-hit regions are Marathwada in Maharashtra, eastern and western Uttar Pradesh, parts of Gujarat and Karnataka, Telangana, Bihar and eastern Madhya Pradesh.

“There is a drought in the country and to deal with this situation, the government has announced a number of measures. This is an important decision that we have taken—to increase the number of days of employment from 100 to 150 under NREGS (national rural employment guarantee scheme)," communication and information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters after the cabinet meeting.

Other measures announced by the government to try and mitigate the impact of the drought in recent months include a provision of 100 crore as diesel subsidy to farmers so that they can operate diesel water pumps in drought and deficit rainfall areas and protect standing crops; an increase of subsidy on seeds by 50% over existing levels for distribution in drought-notified districts till December; and additional monetary support for farmers to buy fodder supplies for livestock.

The “rurban mission", named after Shyama Prasad Mukherji, the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the precursor of the Bharatiya Janata Party that leads the NDA, is modelled on the government’s “100 Smart Cities" programme.

“This is an important step towards rural development," Prasad said.

There are 14 components that will go into making a village cluster “smart", including skill development training linked to economic activities, agro processing and services, storage and warehousing, digital literacy, sanitation, provision of piped water supply, solid and liquid waste management, street lighting, fully equipped mobile health units, upgraded education facilities, inter-village road connectivity, public transport and liquified petroleum gas connections.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected to office on a pro-development and jobs generation plank in May last year.

And since coming to office, he has announced a series of schemes like the “Make in India" programme to boost manufacturing and create employment as well as the “100 Smart Cities" programme whose focus areas include the provision of clean water supply, sanitation and solid waste management, efficient mobility and public transport, affordable housing and governance.

A government statement described the Shyama Prasad Mukherji Rurban Mission (SPMRM) as a project that aims to develop “rural growth clusters that have latent potential for growth, in all states and Union territories, which would trigger overall development in the region".

“These clusters would be developed by provisioning of economic activities, developing skills and local entrepreneurship and providing infrastructure amenities. The rurban mission will thus develop a cluster of smart villages," the government said.

The project replaces the Provision of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas or PURA programme launched by the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.

“The Provision of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas programme was limited to the private sector. There was no government participation in it. That is why it failed," rural development minister Choudhury Birendra Singh said.

The village clusters that are upgraded would be “geographically contiguous gram panchayats with a population of about 25,000 to 50,000 in plain and coastal areas and a population of 5,000 to 15,000 in desert, hilly or tribal areas," the statement said. The hubs to be developed will be selected by state governments.

“The funding for rurban clusters will be through various schemes of the government converged into the cluster. The SPMRM will provide an additional funding support of up to 30% of the project cost per cluster to enable development of such rurban clusters," the statement said.

In other decisions, the cabinet approved concessional finance from the state-run Exim Bank for Indian companies bidding for strategically important infrastructure projects abroad.

An official panel chaired by the secretary in the department of economic affairs will decide on projects of strategic importance on a case-by-case basis, Prasad said. The committee will also monitor such projects after the financing is cleared.

This move comes amid a race for resources in Africa, where India has been trying to leverage its aid and loan programmes to counter Chinese influence. India hosts a summit of African states in October in New Delhi.

Approval was also given for a proposal to promulgate the Negotiable Instruments (Amendment) Ordinance, 2015, which seeks to clarify jurisdiction-related issues for filing cases for offence committed under section 138 of the Act.

A cabinet note said, “The clarity on jurisdictional issues for trying cases of cheque bouncing would increase the credibility of the cheque as a financial instrument. This would help trade and commerce in general and allow the lending institution, including banks, to continue to extend financing to the economy, without the apprehension of loan default on account of bouncing of a cheque."

The cabinet committee on economic affairs approved the doubling of the Hotgi-Kudgi-Gadag railway line in Maharashtra and Karnataka at an anticipated cost of 1,618 crore and completion cost of 2,058 crore.

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