NDA and rural India: the untold story

Excertpts from the lead article by Raj Chengappa in ‘India Today’ 43rd anniversary issue:

In the other key areas impacting rural progress, both the Central and state governments have thankfully learnt from past errors. Providing rural housing for the needy is one such. Housing programmes have been around since 1985, but their implementation has been tardy, and corruption rampant.

When the NDA government under Narendra Modi came to power, it rev­am­ped the programme and ren­amed it the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana. The size of the houses to be built was increased from 20 square metres to 25 square metres and the grant increased from Rs 70,000 to Rs 1.2 lakh. But what was critical was how corruption was curbed using digital and communications technology. At the time of the payment of the first instalment, the recipient has to upload his photograph along with pictures of the plot of land his house is to come up on. Then, the person has to send photographs of each major stage of construction stipulated to get the next instalment. The subsidy money is transferred directly to the recipient’s bank account, ensuring it is not diverted. This has cut down corruption by local officials from 50 per cent to around 12 per cent. It has also seen a record number of houses being built in the past four years. One fallout: with no slush money coming to them, many of the panchayat-level officials are not pushing the programme too enthusiastically.

Another welcome development has been the move to integrate the various services under diff­erent schemes. So, under the housing scheme, a person can also avail of the subsidy for toilets under Swachh Bharat, get a cooking gas connection under the PM Ujjwala Yojana and an electricity connection under the rural electrification programme. With all money transfers going to bank accounts, the opportunities for corrupt officials to withhold or divert payments has been dramatically reduced. It remains critical to ensure that, having provided these amenities, the quality of service is not compromised. It is not enough to bring electricity poles to a village, there must also be quality supply of power. In subsidised LPG, cooking refills have to be made easily available and not given as a premium.

In the PM Gram Sadak Yojana, an important innovation is that, apart from building the roads, there is a built-in five-year maintenance contract the constructor has to abide by. He has no choice then but to ensure that good quality material is used for making the road. Some of the other government schemes have provided amazing results in the past too. When M.G. Ramachandran was chief minister of Tamil Nadu in 1982, he introduced the mid-day meal scheme. I had written an article about it for the magazine at the time, dismissing it as a populist scheme. But its impact turned out to be revolutionary. Infant mortality rates in the state began to drop significantly a few years after the scheme was introduced. Then the government cleverly extended it to pregnant mothers who came to drop their children to school. They were not only given a meal package but also medicines to ensure a safe pregnancy. It was followed up with post-natal care and benefits. That saw maternal mortality rates drop perceptibly in the state. And to the astonishment of social planners, Tamil Nadu’s total fertility rates began to fall significantly within a decade, reaching levels only achieved by Kerala.

Maternal care has been another success story. When I visited Rajasthan in the 1980s for a health story, only two out of 10 babies born were institutional deliveries. The other eight were delivered at home with the help of the rudimentary equipment used by traditional midwives or dais. Today, eight out of 10 babies in Rajasthan are born under institutional care.

Two observations:

(1) Much has been done by the NDA government to deliver on promises to the rural poor and rural India, in general. They hardly get highlighted.

(2) I appreciate Raj Chengappa’s honesty in admitting that he dismissed MGR’s mid-day meal scheme as a populist gimmick. This is typical of elites. They have far too little respect for politicians’ instincts and smartness. In the end, they (the elites) make the situation difficult both for those who govern and the governed. In other words, elites punch too far above their weight.

In any case, the ‘India Today’ 43rd anniversary issue is a collector’s item. There are many inspiring and inspirational stories. People who are toiling to make life better for those around them with not much expectation except the intrinsic pleasure of it. God bless them!

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