Employment schemes fail to ease rural poverty

The government's employment generation schemes, laudable though they may be, have yet to achieve their goals. Not involving intended beneficiaries is cited as a major reason for their failure.

 
By Shailendra Kumar, Amit Mitra
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Employment schemes fail to ease rural poverty

Brick-laying under the JRY sch (Credit: Amar Talwar / cse)THE MUCH-lauded Jawahar Rozgar Yojana (JRY) has failed as an instrument to transform rural India. And not all the high praise from the prime minister or the government's hiking of the JRY budget or the speedy enactment of the Panchayati Raj bill, ostensibly to empower village-level institutions, can mask this reality.

Employment schemes such as JRY are deemed necessary because the bulk -- nearly 80 per cent -- of unemployment is in rural India. JRY was formed by merging the National Rural Employment Programme (NREP) and the Rural Landless Employment Guarantee Programme (RLEGP).

The government insists JRY and the Panchayati Raj bill will strengthen the political base of the poor, but Planning Commission member Jayant Patil is sceptical. "The new panchayats will not necessarily be people-oriented because the political system does not encourage participatory development," says Patil, who emphasises micro-planning and people's participation are essential. "JRY funds should be used to build protective irrigation systems that can change the face of a village," he adds.

The Planning Commission's publication, JRY -- A Quick Study (1991-92), says only 874.56 million persondays of employment were generated against a target of 929.10 million persondays. This year's employment target is 1.1 billion persondays. Nevertheless, the hopes of 300 million rural poor in the country have been belied, because JRY has failed to empower village-level institutions and generate employment through people's participation.

Theoretically, JRY is intended to curb corruption, encourage accountability of public funds and empower people to guide their collective destiny. But even the government's intention to bypass the bureaucracy, which had been accused of siphoning money from the NREP and RLEGP and of executing unproductive schemes, has not been attained.

In principle, the government has devolved power and funds to panchayats, but in practice, most JRY schemes are still regulated from Delhi. The irony is that JRY -- a piece of election largesse of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, continues to follow a top-down model. Says Indrapal Singh, sarpanch of Sonrai in Lalitpur district in UP, "What our village needs is water, but we cannot spend JRY money on dugwells because the administration has banned it due to a 5-m drop in the water table".

The government sets financial and physical limits for schemes to be executed by panchayats and determines priorities for funding under MWS and IAY. This, observers say, has led to the creation of mostly non-productive assets such as school boundary walls and panchayat halls. Corruption continues to flourish, though it has shifted from a bureaucrat-contractor nexus to one linking the sarpanch and contractor. Explains Rohini Nayyar, rural development consultant of the Planning Commission, "Despite all the rules to the contrary, JRY continues to be in the clutches of contractors. We all know that this leads to corruption, but it's almost impossible to detect the guilty."

Target-chasing continues to be the order of the day even to the inexplicable extent of how Tamil Nadu has exceeded targets (see table). But R K Mukherjee of the Society for Promotion of Wasteland Development, a Delhi-based NGO, points out, "The number of persondays of employment created by JRY schemes is no index of help to the rural poor. What can provide sustainable employment in a village is the restoration of the health of its ecosystem. And, that's not possible as long as the needs of the people are ignored."

Economists like Sudipto Mundle of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy in Delhi warn unemployment will increase because of structural adjustments the country is making, from 3.5 per cent to as much as 6.5 per cent. The government, Mundle argues, must compensate the poor for the adverse effects of macro-economic changes that it is pursuing, by creating a safety net through employment generation.

JRY seeks to do precisely this and the programme has been allocated Rs 18,400 crore of the Rs 30,000 crore earmarked for rural development in the 8th Five-Year Plan. The states are required to contribute Rs 4,600 crore to JRY and, in turn, will receive assistance from the Centre in proportion to the numbers of its rural poor.

The Planning Commission estimates about 90 per cent of India's rural population below the poverty line and 80 per cent of its total rural population live in 10 states, with UP getting the highest share of JRY funds (Rs 578.45 crore) and Karnataka getting the lowest (Rs 135.72 crore) in 1991-92. The states, in turn, allot JRY funds to districts on the basis of a backwardness index that lists the number of the district's agricultural labourers and its population of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Each district then distributes 80 per cent of its JRY funds to panchayats and mandals -- the programme's implementing agencies -- and 20 per cent is retained for inter-block and inter-village projects.

Under JRY rules, 6 per cent of the funds goes to the Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY) for distribution among the states. IAY is operated by the district rural development agency (DRDA) or zillah parishad. Another 20 per cent is reserved for the Million Wells Scheme (MWS), which is intended to benefit the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, after assessing the water potential of their unirrigated land. However, MWS funds can be used for dugwells only and cannot be spent on tubewells or borewells.

Despite the good intentions, JRY has not changed rural lifestyles. Explains Nayyar, "The 'subsidy culture' fostered over the past four decades, has increased the people's debilitating dependence on the government. They see JRY as just another state programme." If the sarpanch decides a schoolroom building or panchayat ghar is to be built, nobody objects. The rural poor, all too mum in the face of the sarpanches' traditional power, are even more reluctant to voice their grievances now that the sarpanches have political power. No wonder unemployed Rama Kushwaha of Sonrai village says with resignation, "JRY helps the panchayat pradhans, but not people like me."

How well it has helped the pradhans is seen in the proliferation of panchayat ghars and community halls, built out of JRY funds and used by sarpanches as "storage rooms for fodder or cattle sheds or guest houses," says Bajju Nayak of Palana village in Rajasthan (see box). And, his neighbour, Maku Ram Meghwal, adds, "We need water for drinking as well as irrigation, but our panchayat frittered away JRY funds on building community halls and schoolrooms."

Such construction activity generates, at best, only short-term employment. It cannot create true income yielding assets such as regenerated community forests, grasslands and ponds. Community institutions, such as gram sabhas that involve everyone in the village, are needed to undertake such projects, but most villagers are reluctant to initiate action on their own.

Nor does tree-planting get priority because no immediate benefits are perceived and, in many villages, common lands don't exist because they have been privatised to feed a growing population.

Panchayats may be reluctant to plant saplings, but the fact is that trees are integral to the needs of villagers. T K A Nair, additional secretary in the department of wasteland development, explains, "At the formulation stage of JRY, it was mooted that a percentage of funds be earmarked for planting trees. But this was overlooked in order to give autonomy to panchayat bodies."

The Planning Commission says social forestry was undertaken on 270,136 ha in 10 states between 1989 and 1991. But in the absence of people's institutions to care for these plantations, most have withered away. A glaring example is Kalapahari village in Lalitpur district of UP, where a small plantation begun in 1989 died, says Gopal Bhagat, a local farmer, because "a check dam over the Sahjad river was built only in 1992 to irrigate the strip of land on which the saplings had been planted. We had asked the panchayat to build the check dam first, but we were told it could not be done because of lack of funds."

Time and again it has been shown that wasteland development begins with water and not trees. Once a water-harvesting system is built and equitable sharing of the water evolved, the local community becomes involved in protecting and regreening the catchment of its water system. But this is possible only if the villagers are empowered to plan and decide their future.

Bureaucratic interference
Field activists like Rahul Bannerjee of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS), a people's organisation based in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh, says he tried to utilise JRY funds to increase local employment. In the Sondhwa block, this involved implementing ecological regeneration programmes such as nullah-plugging and contour-bunding and in water-scarce areas, digging wells. But, he adds, "Any effort to carry out what the people want is opposed vehemently by the bureaucracy because it minimises their intervention and reduces people's dependence."

Bannerjee says KMCS sought to build some panchayat and school buildings whose designs departed from the standard and which used local material and local skills so as to create maximum employment. But the block administration refused to accept the building plans, specifying they were against the rules. It took a threat of dharna by the villagers for the plans to be finally accepted.

But this, says Bannerjee, turned out to be only the beginning of KMCS' troubles because the block bureaucracy used every possible means to obstruct funding and delay the project. Ultimately, KMCS washed its hands off JRY and Bannerjee comments, "No government would like to transfer decision-making to the people, as this would endanger the system of exploiting the poor and the natural resources that have been built up over two centuries. Given this anti-people thrust, all talk of people's participation can only remain rhetoric."

It must be remembered that not every village is organised and even KMCS grew into an active organisation with the help of outsiders like Bannerjee. In the absence of leaders, protests by villagers are often thwarted by power-brokers, who do not hesitate to even threaten the villagers' lives.

Panchayats are frequently regarded as only a forum for rich villagers to indulge in politics against the poor and so schemes they draft and implement can be presumed to be unhelpful to eradicate poverty. The Planning Commission study shows not only is more than 50 per cent of JRY funds spent on panchayat ghars, link roads and community halls, the wage-material ratio of 60:40 (funds to be spent on creating wage labour and buying material for projects) has not been maintained.

In elected panchayats, seats are reserved for women, but invariably their attendance at meetings and participation are dismally low. As a result of the male bias, the Planning Commission study notes, "Of the total women available for employment, those actually employed under JRY declined from 7 per cent in 1989-90 to 4 per cent in 1990-91."

A JRY requirement is that 10 per cent of funds is earmarked for maintenance of structures, whether they are productive or not. However, the study notes 56 per cent of the assets was not up to the quality mark and listed factionalism in panchayats, fraudulent muster rolls and illegal hiring of contractors as other factors for the failure of JRY.

The study also notes flaws in JRY implementation. During the first nine months in each of the last three financial years, less than 50 per cent of the funds was spent and only 3 per cent of the total wage-seekers were employed. This means the bulk of the funds was used up in the last quarter, which increases opportunities for officials to fudge achievements. Of 40 gram panchayats surveyed in 10 states, the study shows two did not use any funds at all in 1989-90 and six in 1990-91. There are instances also of some state governments failing to contribute their share of JRY funds and of even diverting JRY money from the Centre to other uses. Last year, Bihar was trapped in a financial crisis and reportedly paid state employees from JRY funds.

Besides the usual stories of faulty implementation and bureaucratic tardiness, JRY raises yet again the appropriateness of panchayats as institutions that truly reflect people's needs and aspirations. For JRY schemes to perform in accordance with people's needs, what is urgently needed are democratic public institutions.

Success stories of village-level, ecosystem planning, such as Seed in Rajasthan's Udaipur district or Ralegaon Siddhi in Maharashtra, clearly demonstrate panchayats are not suitable institutions. They are more often than not the products of village factionalism and for good natural resource management, unity within a community is essential. Panchayats tend to divide the community into factions and all too often, they are dominated by the most powerful group in the village. Though an elected body, a panchayat frequently must function in an environment of factionalism.

Furthermore, panchayats are far too removed from grassroots to enable efficient natural resource management. A village generally consists of several hamlets and a panchayat usually governs several villages -- up to six -- depending on the population. In Assam, for instance, the average is 29 villages per panchayat, but in Orissa and West Bengal, only about 11. Panchayats are usually too big to become an effective village-level forum management because the sarpanch is far too removed and is as disinterested as the district magistrate. Says Sitaram Rawat, whose hamlet is just 3 km away from Sonrai village, the seat of the panchayat, "Our sarpanch Indrapal Singh last came here in September 1992, with some district officials. I don't remember when he came prior to that,"

The Planning Commission study argues that though panchayats and mandals are not technically equipped to implement most JRY schemes, the government has reposed its trust in them, carried away by its zeal to decentralise power and devolve responsibility.

"A solution to this problem," says Nayyar, "could be an informal gram sabha, but the government appears to be stuck over the issue of accountability of funds and responsibility to development. JRY has till now generated only 15 persondays or Rs 80 for each beneficiary annually and has failed to make a dent in removing poverty."

But Patil predicts informal welfare bodies are being recognised in a draft report prepared by the National Development Council's panel on micro-planning.

The issue, ultimately, is not of employment persondays, but of sustainable development and JRY's failures are institutional and not merely financial. There are numerous examples of village ecosystems regenerated with less funds than JRY usually provides and which provide productive employment year-round. The success achieved in these villages is due to truly representative village assemblies that discuss and decide on development work. The prime minister can learn from them.

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