Needed: institutions that deliver

Published: Saturday 31 October 1992

IN A RECENT speech, Prime Minister Narasimha Ra called upon voluntary agencies to participate actively in the country's rural development programmes and gave a categorical assurance it "is not going to be a sarkari programme." Pointing out the Eighth Plan has allocated Rs 30,000 crore for rural development, which will be routed through panchayats, Rao commented, "We have not heard of such an allocation to rural development in any plan." The proposed programme is expected to create one billion person-days of employment.

Speaking in Jaipur on the same, day, Planning Commission deputy chairman Pranab Mukherjee conceded that development activities undertaken with people's active participation have a "greater chance of success and were cost-effective." He mentioned an experiment in "micro-level, participatory planning" is being launched soon in 150 selected blocks in the country. Both Rao and Mukherjee have given indications of new directions in the Eighth Five-Year Plan that seek to institutionalise the role of voluntary organisations in the development process. All these are undoubtedly welcome decisions. Indeed, the sums being allocated are very large. But it must be remembered that rural development is essential ly good management of the rural environment and natural resources. Sometime ago, the Centre for Science and brought Environment together some leading grassroots environmentalists to discuss the process of integrated village ecosystem planning, They concluded an average investment of Rs 5 lakh per village - or Rs 28,500 crore for the entire country - would be sufficient to organise water harvesting systems, good management of grasslands and a 20-40 ha forest in each village.

The sums that the Prime Minister is talking about are extremely large and, in the parlance of physicists, of a critical nature that can set off a chain reaction. The Eighth Plan can theoretically be the plan to end all plans. But will this really happen?

According to one estimate given out by the earlier Planning Commission, more than Rs 25,000 crore was spent on rural development programmes during the entire decade of the 1980s and this amount did not include money spent on agriculture or irrigation. But the public assets, especially environmental assets, created with this investment are nowhere commensurate with the expenditure incurred.

If history -is not to repeat itself, the approach to planning, investment and implementation should be such that the basic system of management should be extremely open and grow from the people themselves. If the government does not ensure this requirement, there is no need to imagine the corruption that will eat away the crores of rupees promised by the Prime Minister. Environmental resources such as land, trees, grasses, crops, ponds, tanks and wells are fragile and they decline speedily in productivity if they are not cared for adequately. Therefore, there is no guarantee even if money to plant seedlings does reach the people, that a forest will emerge.

If the government truly wants this massive expenditure to support a national programme on ecologically sound, natural resource management, then it must think through the nature of the Panchayati Raj institutions it wants to create. It must ask itself: Why do most voluntary agencies have problems in dealing with panchayats? Money is like oil. It can provide the motive force but not if the car is out of order. On the other hand, a fuel-efficient car can go further with less oil. It is institutions that deliver, produce and manage; what matters is how good or bad they are. And, the challenge lies in developing effective, open and participatory institutions.

We hope the government, committed to this level of expenditure, will pay heed also to this dimension of the rural development problem.

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