Rural priorities must be set by villagers

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

WHEN FORMER Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi announced the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana (JRY), he received more brickbats than bouquets from both the media and the intellectuals because they saw in it a populist measure initiated by a beleaguered prime minister to win an election. But there was more to it than that.

JRY was created by merging two earlier rural employment generation programmes, but the big difference between JRY and its predecessors was that JRY ensured funds bypassed the bureaucracy and flowed directly into the hands of elected village representatives. This, it was hoped, would help curtail corruption, increase transparency and, most important, let the people set their own priorities to decide financial expenditure. The objectives could not have been more laudable, but how much of this has really happened?

In one of the meetings organised as a run-up to JRY, an old tribal woman told Rajiv Gandhi: "If you want to give money to the village, make sure it comes in the light of the day and not in the darkness of the night." What the woman was trying to say was that everyone should know how much money had been allocated to the village.

A report that we carry in this issue of Down To Earth does not reveal any substantial increase in transparency about funds received under JRY by villages. Even though the funds are managed by their representatives, the villagers themselves remain ignorant about the amount of money given to the village, neither are they consulted regarding the use of the money.

JRY has had another negative fall-out. From an environmental standpoint, rural employment programmes can play a key role in improving the rural natural resource base and increasing overall rural production. Environmental regeneration demands heavy labour inputs -- whether it is reforestation, construction of water harvesting structures or soil conservation. But since the economic returns are not immediately apparent, impoverished people are likely to neglect these tasks. Rural employment programmes can help villagers solve this problem, because they have the capacity to mobilise impoverished labour in order to regenerate the environment.

In economic terms, this would be an investment in building up rural natural capital, which will result in water harvesting structures to irrigate farmlands and increase crop production, and well-stocked forests and grasslands to support dairy development and a variety of artisanal crafts. Rural environment's sustainable, employment-supporting capacity can thus go up substantially. In other words, JRY has the capacity to bind together employment generation and environmental regeneration in a way that can build India up from its roots.

However, no environmental priorities can be discerned in the choice of projects made by panchayats under JRY. Most of the projects taken up relate to construction, usually of buildings and roads. Part of the reason may be that such projects allow for easier siphoning off of money. But what is worse is that regeneration of natural capital has been completely neglected. The pre-JRY employment programmes had certain sums specifically earmarked for afforestation work, but now with panchayat leaders neglecting afforestation, there is a decrease in the total national funds available for afforestation.

Realising the danger, the ministry of environment and forests has put in numerous pleas to the ministries of finance and rural development to earmark a specific percentage of JRY funds for afforestation, but these pleas have gone unheeded on the grounds that this would defeat the very concept of letting people decide their own priorities. Nonetheless, solutions to the problem have to be found.

The solutions lie at two levels. Firstly, the ministry of rural development must make all efforts to ensure that decision-making in JRY is broad-based. The government must also ensure villagers are informed about the amount of money allocated to their village. And sarpanches must be instructed to involve all the villagers in deciding how the money should be spent by calling meetings of the gram sabha. District officials must be asked to make spot checks on whether such meetings are being held. If necessary, they should call these meetings themselves and give the people the required information. Greater participation in decision-making will result in more environmental regeneration programmes being taken up.

Simultaneously, if the spirit of JRY is to be truly incorporated in government work, then the government must start revamping its own agencies and their work patterns. For example, the forest department should be converted from a territorial wing of the government to an extension agency. Promotions to forest officers should be based on criteria such as the number of villages they have been able to convince into using their JRY money on afforestation. The same should be true of all bureaucracies related to natural capital, such as irrigation and soil conservation.

In addition, a system of incentive schemes in environment-related areas could be started. If villagers agree to use their JRY money for specific programmes, they should get additional grants from other government schemes. It is not impossible even to plan for a scheme that will train villagers living in the different ecosystems of India to understand the dynamics of their individual ecosystems and plan to improve their entire village natural resource base. Non-governmental organisations could also be involved in a big way in such activities.

Now that the 73rd amendment to the Constitution has got the required approval of state legislatures, the government plans to make its commitment to panchayati raj institutions a major political plank. These institutions can definitely play a critical role in the economic revival of India and the regeneration of its environment, if efforts are simultaneously made to make elected village representatives more accountable to those they claim to represent, and also to revamp natural resource-related bureaucracies to work more as extension agents rather than as decision-makers. Without these precautions, it is the objections of the critics that are more likely to come true than Rajiv Gandhi's stated objectives. The challenge before the government is, therefore, both big and critical.

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