The controversy surrounding the questioning of a Prime Ministers Rural Development Fellow in Maharashtra for alleged Naxal links,followed by Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Rameshs letter to the Maharashtra Chief Minister defending the Fellow,has brought the focus back on this ambitious one-year-old scheme.
The PMRDF,announced in September 2011,inducted its first batch of Fellows in April 2012,who completed one year recently. The programme aims at inducting young professionals for short durations at the district administration level in Left Wing Extremism (LWE) affected areas to assist in improving programme delivery and also serving as an interface between the administration and marginalised sections. There are,on an average,two Fellows posted in 82 districts spread across nine states the maximum being in Jharkhand and Orissa. Recruitment for a fresh batch,according to ministry officials,are set to begin anytime now.
The overall implementation experience of the programme over the last one year has been the proverbial mixed bag. Perhaps the biggest indicator of the relative success of this scheme has been the very low attrition level,surprising even ministry officials. Of the total 150 Fellows inducted last year,only seven dropped out a less than 5 per cent drop-out rate. This,despite the youngsters being placed in fairly difficult conflict areas.
The Fellows say that they learnt immensely by being part of the programme,while contributing to policy and implementation work at the district level.
They have also found an outlet for sharing their experiences with the PMRDF blog being updated regularly with posts from Fellows.
The programme has changed my perspective completely towards several issues and the government. I have been involved in the implementation and design of National Rural Livelihoods Mission and have worked closely on youth-livelihood issues, said Priyanka Yadav,26,posted at Kanker district,Chhattisgarh.
Vamsi Krishna,a post graduate from Tata Institute of Social Sciences,had similar views views. There are broadly two mandates. One is working in research and evaluation projects at the state government-level and the other is district specific. I am working on looking at sustainable livelihood opportunities in IAP districts and am satisfied with my experience, said Krishna,who is posted at Karimnagar in Andhra Pradesh.
However,this is one side of the story. The programme has had its share of teething problems,many of which the ministry is now trying to address. To begin with,there has been considerable confusion about the exact role of the Fellows and where they fit in the established structure of the district administration. Moreover,the absence of a clear-cut institutionalised structure has meant transitional problems and instability with any change of guard in the district.
PMRDF Fellows,who are paid Rs 75,000 per month with a 10 per cent hike in subsequent years,have to report directly to district collectors.
We have had a mixed response to the programme. In some districts,the administration is very supportive,especially when there are young,tech-savvy DCs. However,since DCs assign work to the Fellows,there is often a problem when the collector changes and a new person comes in. We are trying to give the scheme a definite structure,which will help solve transitional problems, said a ministry official. There are also other problems like youngsters being new to the system,being placed in remote areas,not having clear cut roles,and having to work with district level functionaries who may not be used to this sort of system, he added.
To address this,the ministry issued fresh guidelines in June defining Fellows as development facilitators,thereby giving them a definite identity. There was a major identity crisis for Fellows about whether they are researchers or assistants to DCs. Now they have a definite designation, said another official.
Yet another senior ministry functionary pointed out how in some districts the presence of Fellows was being misused. According to him,in one state,five Fellows were working in the Chief Secretarys office,merely assisting him,instead of playing their role on the ground.
In order to tide over the concern of instability in Fellows work with any change in the administration and also to standardise work,the ministry has decided to give them a defined work area. PMRDF will now be linked with NRLM wherein these young professionals will work on livelihood issues.
The DCs change often. Almost 70 per cent of the key functionaries in my district have been transferred in the last one year. This creates some problems, said a Fellow.
Some other Fellows pointed towards lack of clarity on exact position,ambiguously defined roles,and no concrete structure as being key problems. We are not a part of the hierarchy and this often confuses the DC. There is no specific structure at the district level. Our role should be concretised at the district level and put in writing. There should be some sort of a sub-contract with the district, said another Fellow,adding that there should be a sensitisation process about the programme for DCs.
Meanwhile,while the programme was originally for two years,extended by another year,the new guidelines make it a three-year programme that cannot be extended. However,retaining Fellows for three years may be challenging. Both Krishna and Yadav said that they were not sure if theyd continue beyond two years since they would have gained significant experience by then. The challenge becomes greater given Fellows are professionals who may have left attractive jobs to gain on-ground experience.
Aditya Tyagi,a JNU post-graduate and a consultant by profession,however,said that he wanted to continue for three years. Tyagi,who is posted at Jamui in Bihar,has been working on two areas initiating educational and livelihood programmes as well as working on identifying crops that can withstand droughts but with high commercial value.