First I am going to describe for you living conditions in a village I visited in Uttar Pradesh last week. Then I will leave it to you to decide whether it is wrong for the government to continue spending taxpayers’ money on unwieldy, centralised, leaky anti-poverty programmes. Or whether it is time for the Prime Minister to admit that if he wants to fulfill his promise of change and development, he needs to make an urgent course correction.
Since there are thousands of villages of the kind that I am about to describe, I am not going to bother giving it a name. I chose it because a man who works in Delhi called Rakesh urged me to come to his village to see how little has changed in it in the past few decades. Like Rakesh, more than 50 per cent of young men from this village left long ago to find employment. The young men who leave often belong to farming families but are not needed at home because land holdings have shrunk and farming is no longer profitable.
On the way to Rakesh’s village, he pointed out his family farm and said, “We grow enough to feed the family but not enough to sell in the market.” We drove on a dirt road at the end of which we came upon a cluster of ramshackle brick and mud dwellings set in narrow, muddy lanes. Women washed utensils with wet mud and water from open drains and children wandered barefoot amid stray cattle and dogs. On a vacant patch outside Rakesh’s home, village elders gathered. They said the village now got 18 hours of electricity but it came and went capriciously, farmers stayed awake at night to water their fields. Drinking water came from communal hand pumps and open defecation was the norm not just in this village, but for nearly every village in the area.
On paper all kinds of anti-poverty schemes were available in the village, but had made little or no difference. MNREGA money disappeared in the pockets of unknown local officials and old people never saw their pensions. Access to the villages in this area is so limited that until last year pregnant women had to be carried on dirt roads to the nearest health centre to deliver their babies. Last year a diligent official helped out by building a brick road that has made life easier. When I asked why their MLA had not helped do this through his constituency fund, they said they had not seen him once in the past five years.
So should money continue to be wasted on huge welfare schemes that have achieved nothing? Or should money be spent instead on roads, schools, health services, sanitation and drinking water? Political pundits and economists have applauded the Finance Minister for putting more money into the MNREGA and similar rural development schemes, but is this really the way forward? When Narendra Modi first came to office, he mocked the MNREGA for being no more than a wasteful exercise in digging ditches, and he was right. So why has he not changed course? Why is the NITI Aayog not auditing anti-poverty schemes to see if rural development cannot be achieved more effectively?
The Prime Minister has talked often about his RURBAN plan that seeks to provide urban public services in rural India, but can this happen without a course correction? There can be no better time than now for real ‘parivartan’ because farmers and small businesses have been badly affected by the currency withdrawal. People I met on my rural travels admitted that there had been initial support for the Prime Minister’s brutal demonetisation but said this was mostly because very poor people with empty Jan Dhan accounts believed that they would be direct beneficiaries. Now that their accounts remain almost empty, support is waning, especially since cash continues to be in short supply in rural banks.
If the Prime Minister wants to ease the pain of those who live in rural India, he must find a way to give people the tools that will help them rise above the poverty line. Massive welfare schemes serve only to provide a minuscule measure of relief to our poorest citizens while ensuring that they continue to remain below our pathetically low poverty line. This is what our political leaders like to call ‘poverty alleviation’. Surely in 2017 we need to acknowledge that poverty needs obliteration, not alleviation?
The awful state of rural schools and health services, in most of India’s 6,00,000 villages, bears testament to the failure of the welfare schemes that the Central government has invested in so generously. It is time for the Prime Minister to order an audit of such schemes that have for decades been the hallmark of Congress governments. Rural India needs new ideas and a new direction.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter@ tavleen_singh