The first nine months of the new BJP government has only underscored its anti-poor, anti-rural image. The substantive and substantial changes in rural development have been restrictive in nature.
The new government has worked to undermine the legal and financial framework of MGNREGA, substantially weakened the provisions of the land acquisition act through an ordinance and, through year-end budget cuts, they have undermined almost every social sector programme, reportedly squeezing Rs 15,000 crore out of rural development alone.
The BJP government’s only rural development initiative so far has been the launch of the symbolic Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY). It requires MPs to choose one village/ panchayat in their parliamentary constituency where they will, through their supervision and initiative, attempt to converge all government programmes across sectors and create a model village.
It “aims at instilling certain values in the villages and their people so that they get transformed into models for others”. Introducing the guidelines, the prime minister calls it “a scheme that will actualise the dreams of rural India”.
The SAGY is flawed conceptually. Without any additional input or funds, this programme is supposed to work in a minuscule number of 800 (2,400 over five years) village panchayats that the other 600,000 Indian villages would follow.
The core objective is a pipedream of saansad-induced virtuosity. Every shortcoming in the chosen panchayat will be under amplified scrutiny, forcing the highest public functionaries of the district/ constituency — the district collector and the MP — to pour inordinate attention on one village to show some success.
And where it does succeed, through intensive care, attention, additional staff and resources, SAGY will create a situation of anger and envy amongst the other villages and panchayats.
Choosing one over others threatens the very basis of representation in electoral politics. With good reason, the excluded ones (over 99 per cent panchayats) may ask, why not us? Any success would generate alienation and undermine the possibility of replication.
It is absurd to shrink the mandate of an MP or a district collector to that of a sarpanch and gram sevak. The collector and MP are supposed to make every village and panchayat an adarsh gram and should be evaluated for an adarsh zila or constituency. That is their mandate.
In any case, replication of models has failed across the world, and even the examples the PM quotes — Punsari in Gujarat, Gangadevipally in Andhra Pradesh, and Hivre Bazaar in Maharashtra, or even Anna Hazare’s Ralegaon Siddhi have, at best, remained “models” that have failed to be replicated even in neighbouring panchayats.
India’s development programmes are well known for their innovative designs, but equally notorious for the paucity of resources that undermine them. This is also true for agriculture, education, health, water, electricity, rural infrastructure, social security, livelihood and
That is why the entitlement approach of rights-based legislation such as the MGNREGA, the forest rights act, the right to food and the right to education offered a new paradigm for the large number of economically and socially marginalised.
It sought to provide a legal framework of justiciable accountability for at least a limited set of basic services and entitlements. It mandated by law the resources and the basic standards of efficiency for meeting development objectives.
The BJP, it seems, is seeking to replace these substantive development commitments of the state with largely symbolic programmes that will somehow give an idea of the greatness of Indian values. The shrinking of resources for rural development and the imposition of resource-free symbolic programmes are two sides of the same coin.
Symbolism is the mode used to hide the contradictions, and it actually provides a clear picture of what the PM means by “minimum government, maximum governance”. Schools without teachers and infrastructure, hospitals without staff and medicines, villages without water and electricity, no funds for MGNREGA, unpaid IAY installments, no accountability, no grievance redress, and the continuing distress of caste/ gender/ socio-economic oppression are all set aside, for the grand spectacle of adarsh gram.
The first example the PM and other MPs could have set was in their “choice” of the village. The guidelines state that “the MP would be free to identify a suitable gram panchayat for being developed as adarsh gram, other than his/ her own village or that of his/ her spouse”.
The prime minister chose a village in Varanasi that reportedly does not have a single Muslim. This model value system was rapidly emulated by other BJP MPs in UP and across the country. Politicians seem to have realised that the privilege of choice can be another tool to use state resources to symbolically establish their favourites, and marginalise communities and voices that are in their calculation, expendable.
Was this deliberate? Is this the example that the PM wants to set? The negative impact this symbolic act has had far outweighs its local context. In his “selection”, the PM has reinforced his stereotype, while succeeding in undermining the credibility of the rural development establishment and the secular face of the state itself. Given the claims to “rajdharma”, the PM should have heeded the protest and distress that followed the prejudice evident in the initial SAGY village selections. But he was unresponsive.
Clearly, the guidelines to the scheme that speak of high ideals and values, adorned by quotes from Mahatma Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan, are just empty rhetoric.
One wonders why the corporate sector is not offered similar platitudes, replete with much needed moral lectures of responsibility to people, environment and equity? Why does reform for them mean such substantial and substantive gifts of India’s land, natural resources and labour? And who shares those spoils? No adarsh corporate in that scheme of things.
The SAGY is a paternalistic, moralising, impractical scheme that will do nothing but divert us from facing the real challenges of development and democratic governance. Rural India urgently needs resources, an accountable framework for basic services, and real citizenship across every village in the country.
If anything, this scheme should have been made open to all/ any panchayat(s) that opted to try and make constitutional objectives a reality, along with an independent evaluation system that measured innovation and success. Consequently, even if it did not add to the sum of our development understanding, at least the ill effects of arbitrary selection, favouritism and attention would be avoided.
The sooner the SAGY is reviewed and substantially reworked, the better.
The writers are activists based in rural Rajasthan.
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