Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh on Sunday advocated flexi funds for States and said that by the end of the 12th Five-Year Plan, 50 per cent of the Ministry's outlay should be handed over to the States in phases for roads and development activities based on local needs and realities.

He was delivering the keynote address at a national consultation on ‘Engendering Physical Infrastructure via Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY),' organised by the Centre for Gender Economics, University of Mumbai, and UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

Mr. Ramesh said the PMGSY was doing what the States should have done, but did not. The Centre was geared for building bigger infrastructure and not rural roads, he said, and this was a complete perversion of constitutional imperatives. The PMGSY could not be a permanent solution; it was the responsibility of the States to build roads. The programme also had its limitations, and it was not possible to provide funds for maintenance too. While some State governments were targeting the Centre for putting the federal structure at risk by proposing the creation of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre, they didn't mind the Centre spending for rural roads.

Sometimes, national guidelines for programmes didn't fit into the specifics of the States and didn't permit either innovation or variation or flexibility, he said. For instance, Rajasthan demanded funds for connecting faraway hamlets, and flexi funds would address those needs. The role of gram panchayats must be strengthened; this year, one per cent of all rural development expenditure — Rs. 990 crore — would be diverted to the Ministry for panchayati raj to put in place a system for the purpose.

However, he said, the pace of the implementation of the PMGSY was slow: Phase I would be competed only in 2017, 10 years behind schedule. A big issue was the pace in the Naxal-dominated areas, where the habitations were small, and the construction could be handed over to gram panchayats. Maharashtra was among some States to launch its own rural roads programme.

Launched in 2000, the PMGSY led to better connectivity in rural areas, and a survey of seven States showed that this connectivity had led to a growth of 17.6 per cent in agricultural income, Husain Dalwai, MP, said. Focus on education was important, he said, and the PMGSY had made markets, schools and health more accessible, especially to women.

The Ministry of Rural Development, with a budget of Rs. 91,000 crore, was second only to the Defence Ministry in funds, and had nine flagship programmes. The PMGSY was the one programme which did not have any explicit gender bias, Mr. Ramesh said. About 1.6 lakh habitations of 500 people were to be connected with all-weather roads, and 60 per cent of them had so far been covered. Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal had a long way to go, while Maharashtra, Karnataka and Gujarat had made a major expansion in rural roads.

He admitted that some programmes were not so gender sensitive as they should be. A case in point was sanitation, which was a half-hearted campaign. It was a shame that the world's third largest economy had 60 per cent of its population defecating in the open, he said. Another issue, he said, quoting the 2011 Census report, was the large prevalence of manual scavenging. He promised a new total sanitation programme, with revised norms, targeting the 2,65,000 gram panchayats over the next 10 years.

He lauded Maharashtra for achieving total sanitation in 9,000 of the 28,000 gram panchayats. Sikkim was the first State to be free of open defecation. With a highly patriarchal society, Haryana coined a slogan shauchalya nahin to dulhan nahin (No brides, if there are no toilets).

Over two days, the national consultation will focus on PMGSY as a special study, said Ritu Dewan, Professor, Centre for Gender Economics. The major concern was understanding and incorporating a gender perspective at several levels which includes broad evaluation of the impacts and fulfillment of the objectives of the programme.