Adapting tools of governance to suit evolving needs is essential to bring administrative systems up to speed. The Union government’s recent decision to restructure centrally sponsored schemes, merging them to more than halve the number in order to improve implementation, was one such move. Now, its decision to disband District Rural Development Agency units in those States where they still exist is a step in the same direction. Their separate, independent and autonomous existence did not make them quite amenable to functioning as professional units, and the move to attach the mechanism to district panchayat bodies could help address this issue, while also possibly containing overheads. Over the 33 years they have been in existence, DRDAs have admittedly fallen short of meeting their objectives. As the number of schemes and the quantum of funds they oversaw grew, the challenges multiplied. In the context of the centrality given to panchayati raj institutions and the growing role of community-owned institutions such as self help groups, the need to attune and align DRDAs with them also grew. The professional staffing component of DRDA is relatively small; generalist ministerial staff abound. Lack of training led to poor understanding of, and sensitivity and commitment to, poverty alleviation programmes. Overall, the decision to restructure and streamline the DRDA mechanism will, hopefully, solve many ills.
That said, two points need emphasis. One, the new set-up should not get rural development efforts mired in the routine of the bureaucracy. There should be enough leeway available to adapt to local needs and conditions, rather than be caught in a national straitjacket. Two, mere tinkering with systems can hardly lead to desired outcomes given India’s stupendous challenges in fighting poverty. Rural development should spell comprehensive and integrated development with stress on closing the glaring divides. For this to happen, the implementation mechanism for poverty alleviation programmes should seek participatory rights-based goals. Only those initiatives that recognise the capabilities of the poor and their desire to come out of poverty, and build their action strategies around groups of the poor, can hope to succeed. For this to happen, arms of the government should develop sensitive support mechanisms that could act as catalysts and facilitators of change. They should create and nurture sustainable institutions of the underprivileged. Unless the changes initiated in the anti-poverty programme implementation mechanism help serve this purpose, India’s development dreams will remain unfulfilled.