Govt. deploys 800 central government officers for village outreach

 Prime Minister Narendra Modi. File

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. File

A battalion of Central government officers has been drafted to ensure on the ground implementation as the Centre races to saturate 117 “aspirational districts” with seven flagship social welfare schemes by Independence Day.

Prime Minister Modi is scheduled to meet 2.5 lakh beneficiaries of these schemes in Jaipur on Saturday, and has pointed to this campaign as a model for future implementation of welfare delivery.

Questions raised

However, questions are being raised about Centre-State relations under this model, in an election year.

At least 800 Deputy Secretaries, Under-Secretaries and Director-level officers, drawn from Ministries as diverse as Defence and Urban Affairs, have been assigned about 75 villages to visit, as part of the Extended Gram Swaraj Abhiyan (EGSA) from June 1 to August 15. In total, 49,178 villages — most with a majority SC/ST population — are being targeted.

The Hindu spoke to officers from the on-ground teams, as well as with senior officials from the Ministries of Rural Development, Panchayati Raj, and the Department of Personnel and Training, which are jointly coordinating the drive.

“Mostly, we are sent out in teams of two to four people,” explained a deputy secretary, who did not want to named.

Over the two-and-a-half month period, these Central officials are being absorbed into EGSA duty for at least 15 working days.

In each village, the Central team convenes a meeting of villagers and beneficiaries along with a State government or district official, a lead bank representative and local officials from the agencies responsible for enrolling people into the schemes.

“We monitor the scheme, get feedback...If there are any hurdles, we can sort it out on the spot,” said a director-level IAS officer, who disclosed that central officers could direct the local representatives to give immediate sanction for gas cylinders, bank accounts or electricity connections.

The teams can also directly input the day’s progress into a data system. “You can track it live on the EGSA dashboard,” said a senior official of the Rural Development Ministry, pointing to

Senior Ministry officials also make direct daily calls to a section of District Collectors to monitor progress, while third-party observers for each district —mostly from NGOs or academia — have been drafted in to do random checks of villages and report back to the Ministry.

One IAS officer said while most State officials were cooperative, some are not happy with the direct involvement of central officials. Two officers said their work load back in Delhi had been put on hold while they were on the field.

“These are central schemes although the implementation is being done by States. Government of India wants to see total saturation. To ensure this happens, it’s better to depute our own officers,” an IAS officer said, explaining the rationale of the exercise.

The rate of enrolment during the duration of the scheme has been the most impressive in the Saubhagya scheme, which offers power connections to each household, and in the Indra Dhanush Missions to vaccinate children and pregnant women, but the RD Ministry is confident of meeting its targets.

“By August 15, we would have reached 65,000 villages [including a target from a similar drive in May]. That is 15% of the rural population,” said a senior Ministry official. “A lot of such initiatives have to be done in campaign mode. Saturation targets create pressure.”

Addressing the NITI Aayog Governing Council earlier this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said the Gram Swaraj Abhiyan has emerged as a new model for implementation of schemes.

However, the large-scale involvement of Central officers raises questions about the viability of such drives, and about roles in a federal democracy.

States sidelined

“This is a deeply problematic way of going about welfare delivery...Constitutionally, while the Centre has higher powers of taxation, the bulk of the expenditure on welfare is to be done by the States,” said Yamini Aiyar, president of the Centre for Policy Research, pointing out that as Chief Minister,

Mr. Modi had himself vehemently opposed central intervention in matters that were constitutionally the domain of the States.

Ms. Aiyar added that while the centralising trend in flagship welfare scheme — which allows the ruling party at the Centre to draw political mileage and build vote banks — has been seen for some time, this NDA government has further entrenched it, to the detriment of the federal architecture. Direct connections to the district administration tend to bypass State administrations, while sending out large Central teams to do the work of local officials fails to empower local human resources, she said.

“The new approach is not just centralised, but also personalised, converging his [Mr Modi’s] political style with administrative functioning,” she pointed out. “It may create a veneer of efficiency and a high quality publicity campaign, but it undermines the logic of federalism.”

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Printable version | Aug 7, 2022 4:11:31 pm |