Pulling a village out of poverty

In 2012, the young IAS officer, Alex Paul Menon was the Collector of Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district. On the evening of April 21, 2012, Mr. Menon had just finished his lunch and was about to preside over a function to announce the introduction of some agricultural schemes. But there was a squad of Maoists hiding among the villagers, and they suddenly launched an attack, killing two of Mr. Menon’s bodyguards. He was then taken hostage.

Mr. Menon was released after spending 13 days in Maoist captivity. He is now the deputy CEO at the office of the Chief Electoral Officer in Chhattisgarh. In the following piece, Mr. Menon explains how small steps of governance can go a long way in changing the lives of people.

Chindhbarri is an auxiliary village in Chhattisgarh’s Dhamtari district, about 140 kilometres from the State capital Raipur. It is a part of the Bastar Development Council, eight kilometres away from Bagrumnala, where Dr. Binayak Sen set up a clinic in 1994.

Chindhbarri is a tiny tribal hamlet of 75 families. In 2010, I was posted in this area as the chief executive officer of the zila panchayat. Though close to the periphery of the Gangrael dam, the village faced an acute shortage of water; 95 per cent of the households were Scheduled Tribes, and 85 per cent households below the poverty line. The average land holding was five acres and 65 per cent of farmers were marginal. Food was hard to come by. Only 38 per cent of families had food to last from six months to a year, while 50 per cent of families had food that would last them for six months or less. As a result, distress migration was quite common.

We decided to reverse the fate of Chindhbarri.

First steps to a renewal

Many years ago, the social activist, Baba Amte had shown us the way forward with his unique water conservation models. We decided to replicate them in Chindhbarri. Backed by a non-governmental organisation and its committed volunteers, participatory micro-planning exercises were taken up by self-help groups and the local community. To begin with, we listed on a sheet of paper, the landholding size of each household, and its nature and needs. Then, we put down a list of various schemes under subheadings. All benefits possible from these schemes were listed to match the needs of each household. The idea was to move away from the usual bureaucratic jargon of “targeting numbers” to “targeting names.”

We chose one particular patch of land, measuring 40 hectares, and initiated water conservation plans all along it. We soon realised that based on the flow of water, the ponds needed to be dug in two private holdings. This is the situation in many tribal areas, as the predominant method is flood irrigation that warrants having your field in the area where water flows and stops, but water conservation necessitates ponds and farm ponds. By this time the village was so enthused that two villagers, Shankar and Maakan, volunteered to donate five acres each.

According to the plan, each household was to get farm ponds and fish seed, cattle protection trenches, dugwells, bund plantations, cash crops like mango and cashew, poultry sheds, vegetable seed kits, equipment for rice intensification, vermicompost pits, bio-gas and borewells. We also arranged to put up low-cost poly houses, or sabji kuty, according to the needs of each household.

Historically, the most marginalised residents of a village occupy the ridge or the periphery. We started from there. To conserve water, the ridge had to be cured first. This was undertaken for a set of 32 farmers for one patch for the first year, and later replicated in two other patches in two batches. Rs.143 lakh was spent by converging the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme with other schemes in a systematic way for three years. The funds are largely from the employment guarantee scheme. The work season for the employment guarantee scheme (September to June) falls in two financial years (September to March and April to June).

For a villager, a financial year has no resonance in his way of life. While he looks at the work season, we expect him to work according to the financial year. We decided to tweak the rules to provide double the sanctions in a single financial year, citing the work season spread across two financial years. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as more spending appeared to instill confidence in the villagers.

Reaping the results

Four years later, this is what happened — 114 acres of land were levelled and bunded and made suitable for cultivation; 225 acres of land came under irrigation, thereby increasing paddy productivity twofold, and the village saw a big increase in vegetable, maize, fish and poultry production. Today, vegetable cultivation enables 60 per cent of families to earn up to Rs.20,000 an annum. Nobody has had to take a loan from the village’s grain bank in the past two years. Distress migration has stopped. In the last two years, many villagers have been able to buy assets like mobile phones, motorcycles and television sets. Now, Chhindhbarri’s gram sabha has decided to pay tax to the gram panchayat in order to strengthen it.

Chindhbarri is self-sufficient today and its people do not need freebies or doles. The spark that triggered off an experiment in Chindhbarri has now spread to 47 other panchayats and is still growing.

All this began with a small step: putting all the components of food on the plates of 32 families. We chose not to splatter our schemes and benefits but place them all on a single platter according to the hunger needs of the families. And, it has worked as a miracle cure.

Some of us who are in the Indian Administrative Service often debate the necessity of straitjacketed schemes of the government and the needs of rural India that are different in terms of scale, priority, need and participation. I’d often have my doubts and would say: “How long are we going to chop the foot to fit the sandal?” This provoked a senior retired colleague to reply with a smirk: “panchayat plans, planning commission schemes.” But the Chindhbarri experiment has shown that it is possible to pull a village out of poverty instead of letting it be the beneficiary of erratic schemes for decades. It stands as a tall example of what participative, decentralised planning can do to a community and what is possible once a motivated community decides to plan, execute, monitor and measure outcome all by itself.

As I write this, my mind is awash in questions. How long is it going to take us to eliminate poverty from every Indian household? Convergence is a buzzword in the administrative services. But what I fail to understand is this: if panchayats plan for every household as per its needs, and allotments are made with minimal use of schemes and non-restrictive guidelines, what is the need then for this forced marriage of schemes that we call “convergence”? With many of our allocations in schemes based on unreliable secondary data, and thereby an unhindered diversion of funds, what stops us from having a computer in every panchayat, collecting household data pertinent to all sectors, updating it periodically and planning and allocating based on primary household data?

This country has multiple schemes, multiple computerised databases for these schemes, and then multiple cards and multiple servers storing countless data, wasting valuable financial, human and energy resources. Are we, an IT superpower, going to wait for another 60 years to collect and collate household level data, plan and allocate as per household level needs, and till then, keep on inventing scheme after scheme? Isn’t it time for us to pause, take a breath, collect, collate, computerise every household level data, plan for every household and cull poverty in a clean stroke? Isn’t it time to have integrated databases, weeding out duplicates, and running targeted, name-wise allotments?

I have been reading volume after volume of committee reports and scheme guidelines to find answers, but the compass in my simple mind points to Chindhbarri alone.

This brings me to the story of a Zen guru who would tell his disciples: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” One day he was visited by one of his disciples with a nagging problem. “Master,” the disciple said, “I have five people who are hungry and thirsty, and I have rice, curry, soup, pickle and water. How do I divide it among all the five? On the pretext of equality if I divide all the five items equally among the five, nobody’s thirst or hunger is quenched. If I divide five items into one for each, again, I end up satisfying nobody.” The learned guru smiled and replied, “Give all five items to the neediest and the one most willing to find food for others, and after his hunger and thirst are quenched, you both jointly find food for the rest.”

It is the Zen master’s formula that should guide our approach today.

(Alex Paul Menon is an IAS officer. E-mail: >alexpaulmenon@gmail.com )

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