The Indian Constitution mandates local governments to prepare and implement plans for ‘economic development and social justice’ (Articles 243G and 243W). Several complementary institutions and measures such as the gram sabha to facilitate people’s participation, the District Planning committee (DPC) to prepare bottom up and spatial development plans, the State Finance Commission (SFC) to ensure vertical and horizontal equity, one-third reservation for women (in most States, now 50%), population-based representation to Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe communities, and so on were introduced to promote this goal. Even so, India’s decentralisation reforms (with no parallel in federal history) have failed to take the decentralisation process forward in delivering social justice and progress in rural India.
This article argues that given the right momentum, the ‘Mission Antyodaya’ project of the Government of India launched in 2017-18 (and cast in a convergence framework avowedly to eradicate poverty in its multiple dimensions among rural households) bears great promise to revive the objectives of these great democratic reforms. The Ministry of Panchayati Raj and the Ministry of Rural Development act as the nodal agents to take the mission forward.
The Bharatiya Janata Party government which came to power in 2014 had several reasons to reimagine rural development. The traditional poverty line linked to the calorie-income measure, religiously pursued by the former Planning Commission with great academic support proved inane and failed to serve as a purposive policy tool.
Moreover, the revealing statistics brought into the public domain by the SocioEconomic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011 were ‘demanding’ remedial intervention. That 90% of rural households have no salaried jobs, 53.7 million households are landless, 6.89 million female-headed households have no adult member to support, 49% suffer from multiple deprivations, 51.4% derive sustenance from manual casual labour, 23.73 million are with no room or only one room to live, and so on cannot be easily dismissed by any democratic government. Paradoxically, this happened in a country that spends more than ₹3 trillion every year for the rural poor from the Central and State Budgets and bank-credit linked self-help programmes. Indeed, the ‘Mission Antyodaya’ project was a needed intervention.
The main objective of ‘Mission Antyodaya’ is to ensure optimum use of resources through the convergence of various schemes that address multiple deprivations of poverty, making gram panchayat the hub of a development plan. This planning process (whose intellectual heritage is traced to the people’s plan of Kerala) is supported by an annual survey that helps to assess the various development gaps at the gram panchayat level, by collecting data regarding the 29 subjects assigned to panchayats by the Eleventh Schedule of the Constitution.
These subjects are broken down into 112 parameters for data collection using detailed questionnaires. Also, data regarding health and nutrition, social security, good governance, water management and so on are also collected. The idea of the Ministry of Panchayati Raj to identify the gaps in basic needs at the local level, and integrating resources of various schemes, self-help groups, voluntary organisations and so on to finance them needs coordination and capacity-building of a high order. If pursued in a genuine manner, this can foster economic development and inter-jurisdictional equity. Although two major reports, one on infrastructure and service gaps and the other on a composite index, have been in the public domain, they do not seem to have attracted public discussion.
Gaps in gram panchayats
The ‘Mission Antyodaya’ survey in 2019-20 for the first time collected data that shed light on the infrastructural gaps from 2.67 lakh gram panchayats, comprising 6.48 lakh villages with 1.03 billion population. The data set updated annually enables development planning sectorally and spatially, from the village level to the State and the country as a whole. For an insight into the gap report, we may use the State-wise break-up of the score-values. The maximum score values assigned will add up to 100 and are presented in class intervals of 10. While no State in India falls in the top score bracket of 90 to 100, 1,484 gram panchayats fall in the bottom bracket. Even in the score range of 80 to 90, 10 States and all Union Territories do not appear. The total number of gram panchayats for all the 18 States that have reported adds up only to 260, constituting only 0.10% of the total 2,67,466 gram panchayats in the country. If we consider a score range of 70-80 as a respectable attainment level, Kerala tops but accounts for only 34.69% of gram panchayats of the State, the corresponding all-India average is as low as 1.09%. Even for Gujarat which comes next to Kerala, gram panchayats in this bracket are only 11.28%.
Social justice still distant
The composite index data, a sort of surrogate for human development, are also not encouraging. Although only 15 gram panchayats in the country fall in the bottom range below 10 scores, more than a fifth of gram panchayats in India are below the 40 range. All the gram panchayats in Kerala are above this and stand out in contrast to the rest of the States. While in the country as a whole only 7.37% have a composite index in the 70-100 bracket, Gujarat (which tops the list) has 20.5% in the range, followed by Kerala (19.77%) and Karnataka (17.68%). The gap report and the composite index show in unmistakable terms that building ‘economic development and social justice’ remains a distant goal even after 30 years of the decentralisation reforms and nearly 75 years into Independence.
Nearly four years have passed since the former Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, announced the Mission Project in his Budget speech of 2017-18 with the specific target “to make 50,000 gram panchayats poverty free by 2019, the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhiji”. Nothing happened but the goal posts have been moved to 2022, to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Independence, on August 15. Removing goal posts is a poor game.
Rectify these lapses
The scope to reduce the growing rural-urban disparities is tremendous. Given the ‘saturation approach’ (100% targets on select items) of the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, the possibilities of realising universal primary health care, literacy, drinking water supply and the like are also immense. But there is no serious effort to converge resources (the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the National Rural Livelihood Mission, National Social Assistance Programme, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, etc.) and save administrative expenses.
Another lapse is the failure to deploy the data to India’s fiscal federalism, particularly to improve the transfer system and horizontal equity in the delivery of public goods in India at the sub-State level. Evidently the Fifteenth Finance Commission has missed it. The constitutional goal of planning and implementing economic development and social justice can be achieved only through strong policy interventions. The policy history of India has been witness to the phenomenon of announcing big projects and failing to take them to their logical consequence. ‘Mission Antyodaya’ is a striking case in recent times.
M.A. Oommen is Honorary Fellow, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram and Distinguished Fellow, Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, Thiruvananthapuram