theindialog

October 23, 2009

Meeting the Bihar Government

Filed under: Bihar,Conversation,Economics,Education,NREGS,Politics — loggers @ 12:09 am

RCP Singh

Mr. Singh is the Principal Secretary of Bihar. He has immense responsibility on his shoulders as he is responsible for executing the state government’s plans. We met him at his chamber which is located next to the chief minister’s office.

When we walked into his office, Mr. Singh was sitting with members of a tribal group who had come in with a list of demands. The CM is due to visit their village in a month and is likely to announce a set of steps aimed at economically empowering the community. Listening to the conversation, we learnt about various interesting facets of the state and got a sense of the precepts of the Bihar government.

Cash Transfers

The government of Bihar believes in direct cash transfers to the beneficiaries of a proposed scheme. It trusts the people more than the bureaucracy and believes that leakage is minimized as a result of this practice. According to Mr. Singh, there is a 10-15% chance of misuse of funds when such transfers take place and this outcome is better than relying on governmental agencies for procurement or dissemination of goods. He highlighted the success of 2 schemes as a testament to his mantra – the ‘Bicycles for Girls’ scheme and the ‘Uniforms for Girls’ scheme. Girls aged 11 and upwards are given money for procurement of a bicycle and school uniforms. This has, apparently, reduced dropout rates among girls by alleviating the financial burden on their families.

How Footballs Are Changing Lives

According to the villagers and Mr. Singh, football has had a transformational impact on certain youngsters in the state. In Mr. Singh’s words, “1 football keeps 2 dozen young men busy.” In the absence of a recreational activity that keeps them gainfully occupied, these men would have been vulnerable to Naxalism – an epidemic in this part of the country. The game does a world of good to their stamina and induces them to apply for positions in the Indian Army and other security forces. A number of young tribals in the region have chosen law enforcement over agriculture as their profession. In fact, while we were in Kashmir, we had met a young tribal jawaan from Jharkhand. The government is planning to endow a number of villages with the necessary equipment for them to enjoy the game.

This, we think, is an amazing story of a small investment having a tremendous impact.   

NREGS

While in Punjab, we had heard industrialists lamenting the loss of cheap labor from states like Bihar and UP. They blamed NREGS for their loss. Accordingly, we were hoping to find NREGS eulogies in Bihar. To our surprise, we were told that NREGS has, in fact, not been as effective as it is made out to be, due to leakages in the elusive ‘system.’ Wage rates in Bihar are as high as INR 150, corroborated by our conversation with Chotey, our mason friend. Demand for labor – both skilled and unskilled – has risen in the recent past due to the infrastructural work in progress. Thus, the migrant labor pool has shrunk.

Law & Order

Mr. Singh also informed us about the CM’s Durbar, which has been a cornerstone initiative of the government led by Nitish Kumar. Every Monday, the chief minister meets citizens of his state and listens to their complaints. Each Monday has a different theme ranging from law and order to health to infrastructure. Officials from the concerned departments are encouraged to attend the durbar so that the process of resolution of matters is kick-started. It appears that this been a great learning exercise for the administration since it notifies the officials of the systemic issues that need attention.

According to Mr. Singh, the greatest numbers of grievances come in on the first Monday of every month when law and order problems are entertained. Hence, the government has focused on resolving issues related to law order ever since it came into power. It boasts of a robust speedy trial system which has convicted wrongdoers at a record pace. This seemed like a reasonable way to address the multifaceted problems of Bihar as sound law and order is a prerequisite to any sort of economic activity.

Nitish Kumar

We got a chance to meet the chief minister himself, albeit briefly. He beamed with avuncular pride as we explained our travels. He appreciated the initiative and spoke about the cultural affinity that Indians tend to have with the railways. As opposed to the ex-chief minister, Laloo Yadav, Mr. Kumar was genuinely interested in our story and gave us his undivided attention. He was very approving of our idea to blog our experiences. Here he cited the example of Xuanzang who recorded his visit to Nalanda. That account has been extremely helpful in understanding one of the world’s oldest universities. The chief minister urged us to visit the Patna museum and the Khuda Bakhsh library, 2 stellar monuments.

After meeting the 2 most important figures of the Bihar government, we certainly felt that they are sincere about fixing the state. It is difficult to ascertain the effectiveness of their actions. For that we’ll have to wait till the assembly elections which will be held next year.

October 8, 2009

Thoughts on NREGS

Filed under: Economics,NREGS,Politics — loggers @ 7:53 pm

One of the studies we’ve been performing nationally is a practical review of the implementation, and impact, of NREGS – considered the UPA’s flagship scheme. We’ve found that the plan has evoked all sorts of reactions: praise in Rajasthan, inapplicability in Gujarat, censure in Punjab and constructive criticism in Kashmir. Writing in the Indian Express, Ashwani Kumar avows:

The truth is that the fate of NREGA and democracy in India are intertwined. In fact, NREGA is locked in an eccentric paradox: its promise to secure rural livelihood is embedded in the decentralization of state power, but its implementation is unfortunately driven by a multilayered, centralized, bureaucratic mode of governance.

Dr. Kumar’s assertion is in line with our findings. After having toured 14 Indian states thus far, we are of the opinion that micromanagement of schemes such as this must be the district’s prerogative. The needs of every region are diverse and having a restrictive, centralized structure inhibits the right kind of realization. The difference between a relatively successful NRHM and an evolving NREGS is the manner in which it is executed.

The entrepreneurial energy of the districts must be given a chance to flourish. This necessitates a move from autocratic implementation to accountable allocation. What we are thinking is fundamental: more power to the people.

September 2, 2009

Notes From Israma: Mineral Water Plant & NREGS

Filed under: Economics,Gujarat,NREGS — loggers @ 5:08 pm

Reverse Osmosis Water Plant

After seeing the Amul operation at Israma, the sarpanch (head) of the village took us to a “mineral water plant” installed in the community. We learnt that an ex-resident of the village, who is now settled abroad, had donated an INR 250,000 reverse osmosis water plant to the community. Water from the plant is sold for INR 0.25/liter to the villagers who use it for all domestic purposes. Revenue generated from sales is used for maintenance. The low price makes clean water an affordable utility and reduces wastage of a precious resource. Moreover, the practice of making regular payments for utilities is a positive step towards good civic discipline. Lastly, clean water will reduce the incidence/spread of water-borne diseases. We thought this was a remarkable initiative which could be replicated in other villages across the country.

RO Plant Installed In Israma

RO Plant Installed In Israma

NREGS

We learnt that the NREGS has not taken off in Israma. The numbers confirm this fact. 3 factors explain this phenomenon:

  1. Literacy rates are high in the village and majority of the youth move to urban areas in search for skilled jobs.
  2. Physical infrastructure in Gujarat is much better relative to other states in the country. Therefore, there is little (if any) need for locals to work on infrastructure projects.
  3. Primary sector employment and opportunities to generate a supplementary income (think Amul) are abundant.

August 16, 2009

An Evening with the Zargars

Filed under: Conversation,Economics,J&K,NREGS,Politics — loggers @ 5:29 pm

Dr. Jaleel Ahsan Zargar, Lecturer in Philosophy at the Women’s College in Anantnag, hosted us during our trip to Salian in the Seer district of J&K. We discussed the Kashmir issue, topics on Islam, youth exposure to education, and NREGS.

Dr. Zargar and his brother, Qayoom Zargar, share their messages for us:

According to Mr. Qayoom Zargar:

  1. The cap on 100 days of employment per annum should be removed.
  2. Construction of sanitation facilities, bylanes should be part of the approved projects list.
  3. Construction of rain water harvesting facilities should be encouraged under the scheme.
  4. More than 1 member of every household should be allowed to work.
  5. The spend ratio, labour:equipment (60:40), is too restrictive.

Ludhiana, NREGS, Dr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia

Filed under: Conversation,Economics,NREGS,Punjab,Small Businesses — loggers @ 4:14 pm

Our stay in Ludhiana revolved around multiple factory visits. In the richest district and most populous city of Punjab, we toured a small (Rajnish International), a medium (Avon Cycles) and a large manufacturing unit (Vardhman Spinning). We were fortunate enough to meet the proprietors of 2 of the 3 factories and seek their thoughts on business conditions in India. Specifically, we asked them about the impact of NREGS on their concern.

The Chairman of Rajnish International (an automotive components manufacturer), Mr. Rajnish Ahuja, spoke candidly about the ramifications of NREGS. According to him, the scheme epitomizes “political corruption.” He lamented the inadequate supply of labor from states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which has led to a sharp escalation of wages. According to him, salaries for unskilled labour have gone up by 200-300% as a result of the scheme. This increase in labour costs has compelled him to consider a move towards a capital-intensive production chain. This was evident in the factory as we saw that most of the labour was employed for low skill jobs such as alignment, material moving or handling. Mr. Ahuja believes that the labour force has become lazy due to the availability of free money and has been given unfair bargaining power. For over a decade, he paid INR 2,000/month/head. Now, he must recalibrate that figure.

Outside almost every factory in Ludhiana, we saw ‘wanted’ posters soliciting skilled labour. Due to the pre-existing shortage of skilled manpower, coupled with consequences of NREGS, wages for skilled labour have also gone up. Since factories are cutting down on labour usage in production and are moving towards a more mechanized process, demand for skilled labour seems to have also increased. Again, business owners are slow, if not reluctant, to accept this change. This, we think, is neo-capitalism in India – labour is no longer inexpensive.

In Delhi, we met the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Dr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, in order to seek his thoughts on NREGS. He sees the scheme as a “social security provision”, one that is not supposed to train people. When asked about the impact the scheme has had on the industrial sector in the form of a higher wage bill, he acknowledged that this was an intended, and even welcomed, consequence. He did acknowledge that the lack of long term skill development was a concern. About the restrictive approved projects list that NREGS beneficiaries and contractors have to abide by, Dr. Ahluwalia pointed to other public welfare schemes that address the relevant issues. Dr. Ahluwalia urged us to visit a dozen districts where the scheme is being implemented in order to check the actual progress of the programme. This, he felt, would be a meaningful study.

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