The more things change for rural India, the more they seem to remain the same. Successive generations of Indians have dreamt that their lives would be transformed by the Green Revolution, food sufficiency, high yield technologies, liberalisation and so on.
But miracles have eluded us so far. Even transparent and rule-bound global trading hasn’t helped.
From the eighties’ Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) to the latest National Rural Employment Programme (NREP) our rural development plans have tackled extreme poverty but failed to boost earning capacities.
Successive Human Development Reports have recommended that the rural poor need to be equipped with resources and skills for livelihood options outside the cycle of subsistence agriculture, which needs investment in rural infrastructure.
The World Development Report’s definition of infrastructure includes public utilities like power, telecom, water, sanitation, and public works like roads, irrigation and drainage and transport like roads, railways, waterways and airports.
There is sufficient consensus among economists that high GDP growth rate does not necessarily promote human development by widening opportunities and choices for the marginalised sections.
Even political and social freedoms lose their meaning if a citizen has no access to markets for his needs or for his goods and services.
P Satish, a Nabard official has quoted several village based surveys in a recent paper to demonstrate that rural purchasing power and agricultural productivity are directly linked to transport, irrigation and research infrastructure.
A significant part of expenditure on agricultural research, infrastructure and healthcare has to come from government resources. R Radhakrishna who heads Mumbai-based Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research believes that public and private investments are complementary though private capital cannot substitute public investment.
He outlines India’s biggest concerns as decline in public investment, including in R&D, policy distortions and the challenges of limits to growth imposed by land and water resources.
The table below the graphic quantifies how every million rupee spent on roads and agricultural R&D significantly reduces poverty.
Healthy environment, clean water and good sanitation affect quality of life and longevity, the two biggest markers of human development.
A 2007 field study by Chandigarh-based researchers, B K Pattanaik and Madan Mohan Singh, concludes on the basis of various health surveys that as high as about 70 per cent of rural mortality can be attributed to poor environmental conditions.
Their study of a ‘total sanitation’ village in Kapurthala district shows that participation of the community, women and self-help groups play a more important role than just money. The findings further underscore the importance of inclusive policies and good governance.
NCAER’s Rural Infrastructure Report, 2006, recommends a multi-pronged strategy for the cash strapped Central and State governments.
It recommends that the private providers take care of telecom and power but a system of incentives, limited ownership and user charges be promoted for sectors like roads, drinking water and sanitation. In the case of the last mile of road connectivity, it recommends provision of building roads by village communities through targeted subsidies.
It calls for dismantling legal barriers that prevent local investment in rural areas. The current legal system forbids village or town-level transporters, networks of telephone exchanges or water distributors from operating legally.
Manmohan Singh’s most ambitious initiative, Bharat Nirman, addresses many of these concerns but one hopes it does not meet the fate of the earlier rural development programmes that ended up as examples of inefficiency, corruption and bureaucratic meddlesomeness.