India is already into its 12th Five Year Plan and this will see the country through the 2015 deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in rural areas. To face the challenge of reducing extreme rural poverty, significant public resources have been made available to provincial governments. Centrally sponsored programmes for education, employment, health and sanitation have been designed to address the eight goals and 18 MDG targets. The National Food Security Act, 2013 aims to tackle the scourge of child and maternal malnourishment on a massive scale.
No one denies that these programmatic interventions are critical to the inclusion of marginalised communities. The key question, however, remains: can we do better at the grassroots to optimise the MDG outcomes, especially in education and health? And if so, what are some of the identifiable institutional bottlenecks that need to be prioritised and systemically reformed?
One key institutional challenge is to converge programme implementation in rural areas by enforcing 'activity mapping' through panchayati raj institutions (PRIs). Here, the central government and the states have to actualise the principle of subsidiarity - what can be best done at lower levels of government should not be centralised at higher levels. Empowering PRIs with funds, functions and functionaries (3Fs) is a critical incentive to build the institutional capacity of these last mile bodies to execute basic infrastructural needs.
A successful example of the above strategy is the initiative taken by the government of Gujarat, which has separated power supply for tubewells used for agriculture from other rural non-farm connections (school and hospitals) and imposed an eight-hour a day power ration which is of high quality. This has been converged through PRIs with an intensive block-wise aquifer mapping exercise and a massive water harvesting structure renovation campaign. Such convergence has led to outcomes like halving of power subsidy, stabilisation of groundwater resources and improved power supply in the rural economy.
A second challenge is strengthening public communication and community mobilisation to bring about changes in social norms. The latter often stand in the way of MDG programmatic interventions in areas such as livelihood security, immunisation, explaining contraceptive methods, promoting improved sanitation, organising nutrition supplementation schemes, counselling pregnant or lactating women, etc.
In this context, Vidiyal in Tamil Naidu is an example of an NGO that has successfully innovated to make the concept of a rural women livelihood collective into a reality through the use of mobile telephony by using 'Lifelong Learning for Farmers' (L3F), an open and distance learning application technology, to promote community banking among 5,000 women. The last mile achievement was the building of their capacity, in the face of social barriers, about value chain linkages for sheep and goat production in the global market.
The third challenge is of making qualitative improvements in the MDG target for food absorption, especially for women and children. A comprehensive and functional national nutrition strategy, run through the midday meal scheme and the Integrated Child Development Services, has to enable the creation of quality rural infrastructure.
Efficient, transparent and accountable governance by periodic assessment of the outlined MDG targets through social audits is a must. This specially needs to be addressed in the context of the socio-economic backwardness of some individual districts, several of which are located in states that are doing well economically.
Abhilaksh Likhi is an IAS officer and currently a senior fellow at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC
The views expressed are personal