Seeking to push the ambitious Bharat Nirman programme to improve rural infrastructure, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday told district administrators to focus on improving the economy of agriculture to alleviate the rural distress on a sustainable basis.
"Even now agriculture sustains over 70 per cent of our rural population. The Government schemes can only act either as social safety nets or inputs to better agriculture. Till we focus on the larger goal of improving the economy of agriculture itself, we cannot alleviate rural distress on a sustainable basis," he said pointing to the crisis in agriculture in many parts of the country.
Inaugurating the conference on District Rural Development Agencies (DRDA), he said, while improvement in rural infrastructure, employment generation and asset creation through wage employment programme and investment in agriculture were all important, the final goal was to improve the conditions in which agriculture was practised.
The prime minister asked the officials to draw up district agriculture plans and dovetail the programmes under the Bharat Nirman to improve agriculture incomes.
Observing that many of the states were still lagging behind in achieving the target in rural roads and housing, he said, "as for rural roads - there are seven states - Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, which together account for over 90 per cent of the prevailing backlog".
In rural housing, against an overall shortage of about 148 lakh, it was possible to provide 60 lakh houses, Singh said. The government has committed that all uncovered habitations would be covered under the rural water supply by 2009, he added.
"On all these three components of Bharat Nirman, we look for time-bound action by state governments," he told the young officials gathered from across the country.
Noting that health standards of people cannot improve if there was no investment in sanitation, he said, there was a need for appropriate strategies and not just more financial resources.
He suggested that the rural sanitation programme could make effective use of community health activist 'ASHA' placed in every village to create awareness about hygiene.
Turning to the ambitious National Rural Employment Guarantee programme, Singh said, though nearly 88 lakh people were working in over 2.42 lakh development works, the programme has not been uniform across the states.
"The slow response in some states may be partly on account of low demand but in many states it may also be on account of delays in putting effective administrative arrangements in place," he said.
The Centre desired the programme to create durable assets and strengthen the Panchayati Raj institutions, since at least 50 per cent of works would be routed through them, he added.
The prime minister said over 1.58 lakh works were in the area of water conservation and this was a huge opportunity opened up by the National Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).
"NREGA is a programme for societal transformation. It needs effective watchdogs from society. Panchayats and civil society organisations should be seen as complementary... NGOs and citizens groups should use instruments like the Right to Information Act to increase accountability and transparency under the NREGA", he said.
Singh said the programmes under Bharat Nirman reinforce the need to strengthen the planning system at the district level. "We need to commit greater professional resources at the district level," he said.
Minister of Rural Development Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and Minister of State Surykanta Patil also attended the function.