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Should this be India’s future?

india Updated: Jun 27, 2012 15:52 IST
Namita Kohli

On a clear day, you can see the snowy massif of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain. Today, it is obscured by pouring rain and mist, so Saujendra Rai (29) takes us to his newly constructed kitchen, adjacent to his old, mud-coloured concrete house in the green hills of Sikkim. The utensils are neatly stacked and there’s a new maktoo (momo steamer) also.

Two years ago, Rai built a separate toilet as well.

Thanks to the state grants available for the roughly one million (officially) poor, Rai got R 15,000 to build his kitchen, and R 2,700 for the toilet. Since last year, wife Babita has also started earning

R 1,600 a month, working on a road project under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

For a poor farmer whose only work is to grow maize and potato on his half-acre of hilltop land here in eastern Sikkim, Rai has done rather well.

“Here, if you have a BPL (below poverty line) card, you don’t need to spend a single paisa out of your pocket,” said Bimal Rasaily, a government horticulture inspector in state capital Gangtok. “From a house to a cow, there’s a scheme to fulfill every need.”

As a faltering UPA government — 14 months into its second term — debates recreating its agenda for inclusive growth and food security for nearly 400 million officially poor, India’s second smallest state — with 5.4 million people it makes up only 0.05 per cent of the population — is ready with a model that experts feel could be refashioned for the country beyond.

By 2015, Sikkim says it will deliver all this to its one million poor people: a job, a pucca (proper) house, a bank account and health and accident insurance. Four-term Chief Minister Pawan Chamling proposes to make the state as he likes to say, India’s first “poverty free” state by 2015.

By then, India’s poverty and maternal mortality rates may have worsened. But Sikkim, with its high per capita income — at R 25,257, it’s the highest in the North-East, and only slightly lower than the national average of R 25,494 — is the only state that has advanced as far on the path to inclusive growth.

On July 24, Chamling, (60) — a former government contractor who took charge of the state in 1994 — described his vision to the Prime Minister and other chief ministers at a meeting of the National Development Council: a poverty free, literate, self-reliant, healthy and green state with organic farming.

His idea is to give the poor a slew of subsidies and social security benefits. India already has many, but with only R 1 of every R 7 spent actually reaching the poor, the challenge is to deliver smart, efficient implementation.

One national scheme that has changed many lives in Sikkim is the MGNREGA or “Negra”, in local slang. Sikkim’s poor find work for 80 days. The national average: 54 days.

Farmer Zymang Bhutia, 40, explained how he got R 8,000 for working on an irrigation channel near his house in eastern Sikkim, a hefty supplement for his monthly income that he says is roughly R 2,000. Moreover, Bhutia said that for the first time in his life, villagers such as him are getting the water in their fields, and have managed to grow paddy in it.

“The implementation of MGNREGA in Sikkim could be a lesson for rest of the country,” said Professor Ajay V Dandekar of the Institute of Rural Management Anand, (IRMA), Gujarat.

An IRMA study concluded in July this year explains why it is working:

All work is chosen, planned, budgeted and recommended by village councils.

There’s a toll-free helpline for complaints and an independent ombudsman.

More than 80 per cent of 54,000 households who got work are paid through accounts in banks and post offices.

For one of the UPA government’s flagship programmes, the budget for MGNREGA has surged by more than 150 per cent to R 41,000 crore in 2010-11. Yet, a third of this money will be filched, mostly during cash payments made by petty officials.

“We are discouraging cash payments entirely,” said Dr Sandeep Tambe, 39, Sikkim’s MGNREGA director. Tambe’s team has devised EASY, or Estimation Automation Software. The computer application really is as easy as its name implies.

If a gram sabha (village council) inputs, say, the length and width of a pond, the software provides technical, and social estimates: how many cement bags, trucks, bricks and workers.

“It will also help villagers monitor the supplies better ,” explained Dinchen Namdul, 24, a civil engineer and designer of the software.

The IRMA study also highlights how MGNREGA has worked for women: its equal wage policy and the assurance of working close to home has taken their participation to 56 percent. The national average is 40 per cent.

In a country where 122 million households have no toilets and nearly 11 million houses (out of the 138 million in rural areas) need replacement, Sikkim is also leading with its twin goals of housing and total sanitation.

By 2011, the state claims it will be free of kutcha (thatched, straw, bamboo) houses, replacing them with bright new houses: red concrete with green roofs.

This month, the state has also launched its unique Universal Financial Inclusion scheme: All married women get a smart card, an initial deposit of

R 1,000 and insurance cover against accident and property losses. In a country where over 500 million adults are excluded from the formal banking network, this could further empower the state’s poor.

But state largesse can be a double-edged sword. Does Sikkim — and India — want a majority of people depending on the state? And funds reaching those who don’t need it?

“Independent monitoring and evaluation is required,” said Professor Mahendra P Lama, vice chancellor, Sikkim University and former Chief Economic Adviser to the state government. “We also need to ask whether these subsidies are sustainable.”

Other damning statistics: A steep rise in female mortality in the age-group of 29-55 years and an 80 per cent dropout rate in schools, according to a report by the Human Resource Development ministry.

Animal husbandry, an important source of income for Sikkimese — only 11 per cent of the area is under agriculture — needs to be developed, according to the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development.

Local activists point out to the environmental threat from 29 hydel power projects. Seven of these are planned in the Dzongu area of North Sikkim, home to 10,000-odd people of the Lepcha tribe. “We are becoming homeless in our own home,” said an angry Sherap Lepcha, 35, of the NGO Affected Citizens of Teesta. At least four projects have been stalled recently following vehement protests by groups such as Lepcha’s.

“We need education and proper representation, not just a certificate that classifies us as a primitive tribe,” said Lepcha. “The state’s largesse never reaches the real poor.” For a welfare state, Sikkim still has some way to go and some big questions to answer.

(Re-Imagining India is a joint initiative of Hindustan Times and Mint to track and understand policy reforms that could, if successful, transform India’s efforts at inclusive growth.)