Rural economy will propel GDP
What have been the significant achievements of your Ministries in the last two years? What have been the challenges so far?
I have the charge of three Ministries: Rural Development, the key area is seventy percent of India’s population residing in villages, then Panchayati Raj which is looking after the interest of primary grassroots units of democracy, and lastly Drinking Water and Sanitation under which the Swachh Bharat Mission is being successfully implemented. When you are dealing with seventy percent of the rural population of the country then there are several challenges that you face.
One major impediment is that, since Independence, there has been minimal improvement in village life (in terms of infrastructure and development). Also, the economic condition hasn’t really improved for rural India. Most people in rural areas are still living in poverty, distress, and lack the necessary exposure in general. In the last two years of the NDA government, one of the major challenges has been giving exposure to this large size of the rural population. I made it a priority to expedite the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) and take it to exemplary height. Our government has brought forward the target date by three years from 2022 to 2019 to achieve complete rural connectivity through all-weather roads under PMGSY.
The work done by our government in the last two years is much greater compared to what the UPA did in its last two years in power. During the UPA’s tenure, 73.5 km road was constructed per day; while in 2015-16, we have achieved 100-km per day target. We have been able to construct 46,000 km road in one-and-a-half years. This is a record in itself. In 2016-17, we will be taking this further from 100 km to 130 km per day. For 2017-18 and 2018-19, we plan to increase it to 165 km per day. This is a major breakthrough in the connectivity sector which is very important for any area which is remote or inaccessible.
Regarding Swachh Bharat Mission, have your targets been met?
The Swachh Bharat Mission is not just confined to toilets. The other crucial areas include management of liquid and solid waste and making provision for drinking water. We aim at making India Open Defecation Free (ODF) completely by October 2, 2019, with which we will mark Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. Our (the NDA government’s) achievements in the past two years are 95 percent more than that of the UPA-II in the corresponding period. Our achievements have exceeded 95 percent, which is much higher than our own set target. The country needs 8.18 crore toilets, of which we already have 2.37 crore in place.
A survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) in April indicated that 94.6 percent of the toilets are functional. This is encouraging. As on March 31, 2016, 13 districts, 178 blocks, 23,045 Gram Panchayats, and 54,732 villages have declared themselves as ODF. Numbers are also indicators that we are moving in the right direction. Since the launch of the mission on October 2, 2014, 176.89 lakh toilets have already been constructed, in addition to 10.89 lakh built under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) as on March 31, 2016.
How do you plan to tackle the drought crisis? Are you going to allocate more funds for it?
The four key Ministries - Agriculture, Home, Water Resource, and Drinking Water - have been involved in dealing with the situation. This has affected one-fourth of India. I congratulate each drought-hit state for promptly dealing with the situation. Prime Minister Narendra Modiji called a meeting of CMs and discussed how their problems could be solved with Central help.
When the PM talked about cooperative federalism, the response from most states was positive. There is no dearth of funds to tackle drought. As per the sharing pattern, each state has to contribute 50 percent. We have sent Rs 1,900 crore to the states. It means that the states have Rs 3,800 crore to fight drought. We are hopeful that this year there will be a better monsoon. The situation has already become slightly better in some coastal areas with showers received in Odisha, Tamil Nadu and even Karnataka.
How would you assess the implementation of MGNREGA, given the constant flak from the Opposition?
MGNREGA required a complete transformation as during the UPA rule, there was absolute disenchantment from the beneficiaries about how the programme was implemented. Repeated scandals related to the programme came up during the Congress regime - starting from gram panchayat to higher levels. Complaints regarding delay in payments, duplicity in accounting, even the muster role was fabricated and job cards were not AADHAR-linked. We (the NDA government) corrected all these anomalies.
Now, we have made it mandatory that all beneficiaries should link their job cards with their AADHAR ids. As per the new legislation when funds are to be transferred from consolidated funds from the Centre or state to some individual’s account then for that, the AADHAR card is a must. Also, muster roll has been completely digitised. This means that when a muster roll is now prepared it is immediately uploaded to the main server with all the information. This move has increased the efficiency in monitoring data and brought in complete transparency in the system. There is almost 94 percent of e-fund management system being implemented for the muster roll.
The entire process of transfer of wages to the beneficiary’s account is now being done through Direct Benefit Transfer (BDT). This was tested as a pilot project in Kerala where it was implemented from January 1, 2016, and the results were very successful. After that, now, it is applicable in 11 states and in another 6 months it should be operational in the entire country. For the financial year 2015-16 the programme has witnessed highest ever personday generation (235 crore persondays) in the last five years. Since the inception of PMGSY, the highest expenditure on MGNREGA in 2015-16 has been Rs 43,068 crore. National Electronic Fund Management System (NeFMS) has been introduced in 10 states under the programme. E-muster roll system has been made fully operational. Also, 95 percent of wages have gone directly to the accounts of the MGNREGA workers in 2015-16.
Tell us about the fifty percent reservation for women in Panchayati Raj intuitions.
There are about more than a dozen states that have given fifty percent reservation to women in panchayats, local bodies, and municipal committees. This is a very progressive and good move. We are also mulling to bring in legislation in Parliament, so that other states should also follow and implement this.
How would you rate the success of Shyama Prasad Mukherji National Rurban Mission since its launch?
There is a constant trend in India of villagers migrating to bigger towns and cities. This is because when they don’t have something like agriculture to fall back on, then it becomes very difficult for them to survive. The challenge was to stop it. That can only be done when there are economic activity and provision of infrastructure in the village itself. For that, we introduced the Rurban Mission, which essentially focuses on creating a cluster of villages.
The mission aims to create 300 such Rurban growth clusters over the next 3 years, across the country. In this year, we have already launched 98 clusters and in the years to come, we will be launching 100 clusters per year. The clusters will be geographically contiguous Gram Panchayats with a population of about 25000 to 50000 in plain and coastal areas and a population of 5000 to 15000 in desert, hilly, or tribal areas. Under the Rurban Mission, the basic aim is to create critical infrastructure in rural areas like 24x7 power and water supply, drainage, quality education, including higher education, and good referral system of health, Singh said. As a value addition, we want to create economic activity in rural areas with a focus on job creation.
What according to you will be the fate of the Land Bill?
The matter still rests with the Joint Committee of Parliament.
What is your vision for the Ministry in the coming years?
My vision is very clear - equipped with all the logistic support (essential to the economic development of rural India) we should put in all our efforts to promote the rural economy. This is supplemented by the support of technology and external factors such as the PPP model. As a result of this endeavour, the economy will rapidly grow. A growth in the rural economy means there will be a quantum jump in our GDP as well.
(Tania Ameer is Special Correspondent, Millennium Post.)