Delivery blues stalk success of social schemes

By Shailaja Fennell

 Inclusive development is much needed in India today. While the Budget states, ‘For the UPA government, inclusive development is an act of faith’, the Economic Survey suggests we should consider ‘a nation’s progress in terms of the progress of its poorest segment’.  The pathway to social transformation was identified in the Finance Minister’s speech as ‘the development of infrastructure in rural areas’ and ensuring we ‘strengthen food security, improve education opportunities and provide health facilities at the level of households’.

 The budget provided evidence of the centrality of inclusive development by allocating 37 per cent of the total plan outlay, at Rs 137,674 crore, to the social sector.  The pressing need to bring the rural economy into the fold of development is addressed through an outlay of another 25 per cent of the plan allocation of Rs 66,100 crore to rural development.  While these headline figures are definitely pointing to a move in the right direction, there is less certainty the path being indicated will provide a smooth ride.

 That there may be thorns strewn ahead is raised by individual allocations. There has been an increase from Rs 26,800 crore in the last budget to Rs 31,036 crore for school education and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan commended for making a ‘significant contribution’ resulting in primary school coverage extending to 98 per cent of homes at the end of 2009.  The achievement is noteworthy. But there is a also a sense of disquiet that there is no mention of the uphill task of rolling out Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan launched in March 2009 to increase access and improve the quality of secondary schooling.

 The absence of discussion on the poor delivery of government programmes, within a budget that identifies ‘weaknesses in government systems’, is even more worrying with regard to health. The poor delivery of the National Rural Health Mission has been criticised, and is in part due to the severely inadequate facilities in participating districts.

 The social sector flagship programme – Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA) – has been awarded Rs 40,100 crore.  Though the increase is to be welcomed, the expansion of the NREGA in the last financial year was part of a fiscal stimulus to support domestic demand, and greater coverage does not imply improved service delivery. Bharat Nirman has seen as increased allocation yet there was no explicit mention of sanitation, where notwithstanding the launch of a Total Sanitation Campaign in rural India, two-fifths of the population is still denied this basic right.

 The unevenness of social transformation that emerges from the current budget does give reason to tread carefully on the pathway indicated. While creating entitlements is the correct starting point, we need to ensure opportunities provided by public programmes do not continue to be plagued by weaknesses in government institutions and the associated poor delivery mechanisms.

 Appeared in Feb 2010 issue of Hindustan Times, New Delhi

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