Have The Chronically Poor Gained From The Poverty Alleviation Programmes?

Posted on January 10, 2011 in Society

By P. Alli:

Lear:  O reason, not need, our basest beggars,
Are in poorest things superfluous;
Allows not Nature more than Nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.

Chronic poverty — a multi-dimensional concept is one of the persistent and intractable problems being faced by the governments throughout the world.  And India is no such exception, which is home to almost 22 percent of the world’s poor. It is worth emphasizing that at the beginning of the new millennium, 260 million people in the country were deprived of accessing the ‘consumption basket’ defining the ‘poverty line’ (of these nearly 75 percent were in rural areas) [10th Five-Year Plan].  At the backdrop of this, the tall claims of the Indian government that poverty alleviation programmes indeed expanded the ‘capabilities’ and ‘choices’ of the chronically poor (largely the casual agricultural labourers and cultivators) seem to be contradictory and misleading.

The approach to overcoming chronic poverty have evolved in different directions especially since 1950s when it began to be recognized more than before that overall economic growth by itself could not bring about a reduction in poverty. Various poverty alleviation strategies complementary to one another in achieving the objectives came to be incorporated in the developments plans.

India spends a massive amount — as much as Rs. 17,856 crores (as per 9th FYP) on IRDP/SGRY and JRY/JGSY programmes.  Although the success of these anti-poverty strategies can be gauged from the decline in the poverty level from 37.27 percent (1993-94) to 27.09 percent (1999-00).  However, it has to be seen how far the poverty alleviation programmes were able to reach the targeted beneficiaries.  Now, we begin with the IRDP (1980) — a very gigantic scheme launched to improve the living conditions of the chronically rural poor whose income was less than Rs. 6,400 and possessing assets worth s. 4,000.  In fact, from 1980-81 to 1997-98, a total of 520.12 lakh families were assisted with an investment of Rs. 30.77 thousand crores (PEO, 2000), through the creation of self-employment opportunities.

The success of the programme is said to be reflected in the fact that there has been about ten percent increase in the coverage of families and about 71 percent increase in investment during the 7th Plan over the 6th Plan. Various surveys and studies however, present a rosy picture about the deplorable condition of the chronically poor across states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and West Bengal, in spite of the fact that the Employment Assurance Scheme (EAS, 1993), was especially designed for such drought affected, hilly and backward regions of the country. In fact, around 10,719.59 lakh man days of employment  was generated during the 8th Plan and 4,717.74 lakh man days during the first year of the 9th Plan, with wages being Rs. 70 per seven hours per day.  But the estimates of GoI, reveal a different story — there has been a percentage increase in the absolute number of chronically poor since 1983!  Besides, under JGSY (revamped JRY), it was found that the village panchayats of West Bengal and Orissa were able to get susbstantial amount of funds (more than Rs. 50,000 per annum); morever, the Food for Works Programme (2000-01) which aimed to supply the food grains to the backward states free of costs, seem to not have reached the targeted beneficiaries, which is very well reflected with cases like chronic unemployment and malnourishement in Orissa hitting the headlines every now and then.  Against an allocation of 35-31 lakh tonnes of food grains, only 21-36 percent lakh tonnes were lifted by the targeted states upto January, 2002.  So, what puzzles me is, why the entire allocated quantity could not reach the targeted states?

Having provided employment to around one-sixth to one-third of rural unemployed and under-employed in the state, the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Scheme (1977), was praised by a number of observers and advocated as a model for poverty alleviation programmes throughout South Asia (Dreze, 1988).  To say, that the programme was expanded from providing 4.5 million man days (1978) to around 190 million man days (1986).  Various surveys revealed that, although the expenditure for the programme amounted to as much as 10-14 percent of the total development budget of the state, but there was indeed a decline in the employment generation, i.e., 80-90 million man days in 1990.  What attributed to this decline?

The NREP and RLGP (6th and 7th Plan) was reported to have benefited around 36 percent of the landless labourers (PEO, 1999).  However, against 40 percent of the population in village panchayats who sought work, only 15 percent actually were employed.  Moreover, as against an assurance of 100 days of work, the programme barely provided around 50-60 man days per year.  Have any efforts been taken in rectifying these lacunae?

Besides the strategy of providing employment opportunities to alleviate chronic rural poverty, ceiling on land holdings were also considered to be an effective measure in improving the plight of landless.  At the end of the 8th Plan, 74.9 lakh acres were declared as ceiling surplus and 52.13 lakh acres were reported to have been distributed among 5.5 million beneficiaries.  But, by the end of the 9th Plan, the position virtually remained the same.  Then why was there no progress in the detection of concealed land and its distribution to landless?

Most of the poverty alleviation programmes share one thing in common — they provide employment in the lean season.  Then won’t this lead to casualisation?  Although, a quantum of work is provided by these programmes and wages paid to the beneficiaries; but what would be the plight of these persons at the end of work?  Will they be left behind to feed back to unemployed situation in which they were?  Above all, were the beneficiaries of these programmes, the ‘real’ beneficiaries or managed to become ‘beneficiaries’ through official inefficiency and connivance?  This question arises in the light of the fact that land transferred through land reform measures mostly went to the medium and small owners, already possessing land (C.H. Hanumantha Rao, 1988).

With the launch of a host of poverty-alleviation programmes by the so-called ‘pro-poor’ governments, I think that the need of the hour is probably to follow the maxim:  ‘To teach people to fish, instead of providing fish’!