Prime Minister Manmohan Singh complimented his government on the progress of flagship programmes in his opening statement at the national press conference held recently, but was candid about challenges related to their implementation.
UPAs schemes for the poor have been at the core of the governments inclusive development agenda and were credited with bringing Congress back to power. Yet the government is unable to implement well the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and National Rural Health Mission (NRHM).
Experts say though UPA has a good thing going with the social sector programmes, poor implementation will fuel a popular backlash if inclusive growth fails to show concrete results.
Even government circles are conscious of the timely delivery of four major rural development schemes NREGA, NRHM, education initiative through Sarva Sikha Abhiyan (SSA) and rural infrastructure development programme, Bharat Nirman.
Of these, NREGA has been allocated most funds (Rs 40,000 crore in Budget 2010-11) and continues to be the centre-piece of governments social development agenda. It is the worlds largest social security programme, targeting 4.5 crore people. According to Planning Commission member Mihir Shah, NREGA has a revolutionary architecture, but is performing way below potential. He says problems with its implementation are massive delays in payment of wages and inability to create durable assets linked to water and livelihood security. The latter issue with NREGA is contested by top policy framers in government who say NREGA will soon come out with a green account of all productive works linked to land, water and forests undertaken through the programme.
Mr Shahs problems with NREGA also have to do with the way work is planned in the scheme. He says the job scheme was planned as a bottom up programme where work would be demand driven and decided by the needs of the local community.
However, lack of awareness and shortage of technical support has meant that the scheme has fallen into the old pattern of directions flowing from the top. Another area, where the scheme is faltering is social audit. Social audit is what I call the differentia specifica of the scheme. Yet, there are very few instances of social audit. Corruption is a problem as so much money has never entered rural India. There needs to be mechanism to keep tabs over the cores of rupees in the scheme, he says.
NRHM, unlike NREGA, is underfinanced as compared to the 89,500 crore (approx) promised to it in the 11th Plan. According to figures compiled by the Centre for Budget and Government Accountability (CBGA), an NGO, the NRHM has received just 57.5% of the funds allocated to it in the first four years of the 11th Plan (2007-08-2010-11). However, its problems are not very dissimilar from NREGA when it comes to finding human resources for managing the programme.
Amit Sengupta, who is with the Delhi Science Forum and the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, says there has been an improvement in the public health infrastructure after NRHM but says it is nowhere near enough. The principal issue with NRHM, according to him, has to do with financing. As a share of GDP, public expenditure on health continues to remain at 1% in India, less than the 2-3% promised by UPA when it first came to power and much less than the 5% recommended by the World Health Organisation.
He says the Centres argument that the states cannot absorb more than what is already being set aside is not incorrect but adds: Thats like saying a scooter is not working properly, when you are actually aspiring for a car. For a car, you will have to do something much beyond what you now have. There is only a level to which you can make the scooter work, he says.
Mr Sengupta says a much larger infusion of funds for infrastructure creation is the key to making the public health system work. This includes having many more health workers. The Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) for each village envisaged by the scheme is well-intended, he says, but points out that their services are voluntary and restricted to reproductive and child health. According to him problems with the proper resourcing of ASHAs, and the PPP model in secondary and tertiary health care have bogged down NRHM.
Though SSA and Bharat Nirman programmes have their own challenges, it is NREGA primarily, followed by NRHM, which have been the faces of the governments development plank. There will be a backlash across the country if objectives of the schemes are not met. The pressure from below will push the government to perform. The outlays have been made and people will want to know where are the outcomes, Mr Shah says.
The prime minister appears more than aware of these pressures going by his statements at the national press conference.