IN DELHI’S CORRIDORS of power, Government officials are busy filling up a 109-page questionnaire sent to each ministry to weigh delivery against promises made ahead of the General Election of 2014. With just a year to go for the next, the Modi Government has started taking stock of its achievements. The plan is to tell its story of inclusive development through numbers. Sample this: as per government data till March 23rd, 2018, of the over 35 million free LPG connections given under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, 29.9 per cent have been distributed to Dalits, a section that constitutes 16.2 per cent of the country’s population. Scheduled Tribes, who form 8.2 per cent of India, have got 14.3 per cent of the new connections. Non-SC/ST Hindus, accounting for over 60 per cent, have got 39.6 of the total. In Uttar Pradesh, where SCs make up 21.1 per cent of the state, they account for 40.5 per cent of the 6.5 million connections awarded. In Punjab, the state with the highest proportion of Dalits, at 28.9 per cent, they have got 68 per cent of these giveaways. In Karnataka, where SCs and STs together make up 22.8 per cent of all people, the two communities have been beneficiaries of 47.3 per cent of the connections given out. At the current pace of gas enrolment, say Central sources, 50 million new connections would have been given out by December 2018 across the country.
While critics and economists cite figures like the economy’s growth, investment rate and so on that make for a sobering scenario, the Government is counting on its flagship schemes to spell hope for the impoverished. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s opponents may have dubbed some of these schemes ‘old wine in new bottles’, but he has turned the focus of attention on India’s have-nots, plugging leakages in welfare systems and pushing for last-mile delivery. Of the 60-odd Government schemes since independence, about one-fourth have been rolled out by the Modi Government. “After independence, one of the greatest challenges was identifying real beneficiaries, essentially weeding out undeserving candidates, and making the processes transparent,” says Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan. “The [Ujjwala scheme] is completely technology-based and one of the most transparently implemented schemes we have had in the country.”
This February, the Government enhanced the target for its gas scheme under which families below the poverty line are provided connections in the name of a woman of the household. The Ministry is monitoring its implementation and keeping track of beneficiaries.
“The best thing about gas is that it gives us time to think bigger,” says Sasmita Naik, gram pradhan of Odisha’s Haripur village and a mother of a four-month-old who got a connection under the scheme after her village was selected for a broader programme, the Gram Swaraj Abhiyaan. Till then, she had never expected to host a Union minister one day, but Pradhan himself was there for the inaugural ceremony.
ACCORDING TO PRADHAN, the scheme’s aim is to use LPG as a catalyst for social change: “It is not merely a new gas connection, but a tool to enhance the health and socio- economic indicators of women from less privileged sections of society.” The revised target, now at 80 million by 2020, will cover all SC/ST households, beneficiaries of the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), forest dwellers, Most Backward Classes (MBCs) and tea garden residents, besides poor households identified by the Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC). “Some of these NDA initiated welfare measures could have been undertaken earlier, but were not. While the drive to contain the misuse of LPG cylinders had begun under the UPA regime—that is, prior to this NDA Government— Mr Modi succeeded in adding urgency to it with the slogan, ‘Give it up’,” observes Professor Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist.
Modi’s opponents may have dubbed some of the schemes ‘old wine in new bottles’, but the Prime Minister has turned the focus of attention on India’s have-nots, plugging leakages in welfare systems and pushing for last-mile delivery
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Launched two years ago in Ballia, an economically backward district of eastern UP on the Bihar border, the Ujjwala scheme was seen as a significant factor in the BJP sweep of the state polls last year. The party, which holds 69 of the 85 reserved Assembly seats in UP, captured a large chunk of the BSP’s Dalit vote. While BSP chief Mayawati focused on Jatavs and Chamars, ati-Dalits moved towards the BJP. Similarly, among OBCs, who constitute around half the country’s population, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party concentrated on Yadavs in the state (which has over 70 OBC castes), but this left space for the BJP to reach out to its Most Backward Castes (MBCs). The party also has all of UP’s Lok Sabha seats reserved for SC candidates. For 2019, thus, the party needs similar if not greater SC and OBC support.
The Prime Minister has put himself in the forefront of the effort to deliver developmental benefits to the poor. At a personal level, he has been making it a point to underscore his ‘chaiwaala’ (tea seller) past, trying to touch a chord among the deprived by conveying that he empathises with them. BJP leaders say that Modi’s emphasis on a pro-poor agenda in his speeches, interviews and interactions are sufficient to convey his priorities to his Council of Ministers and others in the BJP, once dubbed a ‘Brahmin- Bania party’. Modi, they say, is committed to empowering the poor across caste and religious lines, as against handing out populist doles.
One of the schemes the BJP is expected to flaunt in the run-up to 2019 is village electrification, a promise made four years ago. As Modi tweeted last month, ‘28th April 2018 will be remembered as a historic day in the development journey of India. Yesterday, we fulfilled a commitment due to which the lives of several Indians will be transformed forever! I am delighted that every single village of India now has access to electricity.’ Under the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana, which incorporated the 2005 Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutkaran Yojana to give all households access to the power grid and free electricity to homes below the poverty line, the Modi Government had promised on Independence Day 2015 that it would have 18,458 villages linked to the grid by May 1st, 2018.
Jagdev, a resident of Sonbarsa village in UP’s Gonda district, recalls seeing electricity cables lying around since he was a child in the early 1980s while his village remained in darkness. Around three-four years ago, tired of waiting for electricity supply, he and some other villagers decided to pool funds for the private purchase of a ‘transformer’. “We managed to get electricity privately. Now, the government has got electricity poles and put up meters,” he says. “Nearby villages like Khairani, Mauja Chadauwa and Karnipur have got power six months ago.” Jagdev harbours the hope that it is only a matter of time before his home too gets power, officially.Only 10 per cent or more of all houses in a village need to have power for it to qualify as ‘electrified’; and by the latest Government data, 15 per cent of the country’s homes still have no power. “The electrification of villages is another big bang event, but the flip side of it is that it has drawn attention to homes that are still waiting to be lit,” says Professor Gupta. “The fact that now, after decades of waiting, all villages are finally wired up only draws attention to the actual darkness that still looms in many rural homes. As a result, the void in the last lane effort has become more palpable.” As he sees it, expectations have risen on this front, which increases the pressure on the Government to ensure that every rural dwelling has lights and usable plug points. “It has now become an ideological and programmatic pressure point in the political system which, once again, all parties will have to grapple with when they go out to seek village votes,” he says.
As Modi gives a push to infrastructure such as roads, railways, freight corridors, ports, airports, telecom network, infotech systems, toilets and more, he has attempted to provide an almost equal impetus to social sector schemes
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SOCIOLOGIST SHIV Visvanathan agrees that Modi has sharpened India’s focus on social sector schemes and that inclusiveness is important, but adds that new modes need new methods of evaluation. “It’s brand development,” he says, “You don’t name so many schemes after the Prime Minister. These are standard things a state does… Maybe it needs time. We have to move from rhetoric to proper evaluation.”
As Modi gives a push to infrastructure—roads, railways, freight corridors, ports, airports, telecom networks, infotech systems, toilets and more—he has attempted to provide an almost equal impetus to social sector schemes. The questionnaire given to various ministries includes a column on the progress made by them on ‘putting the country first in Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’, a BJP campaign slogan of inclusive development.
On transport, the Modi Government has picked up the threads of the Vajpayee regime’s Golden Quadrilateral highway project, with Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari now at the helm of an effort to make the country motorable from end to end. Over 27,000 km of National Highways have been constructed since 2014 and contracts for over 42,000 km have been awarded during this period, say Ministry sources. The 53,000-km Bharatmala Pariyojana (which includes 10,000 km build under earlier projects) is expected to be completed by 2021-22, but the spadework for it has begun. Even for this, say Ministry sources, special attention has been paid to fulfilling the connectivity needs of backward and tribal areas.
While Professor Gupta acknowledges that the Congress-led UPA Government had shown courage and administrative acumen in implementing MNREGA and Aadhaar, schemes that the NDA was happy to inherit, he says the Swachh Bharat Mission is a novel approach to addressing an old problem. “The huge increase in toilets built, regardless of the debate surrounding their efficacy, has generated significant political advantage to the BJP,” he says. “This is because the campaign against open defecation hardly ever figured as a political subject till the Prime Minister energised the Swachh Bharat campaign.”
Another major attention getter has been the Government’s medical insurance scheme, popularly called ModiCare. This is likely to feature prominently in the BJP’s self-appraisal ahead of 2019. “It aims to surpass the largely ineffectual Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana and has again stirred still waters. This time too, the Government has stoked expectations in an area that was largely quiescent, though it is undeniable that high medical costs constitute a serious national problem, especially in a poor country. This issue too is now upfront, even if the actual policy aspects of this health bill are unclear. But the debate on this subject has begun, and it can no longer be calmly sidestepped,” says Professor Gupta, who expresses the hope that out of this churn, a workable universal healthcare plan may emerge in the future which will connect all the dots from primary to tertiary medical care.
There are other schemes for the underprivileged as well, be it the Jan Dhan scheme, aimed at financial inclusion by offering no-frill bank accounts and other services, or the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Grameen Kaushalya Yojana, which aims to provide gainful employment to beneficiaries through skill training programmes.
With his campaign rhetoric and announcements, Modi has kindled aspirations and raised expectations across the country over the past four years. The pressure on the Centre now is to fulfill those promises. As Professor Gupta says, “Raising hope eventually raises all boats in the political waters, because now people want more. The NDA has undoubtedly helped swell this tide, but which way the wind will blow to fill the sails of these vessels is hard to predict.”