Water For The Leeward India -Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera

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published Published on Mar 15, 2014   modified Modified on Mar 15, 2014

As subsidies for the poor continue to be under attack, a ground-up report from 10-states shows how well welfare schemes have worked over the last 10 years.

Ahead of Elections 2014, rights-based welfare schemes are under attack. To those who argue ‘Dolenomics' doesn't work, a survey of five schemes in 10 states shows that the Rs 1,68,478 crore annually the nation spends is making a real and tangible difference on the ground.

Perhaps you have heard of the Sahariyas, who in official jargon used to be known as a ‘Primitive Tribal Group'. Most of them are scattered on both sides of the border between Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where they eke out a living from the shrinking forests, tiny plots of arid land and menial labour. Their living conditions are among the most miserable in India, or in the world, for that matter. We first visited Baran district, on the Rajasthan side of this area, in 2002. At that time, Baran was in the news for a wave of starvation deaths among the Sahariyas. Nearly 50 children were said to have died of hunger, and many Sahariya families were surviving on sawaan, a wild grass.

Vivid memories of that visit include being puzzled at just where the Sahariyas lived. There were no roads or even paths to reach their settlements and we often had to cross dry rocky riverbeds to reach them. Public facilities were virtually absent. Forced to fend for themselves, the Sahariyas survived from the sale of minor forest produce, earning barely Rs 10-12 every other day. Exploitation was rampant-they were paid one-fifth or less of the market value of the products they gathered. Sandy hair, distended stomachs and other signs of child under-nutrition were everywhere. The government, as usual, was in denial mode. Chief minister Ashok Gehlot went to the extent of saying that sawaan was actually quite tasty. Kheer made of sawaan, he claimed, was a local delicacy prepared on festive occasions.

Baran hit the headlines again 10 years later, when many Sahariyas who worked as bonded labourers were found and rescued. This time, the state government-under the same CM-swung into action and launched a slew of relief measures. The impact was visible when we revisited Baran in 2013. All Sahariya families had an Antyodaya ration card with special entitlements: 35 kg of wheat per month with 2 kg moong dal, 1 kg ghee and 2 kg edible oil. There were fun­c­tional anganwadis in the Sahariya villages and mid-day meals at school. About half the households sampled had worked under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in the previous 12 months, and nearly half of all widows and elderly persons were getting a pension. This was not the end of poverty by any means, but these entitlements had made a difference. Starvation, for one thing, had vanished.

On the other side of the border, in Madhya Pradesh, we found nothing of this improvement. In Shivpuri, adjoining Baran, the public distribution system still ran in the traditio­nal mode-less for the benefit of the people, more for the corrupt dealers and their political patrons. When a gram panchayat functionary was confronted with evidence of extortion from NREGA workers, he replied: "So what? I'm not the only one who does this, it happens in all gram panchayats." The Sahariyas here were still mired in a daily struggle for sheer survival.

The PEEP Survey

Baran and Shivpuri are among the country's poorest districts-the sort of places journalist P. Sainath evoked vividly in his 1996 book Everybody Loves a Good Drought. Public facilities in those days were few and far between in these areas; most people were left to their own devices. There was, of course, the bountiful environment, and a freedom and zest to life that has gone completely missing today. But it also meant living in the shadow of hunger, insecurity and exploitation, with no public support in their hour of need. Many villages had no school, no health centre, no ration shop, no approach road, no post office, no telephone, no electricity, and perhaps even no convenient source of drinking water. Where an anganwadi (childcare centre) existed at all, it was often closed. There were no public works and no pensions for widows or the elderly.

To claim that the situation has changed would be a serious delusion. Yet, the picture today is very different from the past. Not only have public facilities steadily expanded, people are also forming new expectations of them and demanding more. Slowly (much too slowly!) but surely, the principle of social responsibility for people's basic needs is taking root.

Student volunteers have been conducting regular field surveys during the last 10 years in the country's poorest districts, sometimes looking at schools or health centres, sometimes at NREGA or the public distribution system. Over time, there has been a great deal of change, often-though not always-for the better. But the ground realities are strikingly different from the consistent picture of doom and gloom painted in the mainstream media. There is no denying its watchdog role and the swift blowing of whistle when things go wrong. But what tends to get lost in this stream of "drain inspectors' reports" is the quiet progress that many states are making in providing essential facilities to their citizens.

The last in this series of surveys, nicknamed Public Evaluation of Entitlement Programmes or PEEP, was conducted in May-June 2013. This survey, initiated by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, was conducted in 10 states: Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Ori­ssa, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. In each state, the survey focused on two of the poorest districts and covered five entitlement programmes: the Integrated Child Development Services, the mid-day meal schemes, the Public Distribution System, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and social security pensions.

The PEEP survey serves up a startling diversity of achievements across the country. Some states, like Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, have a good record of efficient and equitable public services across the board. Others, like Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, are incorrigible offenders. Most are somewhere in between-improving in many fields, stagnating or even regressing in others. Behind this diversity, however, there is an important pattern, well illustrated by Baran and Shivpuri's contrasting experiences: states reap as they sow, in the sense that serious efforts to make things work often produce results. Even states with an embarrassing reputation for corruption and misgovernance, like Orissa or Chhattisgarh, have shown that change is possible. Recent experience also shows that it is mainly through democratic struggle that advances have been made.

Anganwadis Come to Life

More than 60 years ago, in 1951, eminent scholar G.C. Sen aptly described child development services as "a ladder to a healthier and happier nation". Indeed, early childcare has a critical and lasting influence on our health, skills and well-being. Alas, this was not a widely shared foresight, and it is only much later that India initiated serious action in this field in the guise of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS).

Under ICDS, anganwadis are supposed to provide a range of nutrition, health and pre-school education services to children below the age of six years, as well as to pregnant or lactating women and adolescent girls. In fact, according to Supreme Court orders, all children below the age of six years are entitled to all ICDS services. In reality, the programme is still striving to achieve "universalisation with quality".

In 2004, the Focus On Children Under Six (FOCUS) survey examined the status of ICDS in six states: Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The first three were found to have reasonably active and effective anganwadis. The last three, however, were described as "dormant states", where the programme was yet to take off. Uttar Pradesh demonstrated an extreme case of apathy, where anganwadis were barely functional. To make matters worse, the children's food was being supplied across the state by a single contractor, a shady operator who brazenly flouted the Supreme Court ban on private contractors to milk the ICDS programme.

But even as the slumber in UP continues, some of the other dormant states are waking up. Rajasthan, and especially Chhattisgarh, have made serious efforts to revamp ICDS, with significant results. For instance, pre-school education activities, highly valued by parents but rarely seen at the time of the FOCUS survey, can now be seen in many anganwadis. Health services such as child immunisation also seem to be in much better shape today, with a little help from the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs)-village women who have been trained as frontline health workers.

It was a pleasant surprise to find relatively good anganwadis in Orissa as well, a state not exactly known for exemplary governance. There were clear signs of real efforts to create a friendly environment at the anganwadi, both for the child and for the anganwadi worker. In most of the sample villages, anganwadis were relatively well-equipped-some even had mini-toilets especially designed for small children. Many anganwadi workers were active and well-trained, and not just for routine work at the anganwadi but also for home visits. Children had uniforms, signifying that the anganwadi is not just a parking lot for children but a centre of learning. Simple pre-school education activities such as games, songs and counting were found at several anganwadis.

ICDS still has a very long way to go. But at least there are now good reasons to feel hopeful about the programme. Indeed, more and more anganwadis in north India are beginning to achieve standards that were thought to be possible only in a few states like Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh. Few programmes are more important for the future of the country and of Indian children.

Good Marks for Mid-day Meals

Are schools just a place for imparting formal knowledge, or do they have a larger role in protecting children's basic right to education, health and nutrition? A role all the more important as parents often lack the res­ources, time, power or knowledge to safeguard the well-being of children. India's mid-day meal sch­eme is part of this vision of a caring school environment for every child.

The scheme has come a long way since November 2001, when the Supreme Court (in PUCL vs Union of India and Others) ordered all state governments to provide cooked mid-day meals in primary schools. It made a slow start, with very frugal ‘meals' such as turmeric rice or ghoogri (sweetened boiled wheat). Bihar took nearly five years to put the programme in place. But year after year, the scheme has been making headway-kitchens being built, handpumps installed, menus being improved and reluctant upper-caste parents persuaded to shed their prejudices against Dalit cooks or inter-dining. (Even when parents are reluctant, children sometimes eat together behind their backs!)

A series of studies have now firmly established the benefits of India's school meal programme. And they extend beyond improving school attendance, child nutrition and even pupil achievements. The programme employs more than two million rural women as cooks and helpers. Most of them are Adivasis, Dalits, widows or other disadvantaged women with few opportunities for dignified employment.

In most of the sample states, schools were closed for the summer break at the time of the PEEP survey. However, some insights about the mid-day meal programme emerged from the household interviews. The encouraging news is that mid-day meals are in place almost everywhere. Even in the most deprived and remote villages of Bihar and Jharkhand, parents confirmed that their children were getting a cooked meal in the local school. Their view of the mid-day meal programme was generally positive: 61 per cent were ‘satisfied' with the quality of the food being served. Almost all were in favour of the continuation of the programme.

There are other positive signs of qualitative improvement in the mid-day meal scheme. Most schools have a kitchen, a cook and basic equipment. The weekly menu is usually displayed on the wall, along the scheme's catchy logo. And the menu seems to be improving year after year. Many states, for instance, have started serving eggs with the mid-day meal, at least once or twice a week (see Eggzactly Speaking). In Tamil Nadu, children get an egg every day!

These trends, however, are in danger of being reversed as food prices go through the roof and financial allocations fail to keep up. How are cooks supposed to prepare a nutritious meal with as little as Rs 2.5 per child a day (besides the 100 grams of rice or wheat)? When prices shoot up, teachers are often constrained to beg for credit from local shopkeepers or even advance money from their own pockets to keep the mid-day meal going. This breeds resentment against the programme among teachers. Unless mid-day meal budgets stay ahead of price increases over time, all the good that has been achieved under this scheme may come undone.

Turning PDS Around

Most families in rural Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh and Chhattisgarh enjoy a well-functioning Public Distribution System (PDS) which supplies them with cheap food-not just wheat or rice but also other essential items such as pulses and edible oil. Talking to them, one realises the importance of PDS for poor people. Not only does it help them eat better, PDS also affords some kind of security to their precarious lives. As an old woman in Tamil Nadu asks, "How will we survive if the ration shop closes?"

Looking beyond model states, PDS is the terrain of a fierce battle for change. In many states, particularly in north India, large quantities of PDS rice and wheat used to end up in the black market. Whatever was distributed at the ration shop was often unpredictable, overpriced, or of poor quality. Under public pressure or otherwise, many state governments have initiated PDS reforms, with varying success.

An earlier survey, carried out in nine states in 2011, found clear signs of improvement: ‘below poverty line' (BPL) households had received 84 per cent of their PDS entitlements during the three months preceding the survey. Similar findings emerged from the PEEP survey. But there is a catch: rampant corruption continues under the APL (‘above poverty line') quota. In some states, like Uttar Pradesh, most of the APL quota seems to head straight for the black market. Many APL households don't even expect any rice or wheat from the PDS, and treat their ration card as a ‘kerosene card'.

Even BPL households are still being roundly cheated in some areas, especially in states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and even Maharashtra. In the Dhadgaon block of Nandurbar district in Maharashtra, the sample households got barely one-third of their PDS entitlements in the preceding three months. In one village, Kelapani, they were able to buy their rations only once over a whole year.

The situation in Chhattisgarh was not much better just a few years ago. Unlike Maharashtra, however, the state has made serious efforts to plug leakages and fix loopholes. The management of ration shops was transferred from private dealers to collective institutions such as gram panchayats, cooperatives and women's self-help groups. The coverage of PDS was expanded, with clear entitlements (35 kg of rice per month at Rs 1/kg, for instance), enabling people to put pressure on the system to work. Records were computerised. Grievance redressal facilities were put in place and corrupt middlemen were sent to jail. In this and other ways, PDS was "turned around" within a few years.

Other states have followed in Chhattisgarh's footsteps, with similar results. An interesting example is Orissa, especially the ‘KBK region' (undivided Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput districts), which used to be known mainly for starvation deaths. Today, the KBK region has near-universal PDS, which seems to work quite well. A recent study found that PDS cardholders in Koraput get 97 per cent of their rice entitlements under the system, a finding consistent with the PEEP survey. Much remains to be done to extend these gains across the country, especially in states like UP that show little willingness to reform themselves. Putting an end to the ‘APL scam' is the most urgent task. The rollout of the National Food Security Act is an opportunity to put this house in order.

The NREGA Crisis

In the PEEP survey's ‘bad news' register, the chief item is the sorry state of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Of the five entitlement programmes covered by the survey, NREGA is the only one that seemed to be getting worse rather than better.

The early years of NREGA were a time of hope and progress. Within a few months of the act coming into force on February 2, 2006, millions of workers found employment at NREGA worksites. Women who had never earned any income of their own were able to earn the minimum wage at their doorstep. Gram sabhas came to life in areas where they were rarely held before. Creative institutional and technological innovations, from social audits to a path-breaking Management Info­rmation System (MIS), were introduced. Corruption was fought step by step. Despite all the hurdles, there was steady improvement year after year. The programme seemed to have a real chance to survive and thrive.

During the last few years, however, NREGA has gone down­hill. Employment levels have declined, sharply so in some states. NREGA expenditure fell from nearly 0.6 per cent of GDP in 2009-10 to 0.3 per cent or so in 2012-3. After growing quite rapidly for several years, wages were frozen in real terms and delinked from minimum wages. Long delays in wage payments further reduced the real value of NREGA employment for rural workers. Other entitlements, such as basic worksite facilities and the unemployment allowance, continue to be denied to the vast majority of NREGA workers.

This deterioration was reflected in the PEEP survey. NREGA worksites were few and far between. Most respondents had done very little NREGA work. Long delays in wage payments were common. Even people's awareness of their entitlements under NREGA did not seem to be higher than what we had found five years earlier. Only a few states, such as Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh, seemed to have sustained the programme's initial momentum.

There is an odd view, in official circles, that the decline of NREGA is a good thing: it reflects a reduction in the demand for work due to better employment opportunities elsewhere. The PEEP survey debunks this myth: when NREGA workers were asked how many days of employment they would like to have over the year, assuming that they are paid on time, an overwhelming majority (83 per cent) answered ‘100 days'-the maximum entitlement. But only 8 per cent had actually done 100 days of NREGA work in 2012-13. The message is clear: there is an enormous unmet demand for NREGA work.

The decline of NREGA is not irreversible. However, reviving NREGA requires firm action to address the multiple roots of this decline: stagnating real wages, delayed payments, technocracy and a pervasive lack of accountability, among others. The first step is to recognise the crisis, instead of taking refuge in wishful thinking.

The silver lining is that the struggle against corruption seems to be making headway. When we compared the number of days of NREGA work done by the respondents in 2012-3 according to official records with their own estima­tes, we found a good match: 24 days and 22 days respectively. Interestingly, the same records suggest a fair amount of fudging in earlier years. We take this as tentative evidence of the impact of transparency measures: bank payments of NREGA wages, a sophisticated MIS, social audits and more. Whether the harsh discipline of transparency has made it all the more difficult to sustain the initial scale of NREGA employment is an unresolved enigma.

Pensions: Beyond Small Mercies

How would you feel about living on Rs 200 or Rs 300 per month? Incredible as it may seem, this is the plight of many widows and elderly people in India, who have no other means of subsistence than a meagre social security pension. Consider the case of Vifai, an 80-year old Dalit widow from Getara village of Surguja district, Chhattisgarh. She lives alone (her sons have abandoned her) and is too frail to work. She receives an old-age pension of Rs 300 per month-the standard amount in Chhattisgarh. To collect it, she has to limp all the way to the bank, 12 km from her house. She says she subsists from pension money and PDS: "Sarkar paisa deti hai, sarkar khana deti hai, bas usi par jeeti hun (The government gives me money, food, that's what I live on)."

Meagre as they are, social security pensions are a lifeline for many widows and elderly people. Most of them live a harsh life, even when they do get some family support. The monthly pension affords them small comforts: medicine to relieve pain, getting sandals repaired, winning the affection of the grand-children with the odd sweet, or simply avoiding hunger. The pension amounts, however, are ridiculously small. Under the Indira Gandhi Old Age Pension Scheme (IGOAPS) and Indira Gandhi Widow Pension Scheme (IGWPS), the central government contributes Rs 200 and Rs 300 per month respectively. Many states top this up with their own resources, but few go beyond Rs 400 per month.

Like several other studies, the PEEP survey too suggests that pension funds are well spent. For one thing, the recipients are among the poorest of the poor-elderly women and men who get by on very little even after a lifetime of hard work. For another, the survey did not uncover any evidence of major fraud in social security pensions. Among nearly 900 respondents selected at random from the official pension lists, 97 per cent were getting their pension. Most of the remaining three per cent were cases of faulty record-keeping rather than fraud. We found only one case of "duplicate" pension (one person getting two pensions). There are leakages here and there, for instance when post-office employees take a cut to disburse pensions, but nothing like the scams that plague many other forms of government expenditure.

Having said this, pension schemes also have major flaws. Their coverage is small, and the application process tends to be very bureaucratic. Pension payments are very irregular in most states. To get their measly pension, widows and the elderly expose themselves to numerous ordeals and indignities: waiting endlessly for the pension to be sanctioned, harassment from greedy middlemen, queuing for hours at the local bank, and more. At a public hearing in Manika block of Latehar district in Jharkhand, we were amazed at the number of old men and women who poured into the cramped compound of the block headquarters, some stooping, some barely able to walk, but determined to register their demand for a pension. Reflecting the sentiment of the crowd, one angry woman from Bishunbandh village grabbed the mike during the hearing and shouted, "My husband died waiting for his pension, will I have to suffer the same fate?"

These are problems easy to fix. The main reason why it is not happening is that the people concerned count for so little. Thankfully, this is changing: widows and the elderly have started agitating for their rights, with a little help from associations such as Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan and Pension Parishad. Under public pressure or for other reasons, many states have started improving and expanding their pension schemes. Tamil Nadu, one of the pioneers of social security pensions, pays Rs 1,000 per month under IGNOAPS and IGNWPS. Rajas­than has recently adopted the principle of near-universal social security pensions-every widow and elderly person is entitled unless he or she falls under specific exclusion criteria. In Orissa, pension schemes are being streamlined from A to Z. For instance, pension lists are regularly updated, pensioners have well-maintained passbooks, and pensions are promptly paid in cash at the gram panchayat office on the 15th of each month-even on August 15.

The central government, for its part, seems unable to get its act together on this issue. A recent committee report has made useful recommendations to improve pension schemes, but little has been done to act on them. The ‘savage cuts' (as Union minister Jairam Ramesh called them) in social expenditure sought to be imposed by the Union finance ministry are not going to help matters. The axe of fiscal austerity weighs most hea­vily on the poor and the powerless, including destitute women and men who are expected to get by on Rs 200 per month even as prices go up and up.

A Tentative Scorecard

Before concluding, consider this panoramic view of how different states are doing, based on one key indicator for each of these five entitlement programmes (see Circle of Wel­fare). One thing is for sure: recent progress is not the work of a particular political party. Differ­ent parties have contributed-or failed to do so-in different states. In Tamil Nadu, there has been a steady commitment to universal social policies even as ruling parties come and go. In Hima­chal Pradesh, too, both the Congress and the BJP have been under pressure to provide well-functioning public services to all. Elsewhere, these national parties have done well in some states but badly in others. For instance, if the BJP deserves some credit for the turnaround of PDS in Chhattis­garh, it must take responsibility for the dismal state of the same programme in Madhya Pradesh. Similarly, the Cong­ress has a very uneven record of commitment to NREGA in different states. The nature of democratic politics in different states seems to matter far more than specific parties.

We could not resist the temptation of hatching a tentative ranking of the 10 PEEP states in terms of their overall performance with entitlement programmes. One way of doing this is to first rank states in terms of these five progra­mme-specific indicators (Tamil Nadu, for insta­nce, ranks No. 1 for NREGA and MP No. 10 for PDS), and then take a simple average of ranks over the five programmes. This is the basis of the ranking of states in Table 1. In line with earlier research, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are ‘leader states' in this set of 10, but Chhattisgarh is an interesting new entrant in that league. The next group consists of Orissa, Rajasthan and Maharashtra-‘learner' states that are following the leaders' footsteps. Some of us expected Maharashtra to emerge as a leader state, but in the sample districts at least, it turned out it had much to learn, for instance in terms of PDS reforms. The ‘laggard' states in the third group are the usual suspects-Bihar, Jhar­khand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. But even in these states, there are signs of change, and vast possibilities for more.

Outlook for the future

Needless to say, there is still an enormous way to go in meeting people's basic constitutional rights. For instance, while it is certainly heartening that children (girls and boys) are now flocking to schools across the country, the quality of school education remains abysmal. Similarly, the coverage of vaccination programmes has greatly expanded in recent years, but India is still way behind Bangladesh. If the survey brings a ray of hope, it lies in further evidence that public services do improve-often at unexpected speed-with adequate resources, political support and application of mind. Conversely, the penalties of neglect can be severe, as the recent decline of NREGA illustrates. Further democratic struggle is the only way to ensure that positive trends have the upper hand.

This brings us to a final observation. Democratic struggle requires space for dissent and protest. In the poorest districts, this space is often threatened by multiple forms of repression and violence. The old hierarchies of caste and gender continue to bind many people. New conflicts have developed over the control of natural resources. Large numbers of people are threatened with forced displacement as mining companies and other enterprises are moving in-grabbing land, clearing forests, damming rivers, guzzling groundwater. The state typically sides with the powerful, and is often better known in these areas in the guise of a forest guard or police officer rather than that of a smiling anganwadi worker. Journalists or lawyers who stand up to vested interests face tremendous risks. Physical insecurity, real or alleged, also provides a convenient excuse for teachers, doctors and other development workers to desert these areas and seek refuge in the towns. The future of India's poorest districts depends a great deal on the defence of democratic space, not only in these areas but in the country as a whole.

By Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera*

* PEEP Team Aashish Gupta, Anindita Adhikari, Ankita Aggarwal, Inayat Sabhikhi, Karuna Muthiah, Nandini Nayak, Neenu Suresh, Raghav Puri, Ria Singh Sawhney, Saloni Chopra, Sandesh Lokhande, Sudha Narayanan and Ujjainee Sharma

For further details about the PEEP survey, visit http://bitly.com/1fRN35w

Outlook, 24 March, 2014, http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?289801

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