ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Making Safety Nets Effective for Hardcore Poor

Safety nets to support the hardcore poor form the foundation of the strategy for poverty elimination. This paper brings out the alarming state of the existing safety nets and describes a decentralised approach to make them more effective. The approach is in the nature of extension of the decentralised mode being used by National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme to provide employment guarantee to unskilled labourers.

Making Safety Nets Effective for Hardcore Poor

Safety nets to support the hardcore poor form the foundation of the strategy for poverty elimination. This paper brings out the alarming state of the existing safety nets and describes a decentralised approach to make them more effective. The approach is in the nature of extension of the decentralised mode being used by National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme to provide employment guarantee to unskilled labourers.


hile formulating the programmes for the poor in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan, it is necessary to take note of the changing perspective on poverty which now stresses the importance of taking into account the multiple deprivations caused by poverty besides low income and extends its concern to include dimensions like isolation of the poor from the mainstream, their powerlessness and inability to benefit from the provisions made for their participation in local governance and preparation of development plans. The perspective provided by changes in below poverty line (BPL) population on the basis of poverty line is inadequate to bring out all the dimensions of the changes occurring in poverty. It is essential for this purpose to view elimination of poverty as a process consisting of three sequential phases indicated below. First Phase: Removal of hardcore poverty with safety nets designed to eliminate the multiple deprivations. Once the hardcore poor are helped to shed the burden of multiple deprivations, they would be more responsive to programmes to make them productive and viable in economic terms such as programmes for training, capacity building, skill formation, provision of assets and access to new livelihood opportunities. Second Phase: Helping the poor to progress towards productivity and economic viability with a wide range of programmes noted above. Third Phase: Having crossed the threshold of viability, the poor would be ready to take the final step of winning a place of security and dignity in the mainstream with their own initiative and with the “holding of hands” which helped them in the earlier phases becoming redundant. This is the empowerment of the poor signalling the completion of the process of poverty elimination. It is important to note that this conception of “empowerment of the poor” is a far better indicator of elimination of poverty than the present practice of regarding the poor as empowered when they join a self help group (SHG) or get representation in gram panchayat.

The strategy adopted so far towards the poor has paid little attention to this sequential process of elimination of poverty. The programmes marking the second phase were implemented while the poor were still trapped in phase one. The term “empowerment” was used indiscriminately to non-events like the poor getting a nominal entry in panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) or acquiring self-employment activities with low income potential and uncertain long-term prospects. The planner was obviously in a hurry to eliminate poverty so that the growth-centred development game could be pursued with greater enthusiasm. The first and essential step in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan is to accept with all seriousness and sincerity the logic of the process of poverty elimination outlined above and allow it to guide the agenda of programmes to be implemented in the Plan. At any given time, there will be considerable heterogeneity among the poor in terms of the phases to which they belong. This needs to be taken into account when selecting beneficiaries for the programmes appropriate to the three phases. In particular, it is important to keep a close watch on the effectiveness of the safety nets in supporting the hardcore poor. This paper points out how large sections among the poor still remain trapped in the first phase and describes in some detail the strategy and priorities needed to help them to get out of the trap.

How to Identify the Hardcore Poor

Conceptually, the distinguishing characteristics of the hardcore poor are: continuous struggle for bare survival, isolation from the mainstream, not belonging to any group/lobby capable of protecting and promoting their interests, unable to take developmental initiatives and bearing disproportionate share in costs of growth – like environmental degradation – with negligible share in its benefits. A common feature of these characteristics which needs to be noted is that it is not easy to observe and measure them in the field and, hence, they would be of little help in identifying the hardcore poor. A researcher would, however, find them of utmost importance in an analysis of the causes and consequences of hardcore poverty.

However, in the Indian context, identification of the hardcore poor would not be too difficult as hardcore poverty leaves many recognisable footprints in rural areas and in rural communities. The hardcore poor would be landless, depending for livelihood on casual labour, having a ‘kutcha’ (makeshift) house, sending even children to work to add to the meagre household income and compelled to borrow from the moneylender to meet basic requirements like food. They also belong to identifiable groups like scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, women, minorities and artisans pursuing their traditional but now declining occupations. Many small and marginal farmers are also akin in economic status to casual labourers without land. Interestingly, before the advent of poverty line, it is indeed these footprints which were used while selecting the target groups for the programmes for the poor.

The spatial patterns of hardcore poverty have some interesting implications about its nature and causes. The patterns frequently observed in the field are:

– The hardcore poor located within a relatively better-off community would usually be indicative of social exclusion of categories like SC by those higher in the caste hierarchy.

  • The communities falling way behind others in their neighbourhood are quite often marked by multiple handicaps: small size, weak resource base, low castes, low political visibility, poor connectivity etc. Here the entire community can be regarded as being hardcore poor. The development process bypasses them with their remaining unnoticed and unheard.
  • The most serious case of hardcore poverty is presented by the BIMARU states which carry the cumulative burden of poverty generated over decades by economic stagnation and social backwardness. While the two cases noted above could be attributed to failure of delivery systems, the BIMARU states which are now estimated to contain over 60 per cent of all the poor in the country
  • and account for a much higher proportion of total hardcore poor in the country – should be regarded as victims of growthcum-poverty-elimination strategy pursued so far by the country.
  • Two further points need to be noted while considering the approach to be adopted for elimination of hardcore poverty. First, the poverty now remaining in India – about 28 per cent according to the Planning Commission but much higher as hinted by the indicators presented later below – is likely to be of the hardcore type as over the last about three and a half decades poverty has declined from about 55 per cent to less than 30 per cent and the process of poverty reduction is known to have been operating in a top-down manner favouring the upper layers of poor and those in relatively developed states. Second, the hardcore poor depend crucially on the external support as they are too weak to take substantive initiatives on their own to get out of the poverty trap. Hence, it is reasonable to argue that the hardcore poverty prevailing now is indicative of the indifference of the external interveners towards the hardcore poor, particularly the state. Thus, the need in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan is to have a critical look at the weaknesses of the entire policymaking processes working to eliminate poverty without confining attention only to weaknesses in the delivery system. The time has come to question the credentials of the pompous generals leading the war against poverty and not continue to lay all the blame on the foot soldiers working thanklessly and in extremely trying conditions at the ground level.

    Role in Poverty Elimination and Constraints

    The poverty trap which perpetuates the poverty of the hardcore poor operates through an array of basic deprivations which reinforce each other and weaken the ability and motivation of its victims to get out of the poverty trap. A commonly observed situation in India is:

    (i) borrowing for essential consumption from moneylenders leads to debt bondage.

    (ii)inability to take care of health and nutrition, increased morbidity, decrease in productivity and efficiency.

    (iii) loss of assets, no savings and accumulation.

    (iv) children miss schooling, poverty perpetuated from one generation to the next.

    The safety nets are programmes which seek to eliminate these deprivations. For example, programmes like the public distribution system (PDS) (food security), Employment Guarantee (minimal income security), SHG for saving and thrift (social mobilisation) help the hardcore poor to get out of the debt bondage, primary health centres (PHCs) and nutrition programmes reduce morbidity and resulting loss of efficiency and productivity, free and aided primary education and mid-day-meal scheme keep children in school giving them an opportunity to grow out of poverty. Programmes for distribution of house sites and for low-income group housing take care of shelter. Social security and social assistance programmes take care of groups like senior citizens, handicapped and those who need special attention and protect the hardcore poor during periods of major sickness, etc, when the hardcore poor could get pushed to the brink of destitution.

    The safety nets play two essential roles in the strategy for poverty elimination. Their positive role is to strengthen the status of the hardcore poor and lead them to the point where they acquire capabilities and motivation to take development initiatives on their own to benefit from programmes for training, skill formation, provision of assets, participation in local governance etc. It is important to remember that at the end of the first phase the hardcore poor still remain poor but they are out of the trap and free to participate in development programmes and other opportunities to become upwardly mobile. The process of poverty elimination will not achieve its objectives unless the poor play an active and responsive role and, eventually, take charge of the process and lead it. The external interveners, on the other hand, play a dominant part in the beginning but, gradually, transfer the initiative to the poor with a view to eventual withdrawal. We mention this profile of the poverty elimination strategy as populist policies tend to create an illusion that development and empowerment will be delivered on the doorsteps of the poor.

    The second role of the safety nets is to prevent further immiserisation of the hardcore poor. This is not inconsistent with their positive role described above. In fact, prevention of further immiserisation is complementary to the positive role of the safety nets. The hardcore poor remain engaged in a precarious struggle for survival and remain vulnerable to sinking further in to poverty. The safety nets have to first arrest the downward slide and then move ahead with their positive role. It is only when the hardcore poor find that the safety nets do help them in making their struggle for survival less precarious that they will respond adequately to the efforts of the safety nets to play the positive role of getting them out of the poverty trap.

    The experiences gained so far in India and in developing countries in general is that despite decades spent in designing and implementing safety nets, the policymakers are nowhere near the goal post and seem to be already getting out of breath. United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals( MDGs) which are in essence a set of safety nets are seriously lagging behind in most of the developing countries despite the combined efforts of the international community. The position in India, as we will presently see below, is in a similar state. The fact is that safety nets form the most challenging task in the programmes for poverty elimination while the policymaker, almost universally in the developing countries, pays only perfunctory attention to them.

    To see the challenge which the safety nets pose, consider the following steps involved in implementing them.

  • (i) Reaching the hardcore poor, establishing rapport with them and putting their problems at the top in the policy agenda. Once the foundation of safety nets is weak, the entire policy of poverty elimination will lose its thrust and fail in bringing about any enduring improvement in the conditions of the poor.
  • (ii) To be effective, the safety nets have to operate like a package converging on the household to play the dual role indicated above. This requirement is rarely taken into account while implementing safety nets. For example, if the PDS works and employment guarantee is effective but the water supply is contaminated, the poor who fall repeatedly sick would fail in assimilating the benefits of these safety nets.
  • Economic and Political Weekly August 18, 2007

    (iii) The hardcore poor need support over an extended period. It would be reasonable to assume that the full effect of safety nets would be achieved after a few decades rather than in a few years. This is particularly true in the BIMARU states where the hardcore poverty is an organic part of overall underdevelopment.

    (iv) An obvious implication of these conditions and requirements needed by the safety nets is that the latter should form the predominant component receiving the highest priority in the programmes for poverty elimination in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan.

    Present Status of Safety Nets

    India has a wide range of safety nets with impressive statistics on amounts spent and beneficiaries covered/ facilities created. However, judged by the poor who are effectively protected by the safety nets, their performance is dismal, to say the least. It is as if India has no safety nets at all. The interesting point is that the statistics collected by these programmes themselves relate mostly to intermediate outcomes leaving out the crucial information on the protection effectively received by the poor. For this clinching indicator of the role of safety nets, one has to turn to assessments by experts or by researchers. We give below a sample revealing the alarming situation in relation to the safety nets. Food security: The latest report of Food and Agriculture Organisation [The State of Food Security in the World 2006] laments that during the period 1990-92 to 2001-03 “ Significant progress in reducing the number of undernourished people was made in China and the populous sub-region of south-east Asia. In India, on the other hand, the prevalence of hunger declined, but the outcome in terms of reducing the number of undernourished was small as a reduction in the first part of the period (1990-92 to 1995-97) was subsequently reversed”. According to FAO, in 2001-03, India had 212 million undernourished which was much higher than the MDG target. Child nutrition: A report released by a US-based group says south Asia continues to face “critical” levels of hunger. The report says the current hot spots of hunger and undernutrition are in south Asia and Sub-saharan Africa. While there have been dramatic improvements in south Asia, the report says the region remains “an area of great concern”. The institute studied 119 countries for its research and the index ranked countries on a 100-point scale, with zero being the best score (no hunger) and 100 being the worst. India and most other south Asian countries score in the region of 20 plus. The three indicators for ranking were child malnutrition, child mortality and estimates of the proportion of people who were calorie deficient. “In India and Bangladesh, high rates of child malnutrition, as opposed to the other two indicators, are the main reason for the high Global Hunger Index value,” says the report. It says “the low status of women in south Asian countries and their lack of nutritional knowledge are important determinants of high prevalence of underweight children in the region”. The report also blames “inadequate feeding and caring practices for young children” for the grim situation in south Asian countries. It says it is important that “in the interests of improving child nutrition, women’s status should be raised”. This need is very urgent in south Asia, including India, it adds. A Unicef report has said that the world was failing its children by not ensuring that they had enough to eat. It said the number of children under five who were underweight had remained virtually unchanged since 1990, despite a target to reduce the number affected. The report said India contributed to about 5.6 million child deaths per year, more than half the world’s total. One of the UN’s MDG is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015, which would mean halving the proportion of children who are underweight for their age. But Unicef warned that the world was not on track to meet that goal [Pandey 2006]. Performance of ICDS: A recent evaluation of ICDS concludes thus: “The positive role played by the ICDS programme in the reduction of infant and maternal mortality rates, and of the percentage of malnourished children, especially in the age group of three to six years, as also its achievements in the immunisation programme are well acknowledged. However, these achievements fall short of the desired expectations. Community participation in the programme would not only reduce the government cost of the programme but also make the functioning of the programme more effective” [Radhakrishna, Indrakant and Ravi 2006]. Wage Employment Programmes: “A Wage Employment Programme is successful only if it is needed less and less over time, i e, if it is treated as a programme for facilitating the transition of the economy from a labour surplus economy to an economy with a minimum surplus labour. The programme thus aims to achieve the strategic use of surplus labour in order to promote labour-intensive sustainable development (but) India has used this approach for more than three decades now without much success because the country still needs more such programmes on a large scale!” according to Indira Hirway (2006). She lists a number of strict conditions which, by implication, the programme has failed to meet:

  • the employment is made available on a scale that meets the demand.
  • it is provided at the minimum wage rate for an adequate number of days to ensure minimum incomes.
  • the employment is provided locally so as to reduce distressed out-migration.
  • the employment is accompanied by a minimum social security package (i e, security against injury, sickness, death, old age, maternity).
  • there is a good PDS to ensure that workers have access to foodgrains.
  • the distribution of the benefits/incomes from the assets is equitable.
  • the assets created are owned and maintained by the workers/ community.
  • Infrastructure: Most urbanites would shrink at the idea of visiting a village because of its poor infrastructure, amenities and services. Transfers to villages and small towns are regarded by the government and bank employees and others as a punishment posting. An indispensable item of infrastructure is road. The annual report of the ministry of rural development, government of India for the year 2005-06 provides an interesting glimpse of the very slow rate of progress in provision of roads despite the impression outside the government that the wage employment programmes manage to remain in existence chiefly by building roads. The statistics given on page 22 of the annual report indicate that as on March 31, 2006 (out of total 8,49,341 rural habitations), 3,30,647 were “unconnected”. Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) launched on December 25, 2000 had the “target of connecting, through good all-weather roads, every habitation that has a population of more than 1,000 within three years and every habitation with a population between 500 and 999 by the end of the Tenth Five-Year Plan”. Interestingly, on March 31, 2006, there were 59,885 of such 1000 + villages “eligible” for a new road. This is probably a polite way of pointing out that, despite PMGSY and the target of three years, these villages remained without road connectivity, an item of infrastructure of prime importance for the rural people.

    The main lesson to be learnt from the examples given above is that the safety nets, operated in a top-down mode by the line departments, may perform well in terms of intermediate outcomes but fail miserably in the two roles of safety nets described above. This is an inherent limitation of this mode in the sense that while the line departments can and do improve the design and implementation of their schemes, they have no mechanisms for coordination among the line departments, for convergence of schemes on the poor, for checking the changing development status of the hardcore poor, for tailoring the schemes in the light of this change and, above all, for mobilising the poor for participation, monitoring and collective action to improve their own conditions.

    Emerging Context for Safety Nets

    On the reading of the recent and current indicators, it seems quite likely that the Indian economy will grow at the rate of 8 per cent or more during the Eleventh Five-Year Plan. A favourable implication is that the availability of funds for rural development and poverty elimination may not be a constraint. The focus needs to be on improving the effectiveness of the safety nets based on the weaknesses noticed so far and the lessons they provide.

    A point of concern is the continuing low employment elasticity of growth. More important, agriculture is passing through a critical period for three reasons: continuing degradation of land and water resources: growing landlessness and casualisation of labour in agriculture; adverse effects of globalisation and liberalisation on agricultural growth, food security and diversification of agriculture. It would be prudent to expect substantial additions to the numbers of hardcore poor who need to be covered by the safety nets.

    The SHGs have performed very well in the area of thrift, saving and small personal loans primarily for non-productive purposes. But they have made little headway in promoting income generating activities (IGAs). A major effort has to be made in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan to transplant the success stories in a few states like Andhra Pradesh and Kerala in other states, particularly in the northern states. It would be naïve to expect quick successes and the prospects are that the poor in these states would remain in the shadow of hardcore poverty for a long period.

    Another factor likely to cause delays and slow progress is the need to overhaul the administration of poverty elimination programmes to mission mode from the present mode of line departments. It was pointed out above that the line departments focusing on schemes and their intermediate outcomes cannot measure up to the stringent requirements of safety nets. The mission mode and the much larger role for PRIs-SHGs in poverty elimination visualised in the recent report of a Planning Commission working group requires a new work culture taking time to evolve. The point is that the innovations being proposed for the Eleventh Five-Year Plan have not only to produce results in a reasonably short time but they have also to lay the foundation for new administrative modes and for closer links and partnership between the government and community based organisations like PRIs and SHGs.

    The emerging political context also needs to be borne in mind. India is already passing through a period of turbulence which is likely to spread and become more violent and disruptive in the years to come. The power of urban organised groups and of the rural rich to compel the government to yield more concessions and subsidies is now a factor of growing importance in the Indian polity. The poor who are left out of the system are getting restive; they provide a congenial medium for growth and spread of militancy forcing the government to divert attention from the development agenda to maintenance of law and order. It has been the experience so far that at such times poverty elimination programmes are the first to suffer cuts and this, in turn, drives the poor towards more unrest and militancy. Beyond a point, the process becomes irreversible and India can find itself on the brink of turning into a failed state. This may seem like crying wolf but one should not forget that there are already quite a few developing countries with all the symptoms of being failed states and even developed countries are getting worried about their capacity to maintain peace and harmony in pluralistic societies with growing disaffection among the neglected and alienated groups. Hence, having credible safety nets and making the poor active stakeholders in the process of poverty elimination will be a major challenge that India will face in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan.

    Points for Action at the PRI-SHG Level

    Safety nets are schemes implemented by the line departments. The departments have standing arrangements for monitoring and evaluation. They also take recourse to experts to advise them on streamlining the operational features of the scheme to improve their reach, impact and benefits. It is not our intention here to go into details of these schemes. Our focus is on improving the schemes as safety nets by addressing the weaknesses common to line department schemes which persist despite the corrective steps taken by the departments so far.

    The points for action described below are based on two assumptions about the steps taken in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan to strengthen the institutional arrangements for implementing the programmes for the poor. These steps seem quite likely in the light of the growing concern about the urgent need to bring about rapid and substantial improvement in the conditions of the poor. First, the programmes will be handled by a specially constituted national level mission. The mission mode is expected to reduce bureaucratic delays, enhance cost-effectiveness, improve the delivery system and strengthen the political commitment and sense of urgency with which the goal of poverty elimination is pursued. Second, political pressure will be exerted from the highest level for activation of PRI-SHG institutions to promote participation of the poor, to establish procedures for increased accountability of the development personnel to the poor and giving the poor a decisive voice in the local governance and local area development.

    Data Base on Deprivations

    A deplorable aspect of India’s poverty elimination strategy is that while the government, media, academics and other stakeholders have been celebrating the remarkable success achieved by India in reducing poverty, not much notice has been taken of the alarming state of the safety nets. The experts and observers outside, on the other hand, have been repeatedly warning and pointing out the deteriorating conditions of the poor, particularly

    Economic and Political Weekly August 18, 2007

    the hardcore poor. It is of utmost importance that household level data on deprivations and indicators based on them occupy the central place in the monitoring, evaluation and steering of the poverty elimination programmes by the policymakers and senior administrators at the central and state levels.

    A commendable beginning has been made in this direction by the PRIs. The latest BPL survey has used 13 indicators of deprivations to identify the poor and to categorise them into hardcore poor, poor and non-poor groups. In Gujarat these data have been computerised to make them available for all the stakeholders in poverty elimination. The Expert Group on Identification of Households Below Poverty Line (BPL Census 2002) suggested this approach and recommended the schedule for collecting data observed in its Report: “The schedule recommended by the Expert Group is very simple, does not require highly skilled manpower and is quick to canvass… The schedule does not require any estimate of poverty line …is amenable to computer processing …It is possible to develop a profile of the rural households at state/district/block/village levels (which) would be sufficient for macro-level planning with specific focus on targeting the existing programmes and designing new programmes.” An important point made by the expert group is the distinction it draws between the “estimation of poverty assigned to the Planning Commission and done through sample surveys of NSSO and the identification of the poor done through the door-to-door survey with 100 per cent coverage. While estimation of poverty helps in assessing the magnitude of poverty, identification of BPL households is necessary for targeting them under various poverty alleviation programmes.” The expert group recommendations also include the need for flexibility in the schedule and in analysis based on it from state to state, scrutiny of the BPL list by village leaders/village elders/activists and its approval by the gram sabha. We thus have a module for household-wise identification of deprivations under the aegis of panchayats and gram sabhas and the use of these data at the highest level of policymaking. This nucleus could be further developed and used as the foundation for monitoring and evaluation of safety nets. Collection of basic data on deprivations from all households in the village should be an annual activity of the panchayats. The enumerators should be from the village itself and the panchayats, if needed, should be helped initially to make use of the data in their activities. The annual data should also be computerised for use at higher levels from district upwards and also by other users like researchers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It needs to be emphasised that what is being suggested is the collection of data on deprivations from all the households in the village without confining it to only those identified as poor. The data base for analysis of deprivations and identifying the poor will cover all the households in the village and, by implication, all the households in the country when PRIs become fully operative all over the country. The main users of these data will be the gram panchayats themselves. Hence, covering all the households will be both necessary as well as easy to routinise.

    Another data base which could be developed by SHGs in the village and which can also be part of the village data system is the record of hardcore poor households in which household-wise data on participation in development schemes, changes in the economic conditions and status of the households could be entered periodically, say, once a month. This will be in the nature of panel data reflecting the time line of important changes in the conditions of hardcore poor households. This data base will enable continuous monitoring of these households by subgroups like SCs, STs, OBCs, women, minorities, female headed households, etc. If the poor in the village are members of SHGs and a SHG maintains such record for each of its members, the record of poor households will automatically be maintained and updated. These household-wise records will be particularly useful in finding out how much of scheme funds and facilities actually reach the hardcore poor and the extent of the improvement they bring about. The present procedure assumes that the entire amount allocated to schemes is spent on the poor and results in the reduction in poverty shown by the estimates of poverty at the aggregate level. The household records suggested here will allow an assessment done at the household level by the PRI/SHG themselves and could lead to prompt corrective measures. The other advantage of the household records is that they will provide a wealth of data on the factors affecting the economic conditions of the hardcore poor households.

    It is of utmost importance that the Eleventh Five-Year Plan give priority to development of data bases at the village itself consisting of data collected by the locals and used by them in the development activities in the village. These should form the data base for monitoring at higher levels. The central and state governments can have their own sample surveys as at present but it will be possible to confine them to selected purposes. The data base in the village will also be a boon for researchers, NGOs, etc, in pursuing their activities. The recent BPL surveys conducted by the locals should dispel the misconception that only the highly-trained statisticians commanding an army of urbanites can collect the data necessary for rural development and poverty elimination. There are indeed technical areas where the experts are needed but this would leave large areas of basic data which could be collected, maintained and used by the locals. The present alarming situation with respect to quality and adequacy of data used in the government is reflected well in the views expressed by a senior administrator with long years of experience in rural development programmes for the poor. “Another aspect that has a direct bearing on improving the delivery system and efficacy of public spending relates to monitoring. In the absence of adequate monitoring and evaluation of plan programmes, there is considerable wastage, leakage and spillover of programmes over successive plans. Officials at all levels spend a great deal of time in collecting information, but this information is not used for taking corrective action. The field staff members only report on activities, and are not involved in impact assessment, or in qualitative monitoring. The concept of stakeholder monitoring is unknown. No indicators exist for assessing public participation or public awareness. Vested interests in administration are served through bogus reporting” [Srivastava and Sharma 2006]. The point is that the issues relating to data bases and quality and adequacy of monitoring should receive urgent and priority attention in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan. A related aspect is development of a monitoring and evaluation system at the PRI/SHG level so that these institutions participate in the full cycle from planning of schemes, their implementation and using monitoring and evaluation to improve these processes over time.

    The second area for the PRI-SHGs to help the hardcore poor is mobilising them and preparing them for collective action. Where the delivery system is indifferent in its attitude towards the poor and is not responsive, the poor should collectively confront the concerned organisation/personnel to demand the safety net benefits. Over a period, this would certainly convey a strong message to the delivery system to become more accountable to the poor besides their accountability upwards. In fact, when the delivery system becomes accountable to the poor and its side earnings diminish, corruption, leakages and wastage would also get curbed. For example, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP) has a provision that when a gram panchayat fails to provide employment within a stipulated period the poor are entitled to receive unemployment allowance. There are also provisions entitling the poor for other benefits. These provisions are likely to remain a dead letter unless the poor collectively compel the gram panchayat to abide by them. A few successes could result in spread of this mode of protest to other villages. In fact, once the mobilisation of the poor becomes visible and vocal in a few places, these could act as a trigger bringing about change in other places. This may not be automatic but activists and the locals from the places where mobilisation is effective would find it easy to demonstrate and convince the poor in other places about the benefits of mobilisation. In the final analysis, this is the only route to improve delivery of services like education, health facilities, institutional credit, PDS, distribution of house sites and plots of land, mid-day meal scheme, etc. The other side of the coin is sharpening the motivation of the poor to benefit from the safety nets. In the situations where the delivery system works but the poor do not come forward to receive the benefits, PRIs and SHGs should be particularly vigilant to see that the different safety nets converge as a package on the poor household giving it in full the promised benefits of the package. The mobilisation of the poor and their capacity to act collectively is even more important in the second phase programmes focused on livelihood system and human development.

    The third area of action to improve the safety nets is decentralisation of the schemes relating to safety nets. The NREGP is trying out an ambitious model for entrusting the programme to PRIs. This is a commendable step which could show the way to decentralise other schemes like PDS. It is being implemented in 200 most backward districts and over the Eleventh Five-Year Plan all the districts in the country will be covered. It could break the deadlock in decentralisation which has prevailed since the constitutional amendments were effected over a decade back for the third tier of governance and development planning. There are now several instances of PRI-SHGs taking initiative to manage schools, health facilities and drinking water schemes. A scheme which urgently needs decentralisation is PDS. Some of the SHGs in Andhra Pradesh have demonstrated that PDS can be organised locally by procuring local staples. Such a system would be more cost-effective and would be better able to ensure food security for the hardcore poor households than the present centralised PDS.

    It is suggested that there should be a centrally-sponsored programme in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan to implement in a coordinated manner the actions described above in selected gram panchayats. These gram panchayats should be given all

    Sage Ad

    Economic and Political Weekly August 18, 2007

    help and incentives to improve the safety nets along the lines indicated above, develop data bases on deprivations and household records and mobilise the hardcore poor and strengthen their motivation and development orientation. The gram panchayats could be those which have done well in implementing NREGP. The programme can also be extended to other gram panchayats which volunteer to participate in the programme. The objective should be to have as many cases as possible of gram panchayats successful in improving the safety nets and eliminating the deprivations characterising hardcore poverty. This could give a big push to planned efforts to lift the hardcore poor out of the poverty trap. They have waited long enough for development to reach them. Any further neglect of their deprivations can impose heavy costs on the polity in the form of widespread disaffection among the hardcore poor and the diversion of funds and personnel from development to maintenance of law and order.

    Points for Action

    Decentralisation does not mean that the centre and the states can sit back and bark orders at the PRIs and SHGs. In fact, when decentralisation becomes operational, the centre and the states will have to carry a far heavier burden of responsibilities than now. This is a large theme. We only list below the major tasks to be looked after by the centre and the states to convey a rough idea about the heavy and unenviable burden they will have to carry. Coordination: At present the safety nets fall in the domain of half a dozen departments and the programmes relating to them get formulated and implemented without any mechanism to coordinate the programmes to make them mutually reinforcing and working like a balanced package. The ministry of rural development should be entrusted with the task of evolving a mechanism for inter-departmental cooperation and coordination. Hopefully, if the mission mode comes into operation, there will be substantial improvements in these dimensions. Support and facilitation: As the states have been observed to be somewhat lukewarm in their acceptance of the third tier of governance and development planning, the centre will have to take more decisive action in the Eleventh Five-Year plan, taking the states along with them, to work out effective arrangements to ensure that:

  • PRIs and SHGs receive the funds they need with minimum delays and problems.
  • The devolution of functions and decision-making powers to PRIs as visualised in the constitutional amendments takes place quickly and smoothly. An issue which needs urgent attention is the authority over and the accountability of the technical and administrative staff of the line departments at the district and lower levels to PRIs. Devolution will be meaningless if the line departments continue the present arrangement of treating this staff as part of the line departments.
  • The roles of elected PRIs and that of MLAs and MPs at the district and lower levels need to be clearly demarcated. Currently, there is considerable confusion and conflicts about these roles which are, inevitably, overlapping in nature. Reconciliation: Decentralisation implies pursuit of development goals by PRI-SHGs within the parameters set by the overall availability of funds and equitable and balanced development of different areas and communities. These parameters have to
  • be taken care of by the states and the centre. It is also necessary to anticipate that decentralisation will bring in its wake disputes among neighbours just as we have inter-state disputes today. A mechanism will be needed to bring the parties to the discussion table and resolve the differences in a fair manner and consistent with the targets at the higher level. Transition to PRI-SHG model: The transition to PRI-SHG model may have to be gradual as there are many areas where these do not exist and it takes time to build them. It would be difficult to lay down any firm time table or a blueprint for the transition. Periodic reviews and specially tailored programmes for the lagging areas could help. Meanwhile, those areas which have reached an advanced stage should be allowed to progress without any hindrances. Their experiences could provide clues to speed up the transition in the lagging areas. Accountability to people: There should be a mechanism to attend to the grievances of individual PRI-SHGs along with a credible authority to audit their performance. Activists should play a leading role in bringing before the judiciary violations of parameters and norms and persistent non-achievement of targets. The shocking state of the PDS in some of the backward states reflects not only the failure of the government but, even more regrettably, the indifference of the activists, media and judiciary to the plight of the hardcore poor. Most important, there should be stringent annual stock-taking at the highest level of the performance of safety nets with full access to media and stakeholders.


    The purpose of this paper has been to point out the implications of the goal of poverty elimination in terms of the large and formidable tasks which are still to be tackled. In comparison with these tasks, what has been done so far and which is likely to continue by the sheer law of inertia in large systems like our governments is only provision of modest relief to the poor and that too in a regressive manner. The Eleventh Five-Year Plan, which puts emphasis on the goal of poverty elimination, should be based on a clear understanding that the government’s first and foremost commitment should be to the task of making the safety nets effective. Poverty elimination has to be a part of a wide-ranging and complex process of societal change. The government has to play an important role to support this process but not necessarily a dominant and decisive role. But it can easily abort the process by not doing even that which it can and which

    should be its first duty to the nation.


    [This paper draws on the notes prepared by the author for the Working Group on Formulation

    of Poverty Elimination Programmes in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan constituted by the Planning

    Commission. The views expressed in the paper are the personal views of the author and not

    necessarily of the Working Group.]


    FAO (2006): ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World, Food and Agriculture Organisation’, United Nations.

    Hirway, Indira (2006): ‘Employment Programmes for Protecting the Vulnerable Poor’ in Nisha Srivastava and

    Pravesh Sharma (eds), Protecting the Vulnerable Poor in India: The Role of Social Safety Nets, World

    Food Programme, New Delhi.

    Pandey, Geeta (2006): ‘Hunger Critical in South Asia’, BBC News Website.

    Radhakrishna, R, S Indrakant and C Ravi (2006): ‘Efficacy of Integrated Child Development Services Programme’

    in Nisha Srivastava and Pravesh Sharma (eds), Protecting the Vulnerable Poor in India: The Role of

    Social Safety Nets, World Food Programme, New Delhi.

    Srivastava, Nisha and Pravesh Sharma (2006): Protecting the Vulnerable Poor in India: The Role of Social

    Safety Nets, World Food Programme, New Delhi.

    Dear Reader,

    To continue reading, become a subscriber.

    Explore our attractive subscription offers.

    Click here

    Back to Top