Nrega Is A Great Developmental Initiative, But The Government Has To Ensure That The Additional Income In The Hands Of The Rural Poor Gets Mobilised



TOWARDS LONG TERM PRODUCTIVE MEANS AND NOT ALCOHOL!

When NREGA was launched in the year 2006, it was one of the biggest leaps taken by the UPA government to productively engage the underprivileged rural folk and connect them to the mainstream, a move which was due for long. From Rs 11,000 crores as the initial outlay, the same NREGA has grown to Rs 40,100 crores in the current year, encompassing each and every district of the country. Although a phenomenal initiative, from the very beginning, the NREGA has been marred with delivery bottlenecks. Like in most other cases, corruption this time too at every stage robbed the poor rural folk of their dues. The only consolation being that at least something is reaching them, compared to nothing in the past! But then, I recently came across this disturbing news! It has been reported that Indian made foreign liquor (IMFL) sales have been going up as an aftereffect of the NREGA scheme. On hindsight, this was clearly predictable, but this was something that should have never happened in the first place! Predictable, because this is apparently a global phenomenon, that an immediate spurt in income disproportionately increases the propensity of consumption, and if it is backed with illiteracy and lack of awareness, the outcomes are even more hazardous, like we are seeing in our case! But then, what is most unfortunate is that a scheme which had the promise to transform the rural economy is actually pushing it to a bigger crisis! And if corrective actions are not taken on an immediate basis, we ourselves would be blamed for funding this nation into becoming a nation of alcoholics!

So when the government was all set to distribute around Rs 40,000 crores through NREGA, apart from ensuring that the money reaches the targeted population and does not get eaten up by the system, the government should have also ensured that there was a serious cap on the supply of alcohol in these regions. What happened was just the reverse. In fact, over the past few years, liquor outlets have on an average doubled in the rural areas. In Bihar, for example, the number of liquor outlets in the rural areas in the year 2006/07 was around 2800, which has gone up by more than 6000 currently. And this is all set to rise further as it is reported that the Excise and Prohibition Department is about to sanction one liquor vend in every three villages. It’s tragic that state governments don’t show a similar commitment for opening schools and health centres across each village. The bigger tragedy is that the per capita consumption of cereals is reducing every year, whereas that of liquor is increasing. The per capita consumption of cereals has fallen by almost two kg in the last decade. Bihar is not the only case in point, a similar growth in liquor supplies and consumption is being observed across the country. In Andhra Pradesh too, in a recent auction of around 6500 liquor vends, the rural areas put up the highest bids!

Reports also state that the liquor traders are very upbeat about the rural economy as various developmental schemes like the NREGA are enhancing the purchasing power within the rural populace, which has been driving up their sales. The government has also been extremely helpful in providing these liquor traders the reach without any concerns about the long term impact this is creating.

As I said earlier, the government should definitely put an immediate cap on the licensing of liquor outlets, particularly in rural India. This might also trigger the supply of illicit liquor and might even create an entire black economy around liquor. So the challenge to restrict consumption of alcohol and divert the new income towards consumption of cereals, saving, and into social investments like education for their children, is going to be a tall one, both for the Centre and the state governments!

One way to arrest this challenge is to issue the NREGA cards to the female member of the family rather than the male member. Globally, it has been observed that whenever income levels go up, women fare relatively better with respect to overall family welfare, as compared to their male counterparts. Even the famous Grameen Bank, which works on a micro-finance model and has had a huge success in transforming Bangladesh, hinges on this very premise that funding women with loans is any day a better bet than providing loans to men.

All in all, I would like to reiterate again that NREGA is a great developmental and transformational initiative. But then, successfully implementing the scheme across the nation is just half of the job done. The government also needs to ensure that the additional incomes generated by the rural folk are mobilized towards long term productive means. That would be the real challenge and transformation in the real sense!

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