Do Government Schemes Ever Work in India?

Reetika Khera
Grist Media
Do Government Schemes Ever Work in India?

It’s not unusual to hear middle-class people talking glibly, deriding government schemes for the poor. Equally often one hears that no government scheme can work because of corruption. The truth? For over a decade, since 2002, a group of us have been part of field surveys – conducted by university students in collaboration with local volunteers, that entail travelling across the country focussing on one scheme at a time – to understand the ‘truth’.

Over the years we have found a varied record of implementation of these programmes in different states, including the worst kind of horrifying stories of corruption. But we’ve also seen children gleefully eating school meals or people transforming their lives with their NREGA earnings in districts once infamous for starvation deaths.

More than a decade of conducting such field studies has taught us two important lessons: one, that change – for the better – is possible and two, that even when things work well, it requires constant vigilance to keep things that way.

This summer we expanded the survey – what we call a “Public Evaluation of Entitlement Programmes” (PEEP) – of five entitlement programmes in ten states across India. We surveyed the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme, Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Scheme, Public Distribution System (PDS), National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and Social Security Pensions. The survey was initiated by the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

As a survey coordinator, I visited the survey teams in five states. This is a brief and informal record of my travels visiting the university students who were volunteering their time. A note about our volunteers. The subjectline for our email asking volunteers once used to be “Hard Work, Low Pay.” We were surprised by the enthusiastic response we got. We later changed our sales pitch to “Hard Work, No Pay” which contrary to our expectations made the students’ response overwhelming! Some of our volunteers – Anindita Adhikari (since 2006), Ria Singh Sawhney, Ankita Agarwal, Raghav Puri, Neenu Suresh (since 2008) – have continued to work with us, even though after their first experience, some of them swore never to step into rural India again.








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These surveys involve nearly 250 train bookings and various equally demanding logistical arrangements that can be exhausting. But despite this, as always when we set out, there was eager anticipation of what we would find: do people get the PDS grain regularly? Do they prefer receiving grain or cash? Are NREGA wages paid on time? This was our chance to find out. It is our chance to find out whether and to what extent the media hype around one chief minister or another is justified.

Madhya Pradesh

On 25 May, with temperatures shimmering between 45-48 degres, I left for Pohri Block (in Shivpuri district, Madhya Pradesh). I’d never been to Shivpuri before but had heard dismal stories about this corner of MP.

Shivpuri along with Sheopur in MP and Baran, just across the border in Rajasthan is where the Sahariyas live. The Sahariyas belong to what bafflingly continue to be categorized as “primitive” tribal groups, or PTGs. The Sahariya community unfortunately most often makes it to the news for starvation deaths and other suffering, such as bonded labour.

In the three days I spent in Shivpuri, we could see that the programmes of social support continue to be in an abysmal state in the area. There was hardly any NREGA work and plenty of reports of corruption. We heard that the sarpanches inflated attendance, accompanied labourers to the bank at the time of payment of wages, and then labourers were forced to part with the sarpanch’s ‘share’.  The Sahariyas in Shivpuri also have among the worst levels of nutrition in the country.

I confronted one “rozgar sewak” (an NREGA functionary at the Gram Panchayat level) with this account of corruption. His response was, “so what? I’m not the only one who does this, it happens in all the gram panchayats.” Then emboldened by his own audacity, he added “All of Madhya Pradesh does it”.

Even in the PDS, things were pretty bad. Pootbarbe Gram Panchayat was close to the depot which supplies PDS grain to various dealers of Pohri Block. Here I asked a rather friendly president of the supply depot for his offtake records. He was only able to show me his records for the financial year 2013-14, but these were very revealing – they provided evidence for something we have suspected since our last survey of the PDS in 2011.

The society president’s records revealed that APL grain had reached his depot, but he had no qualms about saying that he had not given it to most dealers. At best, it had been shared by the society and the dealers, but none had reached APL ration card holders. Though the grain didn’t reach the village, the dealers marked sales of 10kg on the cards of APL ration card holders. (See Video 1 - a testimony from an APL ration card holder of Pootbarbe GP, Pohri Block.)

Since we found in the PDS Survey 2011 (of BPL and Antyodaya Anna Yojana households) that households were getting more than 80% of what they were entitled to, we suspected that the “theft” of grain was largely in the name of APL card holders. What I saw at the supply depot confirms this. The APL quota is completely intransparent – people who have APL ration cards call them “kerosene cards” rather than “ration cards”. Since APL households are not aware that there is grain for them too, it is easy for dealers to siphon it off. No one expects it, so no on demands it, and the dealer sells it in the open market at a neat profit.

Recent research has shown the 0-3 years age group is crucial for nutrition. Which makes the government programme that reaches these kids, the ICDS scheme (popularly known as the anganwadi programme) very crucial.

In Pohri, the ICDS was far from impressive. Sadly, the contract to cook food for anganwadi children had been given to the same self-help group (SHG) that provided mid-day meals in the Pohri schools. Some of the SHGs were, in fact, just a front for petty contractors.

The bigger problem: when the schools closed for the summer holiday, the SHGs in this area decided that it wasn’t worth their while to cook only for the anganwadi. As a consequence, there was no cooked food at the anganwadis for the toddlers of Pohri.

However the anganwadis are not entirely to be despaired over. Over the years, infrastructure at the anganwadis has witnessed a tremendous improvement. We saw toys, charts, growth charts, timetables for immunization and so on at the ICDS centres, and met anganwadi workers or helpers in many villages. [Photo 1a]. Does this sound like we have low expectations? The truth is that merely having buildings for anganwadis, finding them open, with any activity taking place is progress in many states.

At the other end of the age spectrum too there was some good news. We were able to trace most people who were on official lists of old age and widow pensions, and they all got their pension. Not regularly, but they did. The pension amounts, sadly, were insultingly low (between Rs. 150 per month to Rs. 300 per month, depending on age) and pensions were not regular.

Three days in Pohri left me quite depressed, but thankfully, I had to leave for Baran across the border by then. The Sahariyas in Pohri had suggested I might find good news in Baran – they told me with envy that in Rajasthan, people, including their fellow Sahariyas, got ghee, dal and wheat through the PDS on their ration cards. I had to see if this was true.

Rajasthan

I had first visited Baran in 2002. I’d visited Lal Kankri hamlet of Ganeshpura Gram Panchayat when nearly 50 children had died due to starvation in that district. Eleven years later Lal Kankri is still pretty poor, but most Sahariya families now have AAY ration cards (as per a Supreme Court order). The families are indeed getting 1kg of Saras ghee, 2kg of moong dal, 2kg edible oil along with their 35kg wheat – all for free. This is even better than the entitlements of AAY households in Tamil Nadu or Himachal Pradesh (where BPL and AAY households get upto 3kg dal, 2kg edible oil along with the grain).

There’s also a range of new programmes for Sahariyas, including special “ghar-badis” that serve as crèches, functional anganwadis and 200 days of NREGA work (instead of the 100 days mandated by the central law). All ration card holders I met had their coupons (see Photo 1) which clearly stated their entitlements. They said they were getting their grain regularly (see Photo 2). Some – not all – of the APL card-holders also reported getting their 10kg sack of wheat flour at Rs. 5 per kg (a new initiative launched in April by the Rajasthan government).

Since schools were closed for the summer, the team often approached school headmasters for permission to camp in their verandahs for the one night we spent in each village. We were happy to note that most schools had durries we could use to sleep on, electricity supply, handpumps and even functional toilets.

The running of the PDS was more or less similar in Pindwada Block of Sirohi district, where I went next. Not quite so as far as the NREGA was concerned. Rajasthan, which was once a frontrunner in terms of the scale of NREGA employment, is now facing an ‘NREGA drought’. Work has dried up. People here seem to have forgotten that they are entitled to 100 days of work – employment is such a distant dream. [see figure 2]. The delays in wage payments and a drying up of political will seem to be behind this, as people reported being available for work if it is “given” to them. On the good news side of the register in Rajasthan, the sort of blatant NREGA corruption I saw in Pohri was not visible in Pindwada.

In Reechchdi (Sirohi), while interviewing people in BPL households, we noticed that entries (for May 2013) on the ration cards of many Rabari families were for 25kg of wheat at Rs 25, whereas the respondents all said that they had paid Rs 50, a neat double of what they were supposed to pay.

By a strange coincidence, the District Collector and an advisor to the Governor of Rajasthan happened to visit the village on the second day of our survey. While it was not easy for us to convince the Collector about what was going on, within an hour of his departure, the Tehsildar visited the village along with the sarpanch with some news. The cheating dealer had been removed and a new one had been put in charge.

Maharashtra

After three days with the Rajasthan team, I headed to Dhadgaon Block (Nandurbar district). This turned into a marathon journey. Three hours by bus from Abu Road to Ahmedabad, an overnight train to Nandurbar and then another three-hour bus ride to Dhadgaon, winding up the Satpuda hills.

Nandurbar has often been in the news for under-nutrition and infant deaths. When I googled ‘Nandurbar’ and ‘children’, I got this – a report of 1,025 dead children in a 9-month period in 2012. Dhadgaon is one of two hilly Blocks in the district. Dhadgaon brought bad news again. There was hardly any NREGA work and corruption was rampant in the PDS system.

The two villages I visited (Amala, 3km from the Block and Kelapani, 3 hours away) were predominantly tribal villages. The PDS barely worked here. It wasn’t just corruption. The residents of these villages were accustomed to a diet of maize and jowar, which are more nutritious than the wheat and rice provided through the PDS. As a result, though tribal residents here are rather poor, they are not as keenly interested in PDS wheat and rice as, say, those in Jharkhand or Chhattisgarh. Dhadgaon is a good example of why we need to work towards the inclusion of ‘coarse’  cereals in the newly enacted National Food Security Act.

Funnily enough, in this corner of Maharashtra which gave the country the pioneering “Employment Guarantee Act” which led to the enactment of the NREGA, On the other hand, anganwadis, mid-day meals and pensions schemes were in comparatively good shape in Dhadgaon.

I learnt later that Kelapani is a village in Toranmal Gram Panchayat, known as a tourist destination. From the descriptions online – “Tucked away in the Satpuda Mountains at an altitude of 1461m, Toranmal is one of the most peaceful places on earth. And when you are tired of plain lazing, you could visit the beautiful Yashwant Lake, Seetha khali or any of the charming temples of olden days” – one would hardly guess the sort of hardship that people in this area face in terms of accessing their basic entitlements.

During my visit Dhadgaon Block was experiencing one of their periodic – and guessing from the calm reaction of the locals, not infrequent – water/electricity crises. I had my first real shower in three days, in the railway station’s locked up waiting room. A hot anda burji and rotis later, I was ready for my 24-hour train journey to Odisha. 

Odisha

Would anyone have guessed that Odisha would turn out to be the most heartening story of the ten states that we visited? We arrived in Bisra Block in Sundargarh district and found that this was true.

As far as food schemes were concerned, Bisra showed an all-round improvement.  The children got eggs twice a week as part of their mid-day meals in school, the PDS revival was relatively well known and the system for social security pensions had also attracted a lot of attention. However, the NREGA worksites, as elsewhere in our survey states, were largely invisible.

One part of our survey exercise was to obtain the list of all pensioners from the local officials, and to verify whether these people actually existed. In Tulasikani village, we found the names of three dead people on the list of 52 pensioners. One of them had died nearly two years ago but seemed to still be drawing pensions regularly in the summer of 2013. When we spoke to the Panchayat Executive Officer (PEO), who was responsible for distributing pensions, he immediately said that he had “made a mistake”. In August, two months after our survey, more than Rs. 30,000 was recovered [Letter 1]from him. Our complaint provided an opportunity for Block officials to investigate this problem in all villages of the Block – they found that out of an annual expenditure of approximately Rs. 1.5 crore in Bisra Block, Rs. 1 lakh had been misappropriated by various functionaries, of which Rs. 56,000 had been recovered by August.

The Odisha state government hasn’t quite gone as far ahead as its neighbours, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Chattisgarh’s success with the PDS is well documented (see this in The Economist).  However Odisha has made great strides in the direction of universalizing the PDS. In the Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput region, a region designated most backward by the Planning Commission,, all ration card holders (including APL) are entitled to rice at Re 1 a kg. In other districts, the state has introduced “Poor Left Out” (PLO) cards which cover “poor” people without any ration card. Approximately 6 lakh PLO cards have been distributed in Odisha since September 2010, when the Supreme Court ordered that grain be reached to the poor who had been excluded from the PDS rather than allowed to rot.

The other exciting highlight in Odisha was the anganwadis, which have sprung to life over the past two years or so. Children aged 3-6 years are now provided food twice – breakfast at 9 am and lunch at noon. This means that they stay at the anganwadi for at least three hours, which has made room for pre-school activities. The lure of a second meal keeps children at the anganwadi for a few hours, stimulating the anganwadi worker to keep them engaged through play, stories, or lessons.The state government has used a simple measure to convey the importance and seriousness of the anganwadi to the parents and ICDS staff alike – the anganwadi worker, helper and children have all been given uniforms (Photo 3 and Photo 4).

Jharkhand

Manika Block is a “notorious” Block of a notorious district in a notorious state. It is notorious for all kinds of violence (including state, Maoist violence and caste violence) as well as for being “backward”. In March 2011, one of our co-workers was murdered here.

Yet, in the five years that I have been visiting Manika, there is a visible improvement. One dimension of this improvement is in the attitude of the district administration. In 2008, the Deputy Commissioner (equivalent of the district collector) was a man with no commitment to development programmes and had a reputation for only being interested in the ‘PC system’ –  the fixed cut officials take from any development project.

Since then Latehar District has had two capable officers with good reputations and, importantly, postings that have lasted for a substantial period of time. This is in stark contrast with the general practice in Jharkhand, where the high frequency of transfers is the bane of any attempts at improving governance.

Here is one small example of the change in the district: a few years ago getting an appointment with the DC, even at his office, was not an easy task. With the new DC, it was just a matter of inviting her once (over the phone) to attend a public hearing at the Block headquarter, and she spent four hours with more than 500 people who came for it. Not just that. At this ‘jun sunwai’, as people testified against their corrupt ration dealers, two were suspended. They are now fighting their case in the court of the Additional District Magistrate (Photo 5).

None of this is to suggest that “all is well” in Manika. Bishunbandh village was an example of how ghastly life can be in the remotest village of the most “backward” Block – to reach the village we were stopped by a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp, a dirt track passed for a road, the anganwadi had no windows or doors, and its pock-marked floor was strewn with cow dung [See photo 5]. Bishunbandh is a village located on the very edge of a forest that separates Manika from the next Block, Balumath. Most residents, many of them Dalits and Adivasis, were landless until the Maoists “got rid” of the landowner of the village and redistributed the land to them. These families now till the land, but do not have ownership rights on paper.

Bishunbandh was one of the few villages where NREGA work had been recorded in the past twelve months (in most other places, no NREGA work had been initiated). But the “contractors” (a few of whom are in jail for a related scam) had started colluding with the local postmaster. We heard rumours that the cash would be withdrawn at the post office in Satbarwa, nearly 30km away, and shared between the various corrupt entities right there. Nothing made it to the post office, and villagers were deprived of their rights under NREGA. The local postmaster also faces the prospect of ending up in jail.

In the PDS system, things are slightly better though far from satisfactory – the dealer provides 32kg of grain each month as opposed to the 35kg he is supposed to give. He was among those suspended at the public hearing organized at the end of the survey.

But here’s the thing. Getting 32kg out of 35kg every month and action against the dealer is an achievement in a place like Manika. Until a few years ago, getting PDS grain once in two months and getting 20kg was routine. Worse, those who dared to raise their voices were likely to be penalized. Some years ago, Lachhman Bhuiyan, a resident of the adjoining Satbarwa Block, had dared to file a complaint with the district authorities about NREGA funds sanctioned for his well being embezzled. His complaint was forwarded to the Block as a matter of routine. The Block officials, in turn, informed the police thana, who picked up Lachhman from this village, kept him overnight at the thana, beat him and threatened to label him a Maoist if he continued to indulge in such “netagiri” (that is, raising his voice was an act of “Maoist netagiri”).

Back home

Within a month of wrapping up the PEEP survey, 23 children died after eating their school meal in Bihar, and India’s mid-day meal scheme hit the headlines, both nationally and internationally. A team of Australian journalists came to meet me after a week’s stay in Patna and Gandaman village (Saran district) where the children had died. I asked what they had found. Their first comment was that the mid-day meal was incredibly impressive. As they put it, the scheme reaches 120 million children every day, which is five times the population of Australia.

In contrast, the dominant impression among the urban middle classes is that the mid-day meal scheme serves poor quality food (sometimes with a lizard in it), hinders teaching activities (some even imagine teachers doing the cooking themselves), and must be rife with corruption. This negative impression is not confined to the mid-day meal scheme, but extends to nearly all public support programmes (the PDS, the employment guarantee act, social security pensions and so on).

A few years ago, we were trying to convince the well-known journalist Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar that the PDS can work, describing to him the PDS in Tamil Nadu. His reaction was “but that’s like asking the entire Indian team to bat like Tendulkar”. Yet, the PDS has radically improved in many states, including some – like Chhattisgarh and Odisha – where it used to be extremely corrupt and inefficient.

Amid all the gloomy anecdotes (like that of the officer in Tulasikani who has been helping himself to the pension of dead persons), it was clear to us that change is possible.

Odisha is perhaps the most interesting case among the survey states. There is increased attendance in the anganwadis, better distribution in the PDS, less pilferage, less corruption in the case of social security pensions – all achievements for a state otherwise associated with poor administrative capacity.

The tail-enders (to return to Aiyer’s cricket analogy) it appears, have learnt to hit a few sixes as well.

Reetika Khera teaches economics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.