In this general election, many candidates are banking on votes based on the performance of poverty reduction and social security schemes.

India has a plethora of such schemes, and the government has invested billions of rupees in them. In this context, especially with the anti-corruption debate making waves, we tried to study how these schemes are actually working.

India currently has the world’s largest poverty reduction initiative, the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), based on the principle that communities (mainly women) be directly involved in the development process -- taking control of resources and decision making.

Bureaucrats say it is a viable method of delivering development funds, thanks to its ability to circumvent a top-heavy, corrupt system.

At the same time, some experts argue that in heterogeneous communities with high social inequality and vulnerable groups could be excluded due to the possibility of the programme being captured by local elites. Our findings seem to support the latter view.

Under the purview of NRLM, the Tamil Nadu State Rural Livelihoods Mission (TNSRLM) recently stated that it aimed to cover 265 blocks by 2016. The mission is an expansion of the World Bank-assisted Pudhu Vaazhvu Project (TNPVP) that has already covered 120 blocks.

Livelihood issues

We conducted a case study in four villages where TNPVP was implemented four years ago. The selection of the sample was not representative of the whole population of 120 blocks; nevertheless, the challenges we recognised could work as lessons for all.

Central to TNPVP is a series of exercises on the Participatory Identification of the Poor (PIP), which aims to label every household in the village as ‘very poor’, ‘poor’, ‘average’, and ‘wealthy’ — relative to each other. We found that villagers present during these exercises ensured that their households were listed in the ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ categories, also known as the ‘beneficiary list’.

Impressively, the majority of households identified as ‘very poor’ and ‘poor’ by the community belonged to landless labourers, implying that the community identified the poor households correctly. While it is encouraging that the poor households managed to get into the ‘list’, however, inclusion in the ‘list’ did not guarantee benefits to these ‘poor’ families.

First, less than half of the ‘poor’ households (41 per cent) had received benefits from the project; second, among the beneficiaries, the majority had some kind of connection with the Village Poverty Reduction Committee (VPRC) — a local group (mainly self-help group women leaders) which is in charge of allotting funds to the village.

The VPRC has representatives of each disadvantaged group, and the committee decides the interventions for the most disadvantaged households.

The elite factor

Surprisingly, we found not all VPRC members to be influential. Even though they debate about the interventions for the poor, almost all members we interviewed (84 per cent) reported that some influential VPRC members and their followers dominate discussions as well as decisions.

Worse, even though the government guidelines say that a VPRC member must step down after serving the committee for a maximum of two years, so as to ensure against elite capture, 72 per cent had been serving in the committee for more than two years.

While the model of involving the community, mainly women, in a development process is a well-designed intention, officials need to understand that participation could be misapplied as well.

First and foremost, officials must ensure that VPRC leaders be changed every two years in order to facilitate new ideas, reduce risk of corruption and internal divisions among groups.

More important, if beneficiaries are those that have links with leaders, encouraging new members to be part of VPRC is extremely important.

Second, if influential VPRC leaders dominate the discussions and their decisions are followed, it is even more important for officials to look into whether VPRC members arrive at decisions by voting.

In sum, the NRLM scheme can make a difference to the lives of the poor, particularly women, because the community itself is involved in the development process.

However, government’s failure to monitor the community might result in the exclusion of the less vocal and less influential families (perhaps the poorest) from this poverty reduction scheme.

The writers are with IFMR Research