The year 1991 marked a watershed in the country moving up the economic growth path. Likewise, from 2005-06 onwards social development, except learning outcomes, has improved despite challenges.

The pro-poor thrust of the last 15 years — seen in terms of rural housing, education, primary health, bank accounts, women’s collectives, tele-connectivity, technology, employment, skills, social assistance and rural roads — seems to have contributed to India bringing 415 million persons out of multidimensional poverty over the last 15 years (UNDP–MDPI Report 2022).

Rural areas saw the fastest reduction in Multidimensional Poverty Index. Deprivations in sanitation, cooking fuel and housing fell the most from 2015-16 to 2019-21. “Despite tremendous gains, the ongoing task of ending poverty for the 228.9 million poor people in 2019-21 is daunting — especially as the number has certainly risen since the data were collected.” (UNDP-2022). The World Bank study on slipping back into poverty (2022) also alluded to similar challenges. And those who came out of MDP were fragile.

How to transform lives and livelihoods of the deprived in the context of the real rural today?

First, the 85 million women in over eight million self-help groups of the Livelihood Mission offer unprecedented social capital, providing opportunity for human development, credit access, enterprise, and sustainable poverty reduction through diversified livelihoods. This year’s Budget has recognised this potential. Their working together with the 3.3 million elected leaders of the local government, 43 per cent of whom are also women, will be transformational if funds, functions and functionaries from the 29 sectors assigned to panchayats as per the Eleventh Schedule of the Constitution is transferred to them by State Legislatures. The Central Government can make it mandatory that no funds will be released for these 29 sectors to States that do not comply with the Constitutional mandate for decentralised governance.

Second, to take responsibility for the 29 sectors, local governments will require skillsets that facilitate better governance outcomes at the cutting edge for citizens. Human resources, technology as a means, hand-holding and partnerships will all have to be thrust areas for effectiveness. Community cadres like the ASHA Community Health Worker and the Community Resource Persons of the Livelihood Mission could be thought of as possible pathways.

The Sumit Bose Committee’s recommendations can be guiding principles.

Third, it is time MGNREGS is seen as a decentralised resource for poverty reduction, mitigating global warming, and aiding human well-being. While it is true that MGNREGS has been getting additional financial resources in Supplementary Budgets, reduction at the BE stage could have been avoided as a signal for planned multi-year, high-quality water conservation (including mangrove forests) or other income generating, community and individual durable assets. Studies have established its efficacy in water conservation, basic infrastructure, and income from animal resources through convergence. The Dalberg study on ‘The State of Rural Employment 2022’ covering five States and Azim Premji University’s Employment Guarantee during Covid-19 (2022) covering four States offer useful insights on how a programme, once notorious for corruptionand Bolero cars of sarpanches in some States, is today a vital resource for deprived households, especially during periods of distress.

The studies have identified areas for improvement — timely wage payment, multi-year watershed plan, timely work provision, better wage rates, pro-poor priority in individual works, etc.

Higher utilisation

The Economic Survey 2022-23 takes note of the rise in the share of works done on individual land from 16 per cent in 2015 to 73 per cent in 2022. “Empirically, within a short span of 2-3 years, these assets have been observed to have a significant positive impact on agricultural productivity, production-related expenditure, and income per household, along with a negative association with migration and fall in indebtedness, especially from non-institutional sources.” (Page 171; based on IEG Study 2018).

Being demand based and open ended, it is true that some States like Kerala and Andhra Pradesh use MGNREGS more than its share of relative deprivation. Bihar and Jharkhand underutilise in spite of high deprivation due to governance challenges. Rajasthan and West Bengal have high use, and Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have caught up in recent years.

MGNREGS is the only programme where women comprise more than 50 per cent of the wage earners even at the national level. Some efforts at containing open-ended demand by giving weightage for deprivation to gram panchayats/backward blocks along with governance improvements in them could be a possibility. Convergent resources for productive assets in rural areas, along with diversified livelihoods thrust through women’s collectives, is the best way towards a poverty-free India. Unprecedented gains in water conservation works, solid and liquid resource management, animal sheds, vermi-compost and NADEP pits, afforestation on an unprecedented scale, contribution to rural housing, animal sheds, farm ponds, Anganwadi buildings, pucca village roads, have all been possible due to MGNREGS.

Rajasthan’s water security in selected villages, Maharashtra’s water works, Bihar’s Hariyali Mission, Telangana’s Plant Nursery in every gram panchayat and thrust on afforestation; segregation sheds, soak pits, percolation tanks, sports ground, crematorium, rural haats in many States; and Chhattisgarh’s MGNREGS use for Forest Rights Act beneficiaries are all examples of stellar contributions. Sikkim transformed through MGNREGS in spring-shed development to provide drinking water, animal sheds for dairy and for high value organic farming.

It is only through a co-ordinated and convergent action on education, livelihoods, nutrition, health, employment, and skills that a breakthrough is possible. If resources are available to panchayats, the ‘real rural’ can reverse poverty and disease.

The writer is a retired civil servant. The views expressed are personal