Deficient rainfall has been predicted and there may be drought in some parts. How would you tackle drought situations in the country?
On the basis of IMD forecast, we have started our work. Ministry of Rural Development including department of land resources, Panchayati Raj and Drinking Water & Sanitation have jointly prepared a contingency plan to face drought-like situations. Mainly we are relying on MNREGA and 60 percent of its funds can be used in agriculture and agri-related works. As per predictions Haryana, Rajasthan, parts of Uttar Pradesh, to some extent Andhra and Telangana might have deficient rainfall. In drought conditions, income of farmers suffer and unemployment becomes major challenge. Jobs will be given to all. Moreover, we have decided to provide works for more than stipulated 100 days, if need arises.
Availability of water, under such circumstances, is yet another challenge. What are measures being taken in this regard?
Yes, we will be dovetailing MNREGA and drinking water schemes. We have several schemes for rural drinking water and sanitation. We can use 40 percent of funds under these schemes to mitigate the impact of drought. The Centre will provide full support to states through road and rail tankers. I can assure that funds will not be a constraint to face these challenges.
You talked about MNREGA, speculations are high that the government is not in favour of continuing MNREGA in its present form. Is it really true that the scheme is undergoing a structural change of major overhaul?
These are baseless allegations. It was alleged that the scheme will be dismantled or labour and material ratio would be changed from 60:40 to 51:49. But in the last one year, we have made efforts to strengthen the scheme by converging it with agriculture and related activities. Allocation has been increased by Rs 6,000 crore. As far as structural change is concerned, the scheme will be linked with skill development. It is prudent that youth should come out from clutches of poverty and labour work. So even if a youth has worked for 15 days under MNREGA, he will be provided skill development training. It would be a big help to rural youth. Moreover, we have identified 2,500 most backward blocks including tribal and left wing extremism (LWE) affected areas. The opposition started saying that now MNREGA will be limited to these areas only. I have broken this myth also and clarified that these will be the focus areas so that people here can have a decent life.
Have budgetary allocations for Rural Development in general and MNREGA in particular been slashed? Several states are complaining that they did not even get the allocated funds for 2014-15 so far. Tripura CM sat on Dharna at Jantar Mantar. Why is this so?
This is a baseless criticism. The MNREGA has got Rs 40,000 crore this year, Rs 6,000 crore more compared to 2014-15. Though the scheme has received money that it has not got in the last eight years. It is a demand-driven scheme with labour and material ratio 60:40. Asset creation component has 40 percent and in this the Centre pays 75 percent and states pay 25 percent. There is one more component. The Act provides legal right to the people to get unemployment dole if they demand jobs and do not get within 15 days. States have to bear Rs 500 crore in this head and for the excess works. Anyway, the Centre has considered the limitations of the states and provided Rs 5,000 crore as first installment in the current financial year with directions that they can pay for excess works and other outstandings. So funds will not be a problem but point is we need utilisation certificates and audits reports.
And what about Tripura case?
I would not like to comment much on this. A PIL has been filed in Tripura against misuse of MNREGA funds. The amount is nearly Rs 50 crore. I have simply urged in High Court that the case should be investigated by an independent agency.
Corruption is a major issue. What measures are you taking to curb it?
I am a straightforward person. I can tell you that people will find ways to malpractices do whatever you may. However, we have started direct benefit transfer (DBT) and it is helping. Digitalisation is also helping. Once job card is ready, it comes to our systems and likewise works details are captured. Money goes directly to ones account. Now if a job card is fake then we can not do anything. With digitalisation and DBT, cases of corruption have reduced. Effective monitoring would reduce it further. Aadhar would be linked with the scheme and this will make the job scheme more effective and transparent.
NDA government, right from the very beginning stressed upon convergence of several schemes related to rural development. Even MNREGA was expected to include works from sectors like agriculture. What progress have we made so far for the convergence of rural schemes?
We have laid much emphasis on convergence. Nearly 14 different departments have expressed willingness to align with the MNREGA. With this we will able to extend the scope of the scheme, funds will be utilised properly and will create quality assets. For example water department of state has to construct a water course and cost is Rs 10 lakh. The Centre under MNREGA would provide Rs 3 lakh and with this a quality asset will be created. With such emphasis on convergence, we spent Rs 15,000 crore more. So spending under rural development comes around Rs 49,000 crore including Rs 34,000 crore under MNREGA. This has happened for the first time and agri-related activities were also included. By doing this we create tangible assets.
You have stressed on completing socio-economic and caste census to introduce focused intervention in rural development programmes. Only 175 districts, out of 640 are ready. How do you see the progress and what would be its impact on the future plans?
It is almost ready. This Census is based on certain parameters and this will help in identifying the areas where we need to extend MNREGA or other rural development schemes.
Is there regional variation in effectiveness of rural development programmes. In which states the schemes are being implemented effectively?
Southern states are ahead. Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra and now Telangana
have done remarkably well. Apart from Maharashtra, now Madhya Pradesh has picked up along with Chattisgarh. But in North India, I feel people have different perception about poverty and work under MNREGA. A labourer of Haryana or Rajasthan would say why should he work under MNREGA to get Rs 233 a day whereas he can easily earn Rs 500 elsewhere.
Are you in favour of delegating powers to PRIs to make plans for local development, utilising the resources over which they have full command such as grants from the 14th Finance Commission, State Finance Commission, MGNREGS and the panchayat’s own resources?
The 14 Finance Commission has recommended that all money under Backward Region Grant Fund ( BRGF) and Rajeev Gandhi Panchayat Empowerment Scheme should transfer to Panchayati Raj Institutions ( PRIs). Though its recommendations do not augur well for the Centre, even though we have accepted it in totality. These are two major schemes to empower panchayats. Now in a landmark decision the Commission recommends allocations of Rs 2.23 lakh crore to PRIs in the next five years across the country. Under this the smallest panchayat would get atleast Rs 16 lakh a year and bigger ones would get upto Rs 1 crore. Such financial support the PRIs have not got in the last 60 years. This is financial empowerment. Now with technical know-how, training and other infrastructural & institutional support from us, the PRIs would be able to generate bigger resources at local level and would properly utilise allocated funds as well. We will provide full support to states.
What future awaits Panchayat Empowerment scheme? Will it be with the states or you will get it back?
The scheme was transferred to states last year. I have tried to convince the Finance Minister that it requires to be implemented by the Centre. We need to train and provide institutional support. Hopefully, we will get it back.
Would Swachh Bharat Mission be successful?
I think physical targets would be achieved by October 2, 2019. There is no dearth of funds. We have targeted to construct 11 crore toilets, and 5 crore have already been completed. We provide Rs 12,000 per toilet from our rural drinking water and sanitation fund. Apart from financial help we provide technical assistance as well. Certain areas require different technologies. We have uploaded eight technologies on our website. But real challenge is to keep these toilets functional. A recent survey revealed that 1.30 crore toilets are non functional. If we are able to keep these toilets functional, that would be our biggest achievement. Thus, people need to change their mind-set and sanitation behaviour. I want to put a voluntary mechanism in place to check and monitor the functionality of these toilets. I hope social activists and NGOs would come forward to support us in this mission.
Finally, would you be able to get Land Acquisition Bill approved in Parliament?
See, it has been referred to Joint Committee with 30 members. The Committee has solicited views from public and experts. Gradually we are heading towards consensus. I think Bill will be cleared in the next session. Moreover, even several opposition MPs agreed with us in the regard that agriculture income sliding down, we need to provide 25 crore youth jobs and a better life. If these 25 crore do not get jobs, our economy will be in deep trouble. This would not be possible without economic development and for this land is required. Farmers’ interests with 4 times compensation, rehabilitation and others issues have well taken into consideration. Congress is aggressive on this issue but the country knows what is good for it and stretching an issue beyond a point in not considered good in Parliamentary democracy. So I am sure, good sense will prevail and there will be no need to call for a joint session for the Land Acquisition Bill as the Committee report will manifest a consensus.