Poverty alleviation

Updated: Jul 31 2007, 03:42am hrs
The evident ineffectiveness of poverty alleviation programmes in Indias two most politically charged states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, has been the subject of many jibes and jokes in India. But now that clear documentation of the failures has been presented by an evaluation study done by the Planning Commission, one can hope that it becomes a subject for serious soul-searching. There are many who are sitting with a told-you-so look of calm resignation on their faces. The top-down approach favoured by the Centre, with its stone-etched sanctity conferred by the 1970s pseudo-consensus that garibi hatao was a job for the very top, has served the cause very badly. Alternatives exist. Experts have long argued that a decentralised approach will be much more effective in ensuring identification of the rural poor and for working out an effective mix of anti-poverty schemes that take effect from the ground upwards, with local conditions taken into account.

Sadly, it is not clear if even that will work. The state of governance in these two states, which account for 96 million of all Indians below the poverty line, is pitiable. Worse, upliftment is widely thought to be a zero-sum game, a direct result of identity politics. Some analysts had hoped that empowerment movements in these states would help the under-empowered catch up. What we seem to have got, instead, is a worsening case of the Indian crab syndromewith equilibrium defined as mutually assured misery for all. If Central intervention is needed, then perhaps it is this peculiar problem that needs to be addressed on a priority basis. And there is no better way for people to recognise their own welfare in that of others than the experience of an enlargening market for their own output. Self-help groups, new credit delivery mechanisms and vocational training centres are all trying to set this ball rolling. Direct transfers in the form of vouchers have also been suggested for food, power, education or health benefits. Granting such freedom of choice will enhance the efficiency of delivery. It may also be possible to devise local voucher systems within rural settings to ensure that estranged groups do business with one another with renewed enthusiasm. This could break the stranglehold of local power brokers who see political gains in keeping people apart. The key, of course, is local participation.