Rural infrastructure needs a fillip

Updated: Apr 11 2006, 05:30am hrs
Rural development, especially infrastructural development, by its very nature is holistic. Therefore, it can neither be left to a ministry of rural development, which cannot think beyond sop programmes, nor to the uncoordinated working of departments, like roads, public health, education and others.

The Indian states weaknesses in cross-functional policy design and in coordination across departments and functions are far too obvious. The only option is to ride on economic development and the processes that it unleashes. This would mean movements away from imposed planning, especially micro-planning, and micro-management, regional planning, crafted citizens participation, etc. whatever their seeming attractiveness to NGOs and local officials, and their validity on paper.

All programmes that necessarily involve coordinated actions across departments and identification of beneficiaries and targeting may actually be given up, since the probability of failure is very large. This is so as there is little basis in the administrative machinery to work cross functionally, or to engender and sustain leadership. Instead, recognising the potential of leverage points for change is the need of the hour. Growth is certainly the most important, even if it is seemingly not ubiquitous.

Next in importance for rural development is connectivity, followed by primary and secondary education and the provision of core public services. Their positive external effects are very large. They do not need elaborate planning, are eminently handled by hierarchically structured government departments working (but really working) independently. In this effort, some recourse to markets and the private sector through improvements in contracting and public procurement modes could do wonders.

Therefore BOT, annuity models, a variety of public-private partnerships are all important, but successful cases need documentation, wide publicity and promotion. Thus, the majority of small town and large village populations can afford to pay for covered sewerage services, which local private parties with their access to low cost labour can put together.

What stands in the way is a suitable revenue model and the lack of efforts of government departments to multiply successes.

Similarly, if the functioning of the education department can improve, then a whole lot of rural development can happen. After all, the department of education in states like Bihar, UP and MP need only improve to the levels in Tamil Nadu for a reasonable impact on overcoming illiteracy.

Why worry about unrepeatable microplanning when the far easier and single department activity of managing rural schools does not get the attention that it deserves Hence, the steep budget increases for primary and secondary schools is very much in the right direction but need to be followed by newer rules for teachers and school principals, better empowerment, local sourcing of teachers, a stop to the useless merry-go- round transfers, and bringing back well known and widely practiced systems of school monitoring and inspection.

Why cant teachers from recognised elite schools be deputed on payment and oath to evaluate other non-competing schools and recommend changes and funding

The focus on rural roads in the Prime Ministers Gram Sadak Yojana has allowed many states to improve road connectivity of villages. A little innovation in terms of transparency and some effort to shield the project from the traditional public works departments, better procurement modes, especially the aspect of independent certification, have all helped.

Involved analysis, data and the experience of many would confirm that one of the important determinants of well being in rural areas is the quality of their connectivity with central places. In Africa, (except West and possibly South Africa), the almost continental distances from the coast to the interior, where most of the population lives, is known to raise the cost of most goods by doubling and even tripling prices of goods like cement, steel, grain and kerosene over global international prices.

Low population densities also imply that the person weighted average of distances from the coast and from areas of production are very large. Since the quality and cost of transport networks is itself a function of density of traffic, there is a chicken and egg aspect to rural connectivity.

The state transport undertakings legal monopoly over bus services stands in the way of private sector participation.

The writer is a professor at IIM- Ahmedabad. His email: morris@iimahd.ernet.in