Monday, September 24, 2007

Poverty eradication programme falls behind schedule

THE last Left Democratic Front government launched the Kudumbashree programme in 1998 with the proclaimed objective of eradicating absolute poverty in 10 years. While the State Poverty Eradication Mission, which is in charge of the programme, has many achievements to its credit, it appears unlikely to achieve the target.

Kudumbashree now covers 3.77 million families. It has spawned many schemes in different fields. Its biggest achievement is perhaps in the area of micro-enterprises.

Kerala already had one of the lowest poverty rates when the programme was launched.
A World Bank-supported study showed that among the states it had recorded the highest decline in poverty between 1957-58 and 1993-94. Rural poverty in the State fell from 69 per cent in 1970-71 to 19 per cent in 1993-94.

The World Bank attributed the net gains to the poor since the early 1970s mainly to economic growth since there was little change in the distribution pattern during this period. It saw this as supportive of the view that a stable macro-policy environment, combined with micro-policy reforms conducive to economic growth, can help greatly in reducing absolute poverty.

In theory, the Kudumbashree programme aims at eradicating poverty through concerted community action under the leadership of local self-government institutions "by facilitating organisation of the poor for combining self-help with demand-led convergence of available services and resources." However, for all practical purposes, it is a network of self-help groups of women below the poverty line.

To begin with, the programme was confined to the rural areas. It now extends to the whole State.

According to National Sample Survey Organisation data, in 1999-2000, a year after the programme got under way poverty in Kerala was 12.72 per cent as against the all-India average of 26.30 per cent. While in the other States poverty was more in evidence in villages than in towns, Kerala presented a different picture. Here, while rural poverty was only 9.35 per cent urban poverty was 20.27 per cent.

In 2005, when the United Democratic Front was in power, the State Planning Board called for re-focusing attention on the poverty issue. Board vice-chairman CV Padmarajan said 12 million people, mainly farm labour, fishermen, workers in the traditional industries and casual workers in urban areas were struggling under the burden of poverty.

In May this year, the ninth anniversary of the Kudumbashree programme was celebrated with fanfare. At that time NSSO was conducting this year's socio-economic survey, which has since been completed. Its findings suggest that in the past nine years rural poverty has gone up from 12.72 per cent to 13.28 per cent while urban poverty has gone down from 26.30 per cent to 20.2 per cent .

These figures indicate that the Kudumbashree programme will not be able to achieve the aim of wiping out absolute poverty by next year, as originally envisaged.

Significantly, the skewed pattern of more poverty in urban areas than in rural areas persists. Prabhat Patnaik, who is now vice-chairman of the Planning Board, attributes this to migration of the rural unemployed to urban areas.

Patnaik's explanation raises several questions. Migration from villages to towns in search of employment is a trend discernible all over the country. Why is it that in Kerala alone it has upset the rural-urban balance? Also, does the higher decline in urban poverty indicate a slowing down of migration from rural areas?

Patnaik's refutation of the general impression that acute poverty does not exist in Kerala merits serious notice. He points out that when the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme was extended to Palakkad and Wayanad districts, many thought it would have no takers. Yet 200,000 people had registered under it.

NREGP was conceived to help poor unemployed households to rise above the poverty line. The responsibility for its implementation rests mainly with local self-government institutions. Its fate in the State offers a clue to understand why such schemes fall behind schedule.

The Centre, which is required to provide 90 per cent of the funds under the programme, released Rs113.42 million in 2005-06 and Rs217.95 million in the first half of 2006-07. The State, which is required to contribute 10 per cent, did not provide a single rupee during this period.

Actual expenditure under NREGP in the first year was nil. In the second year a sum of Rs 18.88 million was spent. This was just six per cent of the funds allocated by the Centre. At that time the authorities had still not drawn up a perspective plan for the two districts. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 24, 2007.

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