KERALA's political establishment, particularly the Left, has demonstrated considerable skill in adapting various centrally-funded projects to local needs, often giving them an indigenous look and enhancing their usefulness.
The Kudumbashree project is an example of such adaptation. It was conceived by the Centre as a micro-finance venture to help the weaker sections, especially women, and organised on self-help basis with institutional support from commercial banks.
Kerala transformed it into a multifaceted poverty alleviation programme, wider in scope than the Self-Help Group (SHG) schemes in other states.
With many Kudumbashree units in the state coming under the sway of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which dominates the panchayat scene, the Congress party launched an SHG network of its own, styled as Janashree, early this year. Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac recently voiced the state government's annoyance at the Centre's support to Janashree as a micro-finance venture.
Strangely, the state government has not evinced due interest in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which has emerged as the country's main poverty alleviation programme, although the CPI-M constantly reminds the public that the Centre had taken it up under pressure from the Left while it was supporting the United Progressive Alliance government from outside.
Launched in February 2006, NREGA initially covered only Palakkad and Wayanad districts in the state. Both the districts had witnessed deep agrarian distress. Indebtedness had driven a large number of farmers in Wayanad to suicide.
Palakkad is important as it accounts for the bulk of the areas still under paddy in the state.
Officials said 616,309 rural households in the two districts, including 57,810 below- poverty-line (BPL) families were eligible for assistance under the scheme. As many as 2,27,057 persons sought registration and 2,25,615 of them were given job cards.
Under NREGA, every eligible person is entitled to 100 days of work in the year at wages fixed by the government.
In October 2006 the Centre called for information from the states on employment provided under the scheme. Kerala did not reply.
Meghalaya was the only other state which defaulted.
The Centre had released Rs 217.9 million to the state by that time. As the government failed to provide the relevant figures, it was not known how much money was actually spent and how many families had benefited.
Kerala faces certain difficulties in the implementation of the scheme. One stems from the different yardsticks adopted by the Central and state governments to identify BPL families. Another arises from the fact that the wages fixed by the Centre are far below the minimum wages prevailing in the state.
Early assessment of the progress of the scheme showed that in several of the 200 districts across the country, where it was introduced in the first instance, its implementation was marked by corruption and leakages. There is room to suspect that Kerala withheld data to hide the shortcomings in its implementation.
NREGA now applies throughout the country. Data released by the Centre indicates that last year members of 3,57,252 families in the state were provided 8,141,429 person-days of employment under NREGA. The expenditure incurred was Rs764.1 million.
The state government's lackadaisical approach to the scheme is borne out by its failure to make effective use of the funds allocated by the Centre. It did not spend even one-third of the sum of Rs2.4 billion made available by the Centre under the scheme.
Figures released last month show that members of about 396,000.families have been provided 6.41 million person-days of employment so far this year. The amount spent was Rs987 million. This indicates that this year, too, much of the funds may remain unspent.
A harsh fact emerging from the data is that employment provided under NREGA falls far short of the promised 100 days of work in a year.
The data reveals the extent of feminisation of poverty in Kerala, especially at the bottom of the social heirarchy. Women constituted 85 per cent of the NREGA beneficiaries. In no other state did women form such a large proportion of the beneficiaries.
The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, who constitute 10 per cent and one per cent respectively of the state's population, accounted for 21 per cent and seven per cent respectively of the beneficiaries.
At the instance of the Centre, the state government is now planning a social audit of the scheme and considering the appointment of an ombudsman to ensure transparency. –Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 18, 2009.