When Rashmi Ranga’s
mother Radha Devi started a small poultry farm in her village in 2012, the
family had been under severe financial stress for almost two years due to
monsoon failure, and fights over access to water. The farm, built in a
relatively rocky and unproductive portion of their parcel of 6 bighas (1.25
acres), was their ticket out of debt and loans, including the one facilitated
by the Haryana government that set up the poultry farm. The family had big
hopes from the poultry business: there was growing demand for chicken in urban
Haryana, and they were confident of repaying the loan.
But another debt was bleeding them dry, death by a thousand cuts, slow and painful. Radha Devi had to bribe two officials of Haryana’s animal husbandry department in Mahendragarh district to get the loan for her poultry farm. The family initially paid the two men Rs 10,000 each to get their application approved and a loan sanctioned by a co-operative bank. The officials were also owed a few birds a month and a 20 per cent share each in the farm’s income. These payments were between Rs 5,000-Rs 8,000, sometimes made once a month, sometimes once in three months, or during festivals. It was all about official whims. While the family tried to pay by the percentage of profit, the partners did their own maths of what it should be.
“The number of fowls they could take every month was not fixed, but they took five to 20 birds every month for personal consumption, which really hit our income, especially in the lean months,” Rashmi recalls. “On top of that their shares of 20 per cent each also made sure chicken feed and other maintenance expenditures were barely recovered in the months when profits were not substantial,” she says, her brown eyes lighting up in anger.
The farm’s boundaries lie in perfect unison with the directions, the priest told the family. Ever since, the priest had been plotting to buy up the land or get them evicted, the family claims. The poultry section was developed on the south-western tip of the farm, the area closest to the tubewell.
“At first (the priest) Mukhiya Ram said south is not the auspicious direction to set up new property. But when we did not budge, he incited Jats and Brahmins of the village by saying lower castes are polluting Hindu practices and so the farm should be removed,” Rashmi says. Jats had an extra reason to harass them, accusing them of promoting non-vegetarianism, the family said.
Rashmi’s father, Ram Kishore Ranga, meanwhile, had decided to switch to millet cultivation instead of high-maintenance wheat or sugarcane, since the semi-arid region receives insufficient monsoon rainfall, and is highly dependent on tubewells that push the water table deeper and deeper every year. “Maintenance of tubewells and to keep boring for water every two to three years was proving very expensive,” Ranga said. His decision was influenced by the talk by agriculture department officers on shifting to a less water-intensive crop.
The millet crop failed in 2013.
The Rangas are Dalits and getting any help from the Jat-dominated panchayat, from people who also owned most of the land, proved impossible.
The experts at the government offices said that millet farming was only an experiment and that crop failure would not qualify for compensation or assistance from the government.
As a result, the Ranga family became totally dependent on the poultry farm. The farm was drying out in the summer as the Jats stopped the family from using the tubewell that the Rangas had dug in their own land.
“Even in the panchayat we were admonished and blamed for the reduction in ground water levels and as punishment forced to only use the well reserved for the Dalits for our regular supply of water. My field was left dry and many birds succumbed to the heat,” Ranga says.
Later that year, when feeding the family of four started getting more difficult, they decided to stop giving the share of the farm’s income to the two officials. The two babus simply started taking away more birds as compensation.
Later that year, when feeding the family of four started getting more difficult, they decided to stop giving the share of the farm’s income to the two officials. The two babus simply started taking away more birds as compensation.
Loan instalments—around Rs 6,000 a month—kept piling up and official sealing of the farm seemed imminent. Then one of the officials came to the village and told Ranga he could get him compensation from the government if there was an official culling of birds citing the threat of swine flu and bird flu. Ranga agreed and the birds were taken away.
“We came to know later that none of the birds were killed; they had been sold in the open market.” The Rangas received only part of the compensation promised, which helped them scrape by till 2014, when Radha Devi was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
After almost six months of treatment at the government hospital, doctors told the family chemotherapy would be required. Officially, the family did not fall under the Below Poverty Line (BPL) category but they were entitled to free medical facilities at the government hospital. The family could barely afford to pay for the medicines; chemotherapy was out of reach.
Radha Devi committed suicide by consuming rat poison in February.
The Ranga family’s
fate was the result of a big experiment started under the UPA government in
2011: the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), also called Ajeevika,
which completes four years in June.
The scheme aims, among other things, at creating alternate and sustainable livelihoods for the rural poor who cannot depend on farming alone for their income. In fact, government figures suggest that almost 43 per cent of rural households depend on non-farming incomes for their livelihood. The broader aim of the mission was to make loans easy to get, educating people on various small-scale business opportunities at the village or regional level, and training people for various non-farming sectors.
The Ranga family had been approached by a young man in his 20s, “who came along with a whole team which included many officials”. He was a newly recruited officer, part of the department tasked with implementing the Centre’s scheme. Called “Young Professionals (YP)”, these officers are recruited mostly from colleges like Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal.
With academic knowhow and specific training for the job, it is the YPs who implement the livelihood mission across the country.
However, after the push by these young teams in the states, which resulted in initial success, the beneficiaries are now at the mercy of the bureaucracy. The young professionals have in many cases been skillfully co-opted into existing systems of corruption; another cog in the crushing wheel of everyday callousness driven by the well-meaning schemes of the government.
Villagers of Mehsana
Kalan were told that they would get loans for projects that they could
implement at the panchayat level itself. The women of the village were asked to
form a group to decide who would receive the various facilities the government
was going to provide under the new scheme.
“Most women from the Jat families were not interested in alternate sources of income so they were guided by their men to look for job opportunities under the scheme that could help the boys of the village. Families like us, with smaller portions of land, were more interested in sustainable sources of income other than farming,” Rashmi says.
Most women from the Jat families were not interested in alternate sources of income so they were guided by their men to look for job opportunities under the scheme that could help the boys of the village.
Eventually, young Jat men from the village started landing jobs in adjoining cities as gardeners, plumbers, technicians, etc., for which they paid huge sums as bribes to the YPs posted in the district. The poorer families, however, decided to go for small businesses, just like the Rangas. After initial training in poultry farming, the Rangas were left at the mercy of local officialdom whose feedback was the only source of evaluating the scheme.
Rashmi also tried to bring to notice the bribes being paid to YPs, which started within a few months of the scheme’s introduction. But she failed.
In Haryana, bribery is “mala chadhana” (garlanding)—a deadpan reference to the practice during auspicious occasions in the state of draping guests and important people with garlands of rupee notes of various denominations instead of flowers. One of the most popular ways for politicians to generate funds is this practice, taken to the extreme by the Dalit leader Mayawati, and during the rule of Om Prakash Chautala, now in jail for various cases of corruption.
Every family whose member had landed a job garlanded the man, with bribes ranging from a lakh to 4-5 lakh rupees.
All the YPs were
suitably garlanded with bribes during small functions at the village level
across the district, Rashmi says. “Every family whose member had landed a job
garlanded the man, with bribes ranging from a lakh to 4-5 lakh rupees, ” Rashmi
says. “And the policemen on special duty during the functions just watched.”
The two officials who swindled the Rangas—Rajendra Tomar and Karamat Ali—have been transferred, and officers at the animal husbandry department in the district refused any details of their whereabouts despite repeated requests.
A senior animal husbandry official who did not want to be named said, “We are aware they were involved in corrupt activities and many complaints were received from various families in the district. That is one of the reasons they were transferred out. But I am not aware where they are posted now.”
Karamat Ali is now reportedly posted in the northern district of Hissar. Speaking over the phone, he said, “I do not remember the family. All I can say is that we worked as per the directions of the YP Jitendra Sharma and implemented all the schemes honestly.” He then disconnected and did not pick up calls despite repeated attempts.
Jitendra Sharma has since quit and now works as an environmental impact assessment expert at a construction firm in Faridabad in the National Capital Region, where infrastructure activities have been seeing an upward trend.
While refusing to meet in person, Sharma said over the phone, “I did not ask anyone for a bribe ever. The garlands presented to me would not be what I would call a bribe.”
Karan Kukreja, an ex-research fellow at Kurukshetra University, and who now works for a construction firm in Agra, had met the Ranga family during one of his several field trips. He says the YPs have now been reduced to another tier of government machinery villagers must deal with while looking for opportunities to improve income.
“It is not that people have not benefited from NRLM, but only families that already have sufficient income from farming have been able to comfortably pay bribes to officials as well as sustain their alternate incomes from various schemes; the poor who expected to benefit have only ended up suffering more in the long run,” Kukreja said.
“In most cases the NRLM staff have been reduced to pimps who land rural men jobs through various means.”
The Dalits, who form a majority of the rural poor have suffered immensely, he says. “The trend of Dalits selling land to pay bribes to officials so that one of their family can land a permanent job has also gone up,” he said.
The IDFC Foundation,
part of Infrastructure Development Finance Company (IDFC) Limited—an
infrastructure-financing intermediary that works in coordination with state and
central government departments across the country, apart from working with the
ministry of rural development—also pointed out the poor condition of Dalits and
tribals in its report titled India Rural Development Report (IRDR) 2012-2013.
The report, prepared by the foundation in collaboration with its network partners, the Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CESS), the Institute for Rural Management Anand (IRMA), and the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR), with contributions from several other researchers, experts and civil society organisations, points out, “Poverty is markedly higher among scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) who together constituted 44 per cent of the rural poor in 2009-10.”
It adds that “Despite progressive legislation, SCs and STs continue to face discrimination, limiting their participation in economic, social and political spheres. They have the highest rates of malnutrition, child mortality, and access to public health services. STs fare the worst.”
Dilip Kumar (name changed), a YP in Moradabad district of Uttar Pradesh, has bought
a new flat in Delhi’s suburb of Noida and a brand new Mahindra XUV within three
years of joining the state’s department of rural development for implementation
of the schemes
He says that while all YPs are motivated and join with a passion for work, push-starting the rickety vehicle of rural development is beyond them; beyond even the good intentions of the NRLM. Skill development programmes, he says, are the key source of income for the corrupt officials and politicians of UP.
“I was shocked to see that half the programmes are conducted only on paper with contracts going to a select group of people who have anywhere between two and 20 different small institutes or other such organisations registered in their name,” he says.
When a YP joins, he is made to feel like a king. “It is through a YP that most of the schemes are passed eventually. I was overawed initially because vehicles were provided to me for a distance of even 500 metres. People would open the door for me and they would create hysteria in every village that we visited.”
The Self-help groups (SHGs), a major part of the NRLM, are meant to be the village-level guardians of the money for the panchayats and the various programmes implemented under it. However, caste-riddled rural societies make sure the facilities never reach those at the bottom rungs of what are legally abolished but brutally real hierarchies. “In cases where we ourselves took the initiative to reach out to the poor some of us were successful while most failed since the panchayats would stonewall all attempts to help them.”
Kumar says eventually most YPs give in to the lure of money. “To achieve targets, records are fudged to show, say, a person working as a part-time labourer at a private establishment as having undergone a course in masonry along with a large group of ‘beneficiaries’ from various villages. These private establishments give the recommended people work to either please officials or to make sure their illegal activities are ignored by the departments concerned.”
Dilip Kumar says he too is planning to quit his job and move to his new house in Noida and get a job in the private sector. Lokendra Dikhsit, who studied at TISS and then served in Bihar as a YP in Madhubani district for two years before moving on to a comfortable MNC job in Delhi, claims officials do not even go to the villages in most districts.
“They simply send a lower ranked official who gets a list of people who wish to benefit from the ‘private naukri (job)’ scheme he prepares based on the offerings (bribes) made by the villagers. However, if you look at the TA (Travel Allowance) claims you would feel that the whole district must be buzzing with discussions about the new scheme. In most cases the bills run into lakhs, while in some interior districts officials have claimed tens of lakhs as TA.”
He claims to have seen peons and other grade IV government employess buying swathes of farmland and build huge houses for themselves in his two years at Madhubani.
But both Dikshit and Kumar say that in villages where panchayats have taken the lead and the women have approached YPs or other officials the schemes have been implemented successfully. In the village of Shekhupura in Amroha district of UP, for example, women came together to make sure that poultry farming techniques were taught to them and the funds were loaned to them through the panchayat.
The village, says Nikhil Bisht who worked as a YP there, is Muslim-dominated and predominantly farming oriented although some men work in urban areas or are in the police force. “The women do not work in the fields except during the harvest season. So when we landed there and presented this option the men took interest too since they would only have to designate a particular area for setting up the poultry farm and the women would work there. Some of them who worked in meat shops also understood the meat supply system in urban areas and showed keenness. Today they supply meat to various areas in the (Amroha) city.”
Another example of success is Himachal Pradesh where the government focused on BPL families exclusively. Through more than 9,000 SHGs it has approved loans worth almost Rs 60 crore while the Centre provided about Rs 11 crore in April 2013.
Kriti Pant, who worked as a YP in Mandi before quitting her job, says, “The panchayati raj institution in the state has been strengthened over the years and the panchayats are very active to lap up any help that can come their way from the government or through the banks.”
Pant adds that the most important reason there is less exploitation of poor villagers is that there are very few private jobs in the state except in the tourism sector, which is run by both men and women equally, unlike in other states.
Mahatma Gandhi established an ashram that is today given the reverence of a
religious pilgrimage, is also the entry point to the unforgiving Vidharbha
heat. It is the closest railway station to Yavatmal district, about 90
kilometres from Ghatanji town, which is both a witness and a victim of the tragedies
NRLM has inflicted.
The immediate signs of failure are directly seen here, and in Maharashtra as a whole. The Maharashtra State Rural Livelihood Mission (MSRLM) has seen high rates of attrition among the YPs, and much higher levels of corruption at the ground level.
The operations of the YPs have now been significantly reduced over the past 18 months as a result.
Yavatmal—also called the suicide capital of India because of high numbers of farmer suicides—is an extremely drought prone and arid region, where bad farming practices and poor training under NRLM have resulted in successive crop losses.
In various taluks of the district, the training for farmers on the millet crop was so bad that many ended up selling their land and moving to urban areas in search of employment.
A member of an NGO that works in close coordination with the government representatives and the YPs, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “We know of at least 1,500 families who sold all their land within a few months early this year to move to urban areas or settle their debts and work as farm labourers from now on.”
Sagarika Ghatge, a student of M. Pharma at Pataldhamal Wadhwani College of Pharmacy in Yavatmal, who hails from Ghatanji taluk, has seen her father sell almost half his land in the past two years. The shortage of drinking water, leave alone availability of water for farming, was the major concern when officials trained some villagers, including her mother in goat farming.
The fodder that comes from millet and the local dry grasses are enough to feed the goats bred by the villagers. Goats, compared to poultry, do not need expensive feed, which considerably reduces the expenditure of the farmer. Goats also do not require much water unlike buffaloes or cows, and goat milk is a healthy substitute for buffalo and cow milk. Villages that have enough water to sustain their crops succeeded in goat farming and have gained considerably within a short span.
However, bad monsoons struck for two consecutive years: 2013 and 2014.
“Not everyone had shifted to millet or crops that require less water and as a result water became a reason for fights and debates among the villagers,” Ghatge recalls.
A thriving water industry has emerged in this drought-prone area. Soft drink bottles made of plastic are a prized commodity for people who travel to the urban areas.
Milind Kumar, a freelance journalist who also writes for the Marathi daily Loksatta, says, “If you stand by the road side drinking packaged water or a soft drink, you can be sure that someone will approach and request that you hand over the bottle to him after you are finished consuming its contents instead of throwing it in garbage bins.”
Rag pickers compete to collect bottles, which they clean and sell to villagers who come to the city for one or two rupees. The villagers then look for public taps and fill the bottles to carry home so that they do not consume water that could instead be used in their fields.
Sagarika says she too carries several bags of empty bottles to college every day so that she can fill them and carry home. Kiran Kumar, a clerk at the district magistrate’s office, talks of long queues even inside the office premises with people jostling to fill as many bottles as possible during the peak summer.
A senior officer of the agriculture department in the district said, “It is true that crop failures happened across villages in this region but water shortage was not the only reason. The farmers had been trained well but did not properly implement the practices taught to them. In many cases the sowing of seeds was faulty and in many cases too much water was used, due to which humidity of the soil caused seeds to be infected by fungi and eventually eaten by insects. Many of them used pesticides in excessive quantities, which also poisoned the soil and led to crop failures and excessive use of water in the lean months.”
The interest in goat
farming started dying down because farmers were unable to maintain the livestock,
and were forced to sell. Many go-betweens made a killing: they bought goats at
throwaway prices from farmers and sold the animals in markets like Nagpur at
many times the cost.
A senior police officer posted in Nagpur said, “We got to know that many butchers and dealers were sending men into the interior districts who would scout villages quoting low prices compared to the market rates and dupe poor farmers. Many farmers are said to have sold their whole stock of 10-15 animals for as little as Rs 7,000-8,000. But when a farmer sells it on his own we cannot do much.”
Officials of the animal husbandry and other departments also saw an opportunity in the farmers’ distress. They promised farmers that their loan instalments would be paid by the buyers during the lean months in return for the animals. Sagarkia says one buyer approached her father in May last year and claimed to have spoken to government officials.
“They took him into confidence regarding the payments of bank loans and also offered to make some payment in cash on the spot.”
Her father eventually relented and sold five animals for a paltry Rs 2,500 and a promise of payment of the loan. However, no payment was ever made.
That is when Sagarika organised a protest march in the district, the first of which she led along with Madhu Kore, a former government servant who works with SHGs of women from five nearby villages, in Ghatanji. The impact was felt across the region as the issue was highlighted by the Marathi press.
Kore also met some senior officials, who she says claimed to be totally unaware of the mafia scouting the villages for innocent farmers.
In many villages we saw that farms existed only on paper. The animals had been sold or people in whose names loans had been sanctioned did not exist at all.
“In many villages we saw that farms existed only on paper. The animals had been sold or people in whose names loans had been sanctioned did not exist at all. So much money was going waste when it could have helped farmers, especially the rural women who have been responsible for rise in the mutton sales from the district and the region,” she says.
Kore has since managed to get loans of some farmers waived by filing FIRs of theft and loot against unknown persons and then helping the farmers argue their cases with bank officials.
Apart from the Centre, the MSRLM is also funded by the World Bank, which has expressed dissatisfaction with the way the state is running the programme. It cut funding by 38 per cent recently.
Anil Patel (name changed on request), an officer who leads one of the teams of YPs and regularly represents them at meetings of higher officials and World Bank representatives, says, “Performance of the YPs has fallen after initial push and new recruits leave within months of joining due to tough conditions and extreme field work. Those who stay on have mostly shown below par performance. In such a scenario it is obvious that the progress report of MSRLM is marked red on almost every criterion analysed. Many teams of WB have visited the interior districts and have also consulted and coordinated with NGOs to assess the performance. That’s the reason they have threatened to pull out.”
The first phase implemented in 2013 with the launch of the National Rural Livelihoods Innovation Forum as an expert body of the state government with TISS and the World Bank as its technical partners in select taluks of Gadchiroli, Nandurbar, Jalna and Yavatmal districts has completely failed to achieve the mission objectives, Patel added.
The Centre is aware
that NRLM has failed to meet its objectives. While the UPA claimed it was a
pathbreaking initiative and initial successes were achieved, its leaders are
well aware of the status. Former rural development minister Jairam Ramesh, in
interviews to news channels has defended NRLM but accepted that there is no
process of devolution of powers and funds to the gram panchayats and sabhas,
and that there is no proper audit process to track the money.
In short NRLM has flaws that allow for embezzlement.
The IRDR 2012-2013 also emphasised the need to ensure community participation in the rural areas and that panchayat raj institutions (PRIs) need to be empowered. It also said the assets delivered through various schemes should belong to the village community as a whole instead of fragmented ownership patterns, which fuels manipulation by corrupt officials.
It recommended that schemes be flexible enough to allow PRIs and individual farmers to implement them according to local conditions.
None of these recommendations have been accepted in almost two years since the report came out.
The central government too has not implemented its own decisions, most important being the participatory identification of poor (PIP). In a cabinet meeting in May 2013, the UPA government decided to include the PRIs in the identification of rural poor so that distribution of resources could be efficient and equal. While UPA failed to implement it, the NDA government too has circumvented this need, and instead is going ahead with top-down bureaucratic identification of the poor, a method fraught with possibilities of corruption and fudging of data.
The present government has set its sights on poverty reduction through targeted measures at the gram panchayat level but has chosen not to involve the PRIs in its planning and implementation processes. The Rural Development Ministry under Chaudhary Birender Singh is in the process of completing the socio-economic caste census (SECC), an exercise that excludes panchayats.
An official privy to discussions and decision making at the ministry said that the government is so determined to go ahead with its plans that it has decided to ignore all previous recommendations and speed up the census which is expected to completed by August 15.
“The plans, however, are aimed at providing cheap labour to private players in rural areas or simply use the labour for urban programmes,” the official said.
“A development plan at gram panchayat level based on the caste census would enable a convergence of resources, funds and government’s intervention for preparing and implementing gram panchayat plans for speedy and targeted poverty reduction.
“The National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) will use SECC data to plan for poverty-free panchayats involving PRIs (panchayti raj institutions) and self-help groups from poor households,” a press statement by the ministry on May 9 said, similar to the noises made by the UPA regime except that it aims at “speedy” and “targeted” measures.
The Narendra Modi government, with its plans to build 100 smart cities and go for rapid urbanisation to fuel private participation, has also decided to merge the reasonably successful Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) into the urban-centric schemes.
The government has identified more than 14 lakh households who have put in at least 100 days of work under MGNREGS in 2014-2015 and have workers under 35, for targeted skill development training programmes. The scheme, Livelihoods in Full Employment (LiFE), will train people dependent on MGNREGA labour on the lines of the NRLM. LiFE-MGNREGA aims to train the poor in construction, road laying and other manual labor activities to “help them migrate to urban areas”.
It will also organise them into cooperatives and groups so that private players get one-stop-shop access to labour. The government plans to start this by July and has asked states to prepare their implementation plans. IRDR 2012-2013 recommended that PRIs be encouraged to build good quality assets at the village level to strengthen local governance and improve governance in states which have high incidences of poverty.
“In 1993–94, nearly 50 per cent of the rural poor lived in seven states—Jharkhand, Bihar, Assam, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. This rose to 65 per cent in 2011–12, (even) though states like Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh have reduced poverty significantly since 2009-10,” the report says. The government, however, wants poverty alleviation by forcing the rural poor to migrate to urban areas for work.
After her mother’s
death, Rashmi Ranga took up a job as a receptionist at a small hotel in
Mahendragarh. The income helps sustain her family and pay for the
school fees for her brother Alok, who helps his father in the fields after
“People from the village mock me and my father for sending out a young girl to work at a hotel. They often comment that ‘We know what goes on at the hotels’, and young Jat men often make passes at me. My father fears for me; he doesn’t say it but he fears that I will be raped. But I have joined a martial arts class in the city. I go in the mornings before going to office. I have also told him that at least nobody at the hotel cares about my caste and nobody asks for any commission from the money I earn. It is clean money for my hard work.”
She hopes to start the poultry farm once she has saved money for it. “My brother and mother had together worked on it. He wants to grow up and get into the same business. I want to make sure I can support him financially when he is old enough. We will name it after her.”
Sagarika Ghatge, meanwhile, is preparing for final semester examinations. She plans to find a job in Nagpur so that there is money in hard times. “Instead of selling our goats and land, we will work towards expanding it and making it viable bit by bit.”
Dilip Kumar says he will quit his job by the end of this year. “But abhi pata nahi. Filhaal toh maza aa raha hai (But I am not sure yet. I’m having fun as of now),” he says.