For growth, focus on remote villages
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Posted on August 3, 2010 | Author: Sonalde Desai | View 1412 | Comment : 4
Rural infrastructure has received considerable attention and investment in recent years through different components of Bharat Nirman Yojna. However, difficulties in achieving infrastructure targets are also real, particularly when it comes to quality. Practical strategies for addressing infrastructure woes require greater attention to the differences between rural areas.
All rural areas are not alike and their diversity shapes the core dilemma defining modern India. Some villages have shared the prosperity of the recent decade while other remain forgotten and overlooked outposts in a nation in transition. A study titled Human Development in India: Challenges for a Society in Transition by researchers from National Council of Applied Economic Research and University of Maryland found tremendous diversity among villages on a variety of dimensions of wellbeing.
Of the 1,454 villages surveyed nationwide, information on existence of the following services was collected: Pucca road, bus stop, police station, bank, electricity, telephone land line, mobile access, kirana shop, PDS shop, and bazaar. In developed villages, where at least six of these eleven facilities were available, human development indicators were substantially better. While some of these infrastructure facilities are provided by the private sector, most are government services and one would assume that they are not driven by wealth or poverty of the village. But two characteristics of villages with poorly developed infrastructure are noteworthy.
One, these are not necessarily far flung villages — only 8% are more than 30 km away from the nearest town. However, proximity to just any town is not sufficient, it is the district town, the seat of power that seems to be relevant. Of the villages located within 30 km of the district headquarters, 57% fall in our categorisation of developed village, compared to barely 42% of those that are 60 km or farther away.
Second, these villages are disproportionately located in Chhattisgharh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal, the flashpoints of the Maoist insurgency. In these states, 70% or more of the surveyed villages are classified as being less developed compared to 50% for India as a whole and 40% or less in southern states.
These are the villages where non-agricultural work is scarce, children attend school but fail to learn to read and where vaccination levels are low. In contrast, better connected villages — about 50% of the villages studied — appear to be far more integrated in the economy and on some dimensions of well being, appear to be almost on par with smaller cities.
The key difference between lives of residents in these two sets of villages lies in differential access to non-agricultural work. Agriculture is important in both developed and less developed villages. In both about half the males rely exclusively on agriculture, but while 34% of the males in developed villages rely exclusively on non-farm employment, only 22% in less developed villages do so. Both agricultural and non-agricultural incomes in villages with better infrastructure are also higher.
Infrastructure development brings with it nonagricultural work opportunities by providing jobs as teachers, clerical workers, artisans and shopkeepers within the village; it also increases the possibility of commuting to nearby towns for work. It increases the likelihood that the teachers and nurses will live in the village and improves the quality of education and health care. Ironically, even NGOs are more likely to locate in villages that have better infrastructure, augmenting the virtuous cycle of rural development. Urban and rural differences in standards of living have been acknowledged by public policy, diversity in the rural panorama has received little attention. While we must rejoice that some villages have grown into prosperous hubs these statistics also offer us incentives to invest in the infrastructure for the villages that have been left out.
Recognition of diversity within the rural sector is particularly important because our typical instinct is to target poorest districts. This is not a bad strategy for many programmes such as health schemes where strong regional clustering in disease prevalence has been observed or for irrigation and forestry programs where spillover effects dominate. However, it does not serve us well when it comes to infrastructure. Analysis of variance suggests that 30% of the variance in infrastructure lies between states, 18% between districts within a state and 52% between villages within a district. This suggests a need for a targeted strategy, consisting of a two-pronged approach starting with states that have lowest level of infrastructure development and within those focusing on most backward villages, often villages farthest from the district headquarters.
As the nation struggles with the challenges of meeting targets under Bharat Nirman Yojna, there will be temptations to focus on the low hanging fruit – villages where some development has already taken place and hence are easy to reach, villages that are close to centers of power, and peri-urban villages. We must resist this temptation to focus on the forgotten villages that have been left out of the developmental mainstream until now.
Sonalde Desai is a Senior Fellow at the National Council of Applied Economic Research and Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland. Views are personal