For a ministry that gets a lion’s share of budgetary allocations—a massive Rs 80,000 crore—there has been little activity in the last seven months, although it has seen three ministers. That’s disturbing, given that MRD enforces the cream of the social development schemes, including the UPA’s pet project NREGA. But “outsider” Gadkari, who replaced his statemate Gopinath Munde following his demise, before being shunted to the surface transport ministry, has been barely away from the news, but for the wrong reasons. First, newspaper reports surfaced of his home being “bugged” (denied), then reports of his throwing his hat into the Maharashtra chief ministerial ring (again denied), then pictures of his riding a scooter helmetless (confirmed).
On the BJP’s antipathy towards “doles”, the Man from Nagpur was on the money. Even as Modi was paving the way for his ouster ahead of the November revamp, word leaked out that the minister was looking at limiting NREGA to a certain number of districts and also tinkering with the policy. The BJP government’s disquiet with “doles” is well-known, as is the constant refrain to develop better delivery models for these subsidies. That’s perhaps why RSS man Gadkari famously said, “Managing rural development is a very difficult task for me. I am trying my level best, I am working from 8:00 am up to 2 am.”
The ministry’s key action has been to stall NREGA. The all-important scheme is in a mess and is facing a big problem of flow of funds. In many states, wages of people identified under the scheme have been delayed for months and state CMs have been complaining to the centre. The state-wise picture is bizarre. The poorer states of Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have received almost no funds or they have been delayed. “Most of the funds have been spent in Jammu & Kashmir, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where the problem of poverty is not so acute,” says NAC member N.C. Saxena.
Activists claim there is a premeditated pattern here. “A lot of time has been spent on deciding whether the money should be spent on providing wages to the poor or on material. The maximum activity is on how to pull back NREGA,” says former NAC member Harsh Mander. The other issue is the Food Security Act. While this comes under the food ministry, the task of identifying the beneficiaries rests with the MRD which is conducting the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC). This massive exercise has slipped into a further mess, thanks to recent non-payments to contractors. “Data collection is stuck in many states for various reasons,” says social economist Reetika Khera.
Then there’s sanitation. Two key and much publicised initiatives—the PM’s Swachh Bharat scheme and the move to build toilets in every home—have gaping holes. For all the photo-ops of ministers sweeping the streets, there’s no palpable movement by the ministry. The toilet-building rush is also flawed, as experts say most are not functional or are locked up. Municipalities across the country continue to complain that there are no funds for cleanliness, maintenance or repair. For a ministry of this importance, it leaves much to be desired.
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“Building toilets is one critical element of sanitation, the other one is social change. Request all of you to make this a national movement.”