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The dry well of UPA promises

By Anosh Malekar

The Wada Na Todo people’s movement for governance accountability assessed the UPA government’s achievements on livelihood, education, health and social exclusion one year into its second term and concluded that the government was focused more on image-building than people’s welfare

On May 17, 2010, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government completed a year into its second term. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who addressed a press conference on the occasion, singled out the resilience of the Indian economy in times of global recession as a signature achievement of UPA-2’s first year in office, and pushed for “new frontiers” in implementing the social inclusion agenda successfully articulated during the 2004 and 2009 general elections. 

Barely a fortnight later, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) released a list of office-bearers of the National Advisory Council (NAC). The 15-strong body, led by its chairperson, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, has an interesting mix of activists, retired bureaucrats, economists and politicians from across the country, hinting at the possibility of higher spending on social programmes.  

When it was first set up after the UPA came to power in 2004, the NAC was meant to steer the Manmohan Singh government and provide policy counsel with a clear ‘social sector’ slant. It was intended to ensure that the UPA kept ‘civil society’ concerns in mind, to take the moral measure of the prime minister’s growth-focused agenda.  

Wada Na Todo people's movement

The NAC, though, has been criticised, with some justification, for working as a branding tool -- to firmly link the Congress’s open palm with large and benevolent welfare projects. 

A third, parallel initiative and its agenda begs a mention here. Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (Keep Your Promise Campaign) emerged out of a civil society discussion held after the World Social Forum 2004 in Mumbai. It aimed at creating a people’s movement for governance accountability, to end poverty and social exclusion. “This initiative emerged out of our assessment that strengthening the direct participation of marginalised groups in government policies and programmes was critical if the provisions made were to reach the most excluded groups,” Wada Na Todo campaign convenor Amitabh Behar said on the sidelines of the Abhiyan’s 5th Annual Campaign Coordination Meet on April 29-30, in New Delhi.  

For Behar and his fellow campaigners representing a diverse range of social movements, international and local, spread across 31 states and union territories of the country, governance accountability is a crucial factor. “Look at the ongoing IPL controversy. It is a symbol of how we in this country view governance accountability. It is a shameful manifestation of the disregard for any kind of accountability on the part of the powers-that-be. It is in this context that our campaign becomes very relevant,” Behar said, setting the agenda for the meet. 

Wada Na Todo Abhiyan has in the past few years brought together over 3,000 groups representing marginalised communities to work towards the collective objectives of the campaign across states. In 2009, the Abhiyan reached out to more than 7.6 lakh people across the country in three days, the organisers claim. This included over 300,000 children from a wide spectrum of social and economic backgrounds who joined hands under the initiative ‘Nine Is Mine’ to petition the Manmohan Singh government to commit 9% of GDP for education and health. 

Over the past three years, the Abhiyan has consistently reviewed the UPA government’s performance on key initiatives that were promised as part of the Common Minimum Programme (CMP), the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for India, and the Eleventh Five-Year Plan, publishing citizens’ reviews and reports. It has four thematic action groups on livelihood, education, health and social exclusion that have been engaged in capturing the attention of policymakers and representing demands and assessments to the highest offices of government. 

There have been successes. In February 2007, the visibility of the ‘Nine Is Mine’ campaign ensured Prime Minister Manmohan Singh granting an audience to a delegation of 20 children associated with the campaign. On World Anti-Poverty Day in October 2007, nine women associated with different marginalised groups and the Abhiyan represented the outcomes of the Women’s Tribunal Against Poverty to President Pratibha Patil.  

In December 2008, Union Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia interacted with civil society groups from 20 states at a national consultation organised by the Abhiyan on the role of civil society in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan. During the 2009 general elections, the Abhiyan carried out an India People’s Manifesto process across 365 parliamentary constituencies and reached people’s aspirations to 10 major political parties and around 30 members of Parliament. 

Campaign coordinator Siba Sankar Mohanty recalls what Congressman Mani Shankar Aiyar had to say on India’s development -- “India is developing, but Indians are not developing”. Mohanty adds: “We are aware of the attitude of the UPA government. What it wants is image-building and is least concerned about people’s welfare.  But we have to keep banging on its door to know what is happening to the people’s right to work, food, health, education and so on.” 

UPA-2 seems to be pushing for pro-people policies, at least publicly, laying stress on giving “a new deal to rural India” pivoted around key initiatives like the Food Security Act and other flagship schemes like Bharat Nirman, National Rural Health Mission and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).  

It is obvious that the one feather in the government’s cap is the MGNREGS, a flagship innovation that was legislated on August 25, 2005. The scheme guarantees adult citizens across rural India 100 days of employment at legally stipulated minimum wages. The scheme was initially called the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and was renamed by the UPA in its second term on October 2, 2009. “That seems to be the only progress achieved by UPA-2 so far,” Mohanty quips. 

The sustained place of prominence accorded to the MGNREGS on the UPA’s report card is, however, at variance with the scheme’s implementation, says Alok Vyas, a social activist from Rajasthan. “In the five years of the scheme, stories of corruption and mismanagement of funds abound -- Rajasthan being a classic example. In 2009, the state claimed a whopping 22% -- the highest share -- of MGNREGS funds from the Centre. Still, the state is struggling to pay wages on time. Besides massive corruption, there is a marked shortage of staff to administer work under the scheme. This, even as the twin curse of drought and migration continues to haunt Rajasthan,” Vyas points out.  

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stresses that social inclusion and improving human resource development will continue to top the government’s political agenda, in the UPA government’s 68-page ‘Report to the People’. Stressing social inclusion, the prime minister says his government will prioritise the concerns and interests of scheduled tribes, scheduled castes, other backward classes, minorities and women. 

Senior activist and steering group convenor Ashok Bharti says a cynical view would suggest that the UPA’s new-found energies are with an eye on the next general election, four years away, and a series of key state-level electoral battles, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. “While it is a fact that the pursuit of an inclusive social agenda is to the electoral advantage of the UPA, it is also a fact that this is now a precondition for preserving the socio-economic fabric of India.”  

The reasons are evident. India’s growth over the past two decades has been visibly skewed. As the findings of the Suresh Tendulkar panel on poverty showed, the number of people living below the poverty line in the country has fallen, but definitely not as fast as was popularly perceived. Instead, income inequalities in both rural and urban areas are growing -- with the latter showing a sharper deterioration. Despite its significant achievements, from the Right to Information (RTI) Act to the NREGA, the UPA seems to be losing to the politics of vested interests, says Bharti.  

Wada Na Todo Abhiyan’s monitoring of the government’s promises to meet the objectives set in the UPA’s CMP, the UN MDGs and the Eleventh Five-Year Plan shows that, outwardly, India’s progress has been spectacular. But when it comes to good governance, pro-poor policies and so on, the government has failed to deliver. “The people are suffering today from massive joblessness… acute food insecurity… rises in the price of essential commodities… Wada Na Todo Abhiyan seeks to suggest to the government a trajectory for people’s development through democratic engagement and assertion.” 

For its part, the Abhiyan is committed to its objective of holding the government accountable to its promise to end poverty, social exclusion and discrimination. “We started on a very small scale, but we could mobilise the masses across the country and this has had an impact on the government in Delhi,” Jagadananda, a social activist and RTI commissioner in Orissa, says. 

Jagadananda feels promoting active citizenship and citizens’ monitoring of government functioning is the next challenge for the Abhiyan. “We have succeeded in persuading the government to increase planned allocations for various development programmes. But implementation of plans still remains a big challenge. Some Rs 2 lakh crore is available for the benefit of the poor in this country. To ensure it reaches them is the real challenge,” he says. 

Wada Na Todo Abhiyan’s mid-term appraisal of the Five-Year Plans shows that there has been an increase in the proportion of plan expenditure in the Union budget in recent times. Compared to only around 27% of total Union government expenditure, on average, during the Tenth Plan period, the same has increased to more than 31% in the first two years of the Eleventh Five-Year Plan. 

There are, however, some issues related to expenditure through the plans. As can be seen from the budget documents of the Union government, between 2002-03 (beginning of the Tenth Plan) and 2009-10 (third year of the Eleventh Plan), the total plan expenditure through the Union budget increased three-fold from around Rs 111470 crore to Rs 325149 crore, which can be considered a substantial leap. But during this period, the proportion of plan expenditure on capital heads increased by only 17% compared to a four-fold increase in the recurring part of it.  

“This indicates that the basic purpose of creating new capacities has been marred by efforts to focus on those types of activities that involve wages, salaries, and payments of recurring nature, instead of any serious asset-building measures. Many argue that the electoral motives of the policymakers to remain in power are a critical factor of such anomaly,” Mohanty says. 

Wada Na Todo Abhiyan has a formidable to-do list, from pushing urban poverty schemes to food security and other less economically palatable but socially valuable schemes. “For instance, the Food Security Bill is struggling with government attempts at dilution, and it is evident that many of the more ambitious welfare plans will need someone to speak for them and to re-examine them given the political pressure that’s being brought to bear,” senior activist Anil Singh says while adding, “The NREGA and other welfare projects should aim for a situation where they are rendered unnecessary”.

The immediate campaign plan for 2010 includes special focus on women’s development, mass mobilisation for the ‘Nine Is Mine’ campaign for school kids, advocacy to make the Twelfth Five-Year Plan more participative and focus attention on excluded groups like denotified tribes that still remain out of India’s planned development process. Of course, a review of UPA-2’s one year in office is already underway. 

Infochange News & Features, June 2010