There is a gram panchayat (GP; a rural administrative unit) in the Pali district of Rajasthan that presents a study in development gone awry. It is large, with about 6000 people divided into three villages. The largest and most affluent has about 3000 people and the other two have 1500 each. The last two are scattered among the hillocks over several square kilometres, and both are impoverished.
The largest village is densely populated, on the plains and abuts the main road. It's dominated by Marwaris, Rajasthan's affluent and successful trading community. They are well-educated, mostly rich and live in pucca (brick and mortar) houses. The village has good roads for the most part, made of cement or tarred. The village is well-drained with the water running in drains on either side of the roads and out of the village. Most people own a means of transport such as a motorcycle. A sizeable number work in nearby towns and many are traders, as is the community's wont.
GP-level implementation is seriously flawed in India. The rich get richer, the poor make do with the little that trickles down.
The houses are neatly arranged in rows along the streets. Peek in and they are spotlessly clean, with cemented floors, ceiling fans and all the trappings you will find in an urban house. Nearly all the houses, including that of a widow I saw, have the creature comforts of a television and fridge.
The women are vocal. It takes a few minutes of talk to get them going, and they narrate how their village came to be like this. They are abreast of all the government schemes -- pensions for widows, old people, disabled people, power tariffs, health issues and education. The ones I spoke to are educated and articulate.
Cut to one of the Adivasi villages. It is about 5km from this one, through lush fields owned by the few Marwaris who still farm, in a hilly part of the region. The tarred road stops just outside the village and there on a dust track leads to the village school. On one side is the anganwadi, the child care centre. Go further through thickets and dusty roads and scattered houses emerge. In no particular order, built where they found space, each is a nice sprawling homestead with a cow-shed, well or handpump and a large dusty courtyard.
The houses are a contrast with the Marwari village. They have brick walls held together with mud plaster; the roofs are thatched, not cemented. Curtains serve as barriers instead of doors. Two or three rooms built in a series serve as dwelling units for different parts of the family -- husband and wife, daughters, mother. There are no televisions, no fridges and only one of five families I met had a motorcycle. Clearly, something is amiss.
One of the residents tells me over tea that the Marwaris corner all the schemes that come to the gram panchayat. The GP is the unit of implementation for all government schemes. The head of the GP is a Marwari and he makes sure his constituency gets the first cut. The leftovers are fed to the Adivasis and the third village. So, money for the roads, setting up power lines, school buildings, health centres and market places goes to the Marwari village. It does not help that they have the advantages of greater numbers of people, who also happen to be better educated.
The government's universal coverage strategy... is simply blind to the fact that money thrown at a mixed population will be cornered by the educated and affluent.
This man has made sure his daughters study – one is in class 12 and the other in college. Braving the fields, forests and strange men, they continue to study and want to teach. But they do not open up and speak like the Marwaris. It's not just that they are shy. They have not seen the world as the Marwaris have, they have not studied in a private school (they go to government schools) and nor have they travelled beyond the village save to study.
The Marwari pradhan, the GP's elected head, is quick to retort he gives them their due. "What can I do if all they do is drink all day? No money will ever be used for welfare in that village." The Adivasi man disagrees. I too did not find a single drunkard there, even though it was evening. Instead, it was the people in the Marwari village who complained about drunks loitering in the shadows.
This small instance showed me how GP-level implementation is seriously flawed in India. The rich get richer, the poor make do with the little that trickles down. The government's universal coverage strategy for all its development programmes misses the wood for the trees. It is simply blind to the fact that money thrown at a mixed population will be cornered by the educated and affluent. The poor, who live on the margins anyway, will get little if anything. This is caste, socio-economic class and plain fund-grabbing playing out in the smallest unit of execution. It's really time to look at villages and poverty differently.