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Sunday, 6 November 2011
It looks like risky politics for Jairam Ramesh, who runs India’s biggest civilian ministry, in charge of rural development, to lash out at his own government’s flagship welfare scheme. Mr Ramesh, who got his cabinet post in July, has sparked a row in the past week over corruption and poor results within a public programme that guarantees 100 days of paid work a year for any unskilled rural labourer who wants it.
Sadly, he is only stating the obvious. India’s biggest single welfare project was launched in 2006 and costs over $8 billion a year. Alone, it eats up over 3% of all public spending, and officials say over 50m households last year got some benefit from it. Supporters say it has helped to lift rural wages—on average workers get about 120 rupees ($2.40) a day—which should mean falling poverty. But in many districts, especially poorer ones, huge amounts are stolen or wasted.
In his office in Delhi, listening to Vivaldi, Mr Ramesh criticises “uneven, patchy” implementation of the scheme. He complains about months-long delays in getting workers paid. And he describes wasteful construction of items such as roads that quickly crumble away. The results, in many areas, fall short of the huge sums spent. Mr Ramesh says he has written furiously to all the states’ chief ministers to highlight the deficiencies.
Too much money ends up in crooked officials’ pockets. The gloomiest estimates, such as one by Surjit Bhalla, a prominent economist, suggest two-thirds of funds might be squandered. That looks extreme, but abuse can be crass. In Gonda, a sugar- and rice-farming district in eastern Uttar Pradesh, an anti-graft campaigner, Brijesh Pandey, claims he has tracked how “ongoing scams” divert a quarter of the jobs funds. Common complaints are of officials who pocket wages signed out for non-existent workers.