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TOWARDS A HAPPIER STATE - Many NGOs are helping Bihar bring in change

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By Commentarao - S.L. Rao The author is former director- general, National Council for Applied Economic Research
  • Published 30.11.09

Non-governmental organizations are making a difference to the lives of poor and marginalized people in India. Most work in geographically limited areas. They are idealistic and want change, and hope to enter the lives of those they work with. Funding agencies and NGOs are enthused by any sign of change in the long-failed state of Bihar. A virulent and discriminatory caste system that deprives the lower castes even of government-funded entitlements is reinforced by a very corrupt bureaucracy, especially at the lower levels. Even the chief minister, Nitish Kumar, will admit that Bihar today is still far from being transformed. It is only beginning a long process of change.

The Aga Khan Foundation is an example of an NGO that, through its development network, is working on livelihood enhancement, health, sanitation and education. It has commenced a programme to approach these issues in a unified manner in Bihar.

A two-day intensive trip by road in Bihar to see a sample of its work took me to villages in and around Patna, Muzaffarpur and Samastipur. We met many Dalits, both Hindu and Muslim. They reported some improvement in law and order, and better roads. The bane of Bihar, as of the rest of India, but far worse, is the poor government delivery system. This is so with schools, health centres, immunization programmes, the mid-day meal and national rural employment guarantee schemes and a myriad others from the Central and state governments. Entitlements are denied mostly to those the schemes are most meant for, the lower-caste poor. This denial by low-level bureaucrats is combined with greater caste discrimination than anywhere else in today’s India. A corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy combines with upper-caste mukhiyas in panchayats to deny entitlements to the largely illiterate and browbeaten poor. So NGOs have a major role to play in educating them on their entitlements and helping them access these.

The difference that small interventions by NGOs can make in the limited geography they work in, is striking. The transformation in lives, especially of mothers and children, made by solar lamps sponsored by The Energy and Resources Institute in the “to light a billion homes” project was immediate and heart-warming. The Aga Khan Foundation is also piloting a savings programme. Unlike the many self-financing schemes now driven by banks and non-banking finance institutions which have become high profit-makers, the foundation concentrates on the poorest, and is entirely community-driven. If it can be replicated over the state it has the potential to make a real impact and at a low cost per contact. It is the replication of such pilot programmes which are high cost per contact into mass programmes reaching many that is the real challenge and will indicate the programme’s success. The other challenge is to sensitize lower socio-economic classes about their entitlements, and help get them.

The foundation’s approach is towards a holistic development programme which covers livelihoods, education, health and savings. Both state and Central governments have ambitious programmes covering these over the whole state. The foundation, like other NGOs, must aim at learning and then teaching the lessons for the government to use in its large programmes. It is also well-placed to try new solutions that can then be offered to the government to implement on a much larger scale.

The focus for all NGOs must always and everywhere be on replicability and maximum impact. The innovations being piloted by the foundation are simple but effective. In agriculture, for example, a proven technique for paddy cultivation elsewhere in India uses 40 per cent less water. A simple polythene covered tent helps small farmers produce high quality tomatoes and exotic vegetables that can add significantly to income. Rural communities must be taught to use the cell phones that have entered the state. If the farmers work together, they can explore best prices in different markets and also arrange for a truck to come to the village to carry the produce. Farmers must be helped to work together to such mutual advantage.

These poor farmers meet regularly to discuss how the paddy programme and the tents are working. They could, at the same time, learn about their entitlements under various government schemes. Job cards under the NREGS are not issued. Even when they are issued, work is not given; full wages are not paid. To ensure that they get the full benefits, NGOs could train the poor in tackling government officials. Foundation workers could also support them in their meetings with some of these officials.

The innovative community savings groups consist entirely of women and are intended to provide funds in case of emergencies at much lower cost than if they went to the mahajan — moneylender — as they have done so far. The entire operation of recording, collecting, safeguarding the money, recovering dues, and so on, are handled by different women in the group, which is also responsible for ensuring that the loans are returned on time. The intention is not to expand these groups into the financing of investments but keep them confined to emergency loans, a need that strikes every poor family occasionally and for which the only recourse hitherto was the extortionate moneylender.

These women’s groups can also be involved in other village activities. They could take responsibility for midday meals in schools and earn some money, handle the provisions of midday meals in schools, usually for their own children, and also be given training in local hygiene and sanitation programmes. Thus, the stealing by government officials can be reduced, food of improved quality be given to children, and teachers enabled to devote the time now devoted to cooking and serving to teaching.

The foundation has also set up learning centres, superior duplicates of the regular government schools. The children attend these after going to the government school. The Dalit and Muslim children in these centres were enthusiastic learners. The parents are unanimous that their children are at last learning. Better trained and dedicated teachers and novel techniques of teaching make these centres popular and effective. But a learning centre is a duplicate of the government school. Government schools must be made to improve on a mass scale. The learning centres can be the models for improving the quality of teaching and teachers in government schools. The focus must be to help improve the thousands of government schools and their teachers.

In a large madrasa at Pusa, the foundation has introduced computer training for girls. It gives them self-respect and introduces the new essential for success, computers. The girls are keen to earn using their new skills. But there are no jobs for them in the neighbourhood, they have little English, no bookkeeping or statistics, are taught only Word and Excel, and the whole state suffers frequent power outages. Nor can the girls afford their own computers. Perhaps locally marketable skills that can help the girls earn in their neighbourhood might have more value.

The outlook under the Nitish Kumar government is hopeful and optimistic. There is some improvement in law and order, transport and communications. But schooling, hygiene, health, including immunization services, remain far behind the rest of India. A very inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy at almost all levels of government must improve. The NGOs with access to the government at the higher levels can play a catalytic role in educating people on entitlements and assuring their delivery to the poor. Interventions in spheres where the government has the resources to cover the whole population must only be to improve government delivery and try out new ideas that can then be implemented more widely by government agencies. Hence NGOs must constantly consider impact and replicability. Only these can transform the wretched lives of the lowest socio-economic classes.