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For a billion opportunities

Published : Aug 17, 2002 00:00 IST

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Interview with Chief Minister Digvijay Singh.

Madhya Pradesh's Digvijay Singh is the only Chief Minister in the country in recent times from his party, the Congress(I), who can claim credit for continuing in office for nearly a decade now. His second term in office is to come to a close late next year, at the end of the State Assembly's current term. Digvijay Singh managed to cope successfully with certain challenges within the party during his first term. He has been able to notch up several administrative achievements, which probably explains his remarkable run in office. Excerpts from an interview the Chief Minister gave V. Venkatesan, in Bhopal:

You have been a champion of decentralisation and reform in governance. How far has this strategy been effective, especially in the context of the liberalisation in the economic sphere, which envisages minimum functions for the state?

I see decentralisation as a great opportunity for our country to provide the architecture to convert India's one billion people into one billion opportunities. This was Gandhiji's vision, and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, through his championing of the cause of panchayati raj, made this happen. In no way does this mean a minimalist state, but it does mean a redefined state. The state must intervene more meaningfully in areas such as health and education and for the creation of employment opportunities than before. Today, if Madhya Pradesh has been seen to have moved out of the Bimaru (refer to the group of backward States of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) trap, the single biggest enabling factor was our putting decentralisation into place.

The system of decentralisation and the delivery system that you have will be on test with the State facing the drought. Can the M.P. model help tackle droughts effectively? What are the immediate measures you will take to improve the plight of the farmers in the drought-affected districts?

Interestingly, droughts have always been managed in a decentralised fashion by governments in India. In fact, that is why droughts have been prevented from deteriorating into famines. In a crisis operation, centralised control is very ineffective and so it must be limited to providing resources to districts and units below. Our experience of operating drought relief in the post-decentralisation phase is best exemplified in the Pani Roko Abhiyan (Stop Water Campaign) which we organised during the drought of 2001. People came forward to work with the government to create over seven lakh water-harvesting structures. This has been unprecedented. Of the Rs.415 crores spent on managing drought last year, we mobilised Rs.100 crores through people's participation.

We have now set up Pani Roko Samitis (PRSs) in each of our villages and we will continue to work through them. The effectiveness of the PRSs is evident from the fact that this year, though Jhabua district had a drought, we did not have to resort to transporting water in that district as there was sufficient recharge effected through the water-harvesting structures. There are several such examples.

Can you explain the concept of e-governance in the Madhya Pradesh context? How has the State used information technology for the welfare of the people?

First of all, let me say that we should be using the term, e-government, as e-governance seems to be an appropriate word for the Third World.

Madhya Pradesh has not seen IT for the People as a slogan but has given it real content. We know that we have limitations in emerging as a major IT exporter given the fact that we lack the knowledge advantage. We have, therefore, decided to position ourselves as a major user of IT in e-government, e-commerce, e-education and so on. We have started computer-enabled education in the middle schools of the State. Through private sector support, we have set up computer literacy programmes in our schools and colleges.

"Gyandoot", our model for e-government pioneered in Dhar district, provides over 17 citizen services through kiosks managed by entrepreneurs based on the Internet. This has now been replicated in 12 more districts. It also won the Stockholm Challenge Award.

Our efforts view IT as one fundamentally intended to improve basic services for the average citizen.

The State has made significant strides in education and literacy during your term. But there has been no matching progress in the area of health services. For instance, M.P. has the highest infant mortality levels. What steps have you taken to correct this situation?

You are right on that. However, even in the area of health, our population growth rate, unlike the other so-called Bimaru States, has shown a declining trend - less because of our achievements in health per se and perhaps more because of our efforts in areas like female literacy and women's empowerment. We are now attempting a major programme through a new Mission on Community Health to decentralise the management of health care. The bane of the health system is that we have too many vertical programmes that do not involve the community. We are in the process of engaging community health activists such as barefoot doctors called Jan Swasthya Rakshaks and training at least one birth attendant for each village. All our villages will have these two health activists by December 2003.

Our Mission on community health focuses on intersectoral action and on the determinants of health such as safe drinking water, nutrition, sanitation, and so on. Through such a model that enlists community participation, we hope to bring down our relatively high infant mortality level.

You launched the Gram Swaraj (village self-rule) programme. Critics say that village governments have no financial powers and if they have to acquire any, they need to impose taxes on the poor village residents, who are already suffering the impact of poverty.

Gram Swaraj should not be seen merely as an appendage of a large system of governance. It is an effort to create grassroots level democracy, and move towards a system of self-reliant villages. That is not to say that the government will not support these units through resources where required. In fact, villages are at different levels of resource capability and therefore they would be supported for basic needs by the government. We are passing on the State Finance Commission grants to villages to be placed with the gram kosh created for each village. We have also given villages the power to increase the cess on land revenue, thereby bringing into their fold of resource mobilisation the as-yet-untouched resource of land. Land revenue, as you know, is nominal.

In your philosophy and practice of governance, you have laid a well-meaning emphasis on the community's rights over its resources. However, your support to big dam projects is essentially seen to be opposed to such rights. The Joint Forest Management (JFM) concept is also seen to take away the rights of the village people over the forest produce. The World-Bank aided forestry project has been criticised for dispossessing the tribal of their legitimate ownership of tribal lands around the protected forests.

I am neither anti-big dam, nor pro-big dam. But I believe we need to harness our major rivers for irrigation and electricity. We need to complement this with a much larger programme for community level water-harvesting. This is what we have done in Madhya Pradesh. Projects on the Narmada river are important for a State that has less than 30 per cent (of its area under) irrigation.

We are transiting from a colonial pattern of managing forests through a forest bureaucracy, and JFM is an advance on that system. However, we now need to move towards giving greater control to the community over forests through Community Forest Management.

It is wrong to say that the World Bank Project has in any way deprived the tribal people from their legitimate ownership of tribal land. It is our own Forest Conservation Act that locks in resources and this is now a matter of debate. My personal opinion is that we must use people to green our degraded forest land, thereby addressing their livelihood concerns and improving our forest cover and contributing to conservation.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan has accused you of going back on your initial support to the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP)-affected families, through your decision to take a common stand with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi on the issue of rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) of the oustees. You no longer oppose the increase in the height of the dam without corresponding progress on R&R as per the Tribunal Award.

My position on the SSP has never been similar to that of the NBA. I had suggested that the height of the SSP be reduced from 455 feet to 436 feet to reduce submergence and displacement. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court held otherwise. Once this decision was taken, our effort has been to maximise benefits for the oustees. The height of the dam is a settled issue now and R&R is in progress and is being monitored by several national bodies. The complications in the rehabilitation package are created when ardent supporters of the NBA refuse to take the R&R package.

The Dalit agenda has got a big boost with the adoption of the Bhopal Declaration at the Bhopal Conference organised by your government in January. Your government's recent order seeks to ensure supplier diversity, by reserving 30 per cent purchases exclusively from Dalit businessmen. Do you expect this order to contribute to Dalit empowerment?

The Dalit Agenda adopted at the conference is followed up through several Task Groups. Reserving 30 per cent purchases to be made from Dalit entrepreneurs is a conscious effort to promote the small business segment in this community. With the shrinking of employment opportunities in the government sector, other opportunities of employment will have to be created for Dalits in the non-government or private sector through programmes such as the one we have conceived. It is a beginning and let us see how it unfolds. We have taken a concrete step, and I hope other governments will follow it. It is part of a series of measures taken for the economic empowerment of Dalits, the most important of them being the allotment of land to landless Dalit families.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 17, 2002.)

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