In the three decades of its existence, Council of the Centre on Integrated Rural Development for Asia and the Pacific has contributed immensely to the implementation of the outcome of the 'Peasants' Charter' that resulted from the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development in 1979. The issues and concerns of 1979 continue to reverberate today.
Redistribution of economic and political power, inclusion of rural areas and the rural poor in development, enhancing access to resources and employment in rural areas, focus on non-farm rural activities, education and training activities and agrarian reform continue to be important areas for public policy.
In Asia in general, and in India in particular, poverty has a rural face. Rural development and poverty alleviation are thus two sides of the same coin.
Even as we meet, the world is facing an unprecedented global hike in the prices of agricultural commodities, with concomitant impact on food security for the poor and vulnerable. While macro-economic and globalisation issues have been debated, these remain the penumbra of the shadow of this agrarian crisis.
It is thus relevant to recall the five cardinal elements from the Declaration of the International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development held in Brazil in March 2006:
- Agrarian reform and land policies for rural development are essential for social cohesion, conflict reduction, food security, poverty eradication, economic growth, and environmental rehabilitation.
- The wide diversity of agrarian reforms, land policies and rural development situations calls for more exchange of experiences and locally-designed solutions and processes, rather than common guidelines and indicators of success.
- A number of fundamental rights - such as those related to land and natural resources, food sovereignty, women, indigenous peoples, pastoralists and vulnerable groups - should be better recognized in practice, institutional patterns and plans.
- Land and other natural resources are not only economic assets but also cultural, social and historical assets. Therefore, there is a need to address them in an integrated and territorial way through negotiations, dialogue and participatory approaches.
- Secure access to land and natural resources are essential but not sufficient to address poverty reduction. There is also a need for emphasis on the role of family farming and other small-scale production systems; non-agricultural livelihood strategies; complementary safety nets in marginalized areas; focus on support services, rural infrastructure and market access to rural people; and finally good governance.
The global debate on rural development and agrarian reform has thus deepened.
In India too, the government approaches to these two issues have significantly changed in the past two decades. Given the federal structure, land reform legislation is a state subject and has not been pursued in a uniform pattern.
Civil society movements like 'Janadesh' have, therefore, sought to mobilise opinion for a national land reform policy and a national land reform commission.
On the other hand, the government of India has developed a noticeably sharper focus on poverty alleviation and rural development programmes and significantly enhanced its expenditure manifold -- from Rs 76 billion in 1993-94 to Rs 340 billion in 2003-04 and Rs 1,200 billion in the current financial year.
The government's strategy has focused on five dimensions for targeted poverty alleviation and rural development:
a) Institute guaranteed wage employment covering the entire country;
b) Promote self employment;
c) Ensure rural connectivity and infrastructure augmentation;
d) Facilitate basic amenities such as housing; and
e) Provide social security especially for the aged, sick and other vulnerable sections of the society.
Today I would like to focus on two radical, innovative, approaches that have characterised our agrarian and rural development interventions.
The first of these is empowering over 250,000 elected local bodies at the district, intermediate and village levels and thus providing a broad-based and strong political foundation for inclusive and participative growth at the grass-roots level.
These bodies have over three million elected representatives, of whom over 1.2 million are women.
This facet of our democracy has completely changed the framework of participative governance in the country and stands as a role model for other developing countries.
While this political and social empowerment in the rural areas is nearing completion, economic empowerment continues to be a work in progress.
Devolution of finances, functions and functionaries to these local bodies is still the subject of much discussion and debate. The stated commitment of both the central and state governments to transform the constitutional mandate given to these local bodies into a reality must lead to increased participation of people in planning, decision-making and implementation of various rural development schemes.
This would represent a paradigm shift in achieving development outcomes primarily through grass-roots participation rather than through bureaucratic delivery systems.
The second innovation has been a historic and unique legislation brought in by the central government of guaranteeing wage employment in rural areas.
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005 guarantees upto 100 days of employment in a financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. It has emerged as a social safety net for vulnerable groups and an opportunity to combine growth with equality.
In keeping with the global debate, the NREGA was premised on a rights-based framework, making employment a legal right. Over time, the inherent entitlement to employment is expected to be transformed to empowerment through skill development, training, regenerating the natural resource base and bringing about transparency and accountability in governance. It has augmented rural household income, raised rural farm and non-farm wages and prevented out migration from poor rural areas.
Agrarian reform and rural development issues are inherently political in nature. While economic and social interventions are necessary, they are not enough to bring about the desired outcomes.
It is therefore the duty of policy makers to ensure that the interaction of politics with policy is constructive and synergistic. As important personalities influencing policy formulation and implementation, you are well aware that sharing best practices and benefiting from the experiences of each other would contribute to our common goal of promoting rural development and regional cooperation.
I understand that the Ministerial Retreat would discuss the role of Information Technology in sustainable livelihoods and women empowerment. Our own varied experience on these issues would be useful across different socio-economic and political contexts.
I once again thank the Minister of Rural Development, Shri Raghuvansh Prasad Singhji, for inviting me today and wish all success for the deliberations of the Ministerial retreat and the Special Session of the Governing Council."
Mohd Hamid Ansari is the Vice President of India