Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav announced a slew of measures for the drought-hit Bundelkhand region in the state Assembly on March 4. His speech was important as it was delivered in the backdrop of the Modi government's pro-farmer Budget.
The Union Budget boasts of long-term initiatives and talks about farmer welfare without giving any immediate relief to farmers and without allocating sufficient funds for ambitious schemes like Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojna (PMKSY) and Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY).
The first one got Rs 5,700 crore while it needs at least Rs 2.5 lakh crore as the first instalment to irrigate the remaining 65 per cent of the land in India that are still not covered by irrigation. The PMFBY, on the other hand, will, at most, increase the number of farmers under insurance cover from 23 per cent at present to 28 per cent.
In the absence of farm loan waiver, these schemes are not going to show any immediate effect. As the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh is reeling under the fourth consecutive crop loss and a sharp increase in cases of farmer suicide, it needed some out-of-the-box as well as time-bound action.
Here comes the new approach by Akhilesh. His government is already distributing rice at Rs 3 per kilogram and wheat at Rs 2 per kilogram in the area and has now decided to distribute free ration to about two lakh poor people. This ration includes wheat flour, gram dal, milk power, desi ghee and potatoes. This is a very good and well-intentioned move to provide immediate relief in distress.
The second thing he announced is to dig some 2,000 new ponds and catchment area treatment of existing ponds. Sudhir Jain, member of the expert committee that initiated water reform in 2013 under the Akhilesh government, said, "This move is important because ponds can be dug only in this season as the ponds are dry."
If this work is done in a time-bound manner, it will not only provide immediate work to needy people, subsequently during monsoon, these water bodies will recharge the ground water level which is a source of irrigation. The chief minister also announced the revival of Chandrawal river in Mahoba district.
The river is famous in relation to the battle between Prithviraj Chauhan of Delhi and Parmardi Dev of Mahoba - the heroes of two epic Hindi poems - Prithviraj Raso and Parmal Raso (popularly known as Alha.) Work to revive the river has already been started.
The third of his announcements included an increase in budget for water tankers. The government will run some extra 1,200 water tankers to supply water in drought-hit areas to cope up with drinking water scarcity. This is also a proactive move.
All these initiatives look good, at least at the policy level. The real test of the government will be at the level of ground delivery. If Akhilesh depends solely on the the bureaucracy for delivery, then it will be difficult and he will not get the desired results in the run up to the assembly elections next year.
Akhilesh should think of alternatives. One such alternative can be the force of Samajwadi Party workers. The party has a strong cadre base at the village level and they are virtually running the government at the grassroots. So far this cadre has been creating a nuisance, but this is still a dominant factor.
So if Akhilesh can control his workers and even channelise their energies in making the delivery system more transparent, his government can not only help Bundelkhand in the hour of urgency, but can also earn goodwill of the people towards the Samajawadi Party.
These workers can assist the local administration in identifying the needy and can also be a bridge between the people and administration. Samajwadi Party workers are known for putting up huge hoardings of their leaders. If one such hoarding can be spared in each block for publicising the list of needy people, it may be of great help. As these workers are also politically powerful, if they wish they can control the corruption by lower level government officials.
So far, the Samajwadi Party workers have an exactly opposite reputation.
If Akhilesh can turn this around in Bundelkhand, he can change the national perception that Samajwadi Party workers are goons and the biggest challenge to law and order situation in Uttar Pradesh. The chief minister himself mentioned the issue of perception towards law and order in the state in his speech at the assembly.
By helping Bundelkhand in a samajawadi manner, he can help the Samajawadi Party in the coming Assembly elections, where the elephant (BSP's election symbol) seems stronger at least at the level of perception. The clock is ticking fast and the first spell of hailstorm has already hit the Bundelkhand farmers.