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Social Sectors and Rural Development are a boon to the country

Rajesh Chatterjee
The role of what in economic parlance are called ‘Social Sectors’ is considered critical in this regard. Social sector activities are often considered to be those which emphasize improvement of quality of

life by offering education, employment and health facilities to that part of the population, who are less privileged and who suffer from malnutrition, high death rates and disease, low income and lack of education and who live below the poverty level. Therefore, in summary, development involving the social sector has two important aspects: Firstly, if involves ‘quality of life’ related activities and, Secondly, these activities are directed towards a certain section of the population, namely, the poor. There are two approaches in addressing the issues of Social Sector Development like human resource approach and human development approach. In human resource approach social sectors may be defined as all those sectors, which contribute to an enhancement of human capital. Human capital refers to the fact that human beings invest in themselves through education, in-service training, nutrition and health so as to raise their life expectancy through lifetime earnings. Human development approach emphasized providing for all people the basic means of well being which include among other things, food, health and education. The first major initiative towards social sector development began in Fifth Plan, with the launching of Minimum Needs Programme (MNP), which is a package including elementary education, health, water supply, roads, electrification, housing and nutrition. For instance, in the Sixth Plan Adult education was added to MNP and in the Seventh Plan, rural domestic energy, rural sanitation and public distribution system were also included as part of MNP.

It is increasingly being recognized that good health is an important contributor to productivity and economic growth, but it is, first and foremost, an end in itself. In a poor country like India, where the only asset most people have is their physique, health assumes even greater significance. The Indian state has articulated this responsibilities often enough. Since Independence, the government, ostensibly driven by socialistic goals, has expressed its intention to discharge this responsibility in one five-year plan after the other. Allocation for health sector as percentage of plan outlays has declined from 3.3 per cent during First Plan to 1.0 per cent in 1997-98 annual plan. In Seventh and Eighth Plan it averaged to only 1.7 per cent. Further, there is a wide gap between per capita expenditure on health for rural and urban health services; spending on urban health has been 3 to 4 per cent higher than rural health across the states.  

India began its journey towards the goal of universal and free basic education little more than fifty years age with the Indian Constitution stating, ‘The State shall endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years’. The struggle to meet this basic commitment began forthwith. But conditions then were really dismal. Providing elementary education for all, with an ever-burgeoning population, has not been an easy task. However, the network of primary schools has expanded significantly. An estimated 95 per cent of the rural population living in 826,000 habitations has access to a primary school within a radius of 1 km and about 85 per cent of the population has an upper-primary school within a radius of 3 km. Though there are nearly 150 million children currently enrolled in primary schools, there were an estimated 35 million children who were not going to school in 1997; the number is likely to have increased to around 40 million by 2000.  

Weakening agricultural performance in large number of states is a national concern. The irrigation sectors are faced with many challenges. Institutional weakness in the water agencies combined with minimal participation of farmers and other users impeded greater improvement in quality of service delivery. The poor quality of water service delivery reduced farmers’ incentives to pay water charges. On average, small and marginal farmers in India comprise about 82 percent of the farmers who use canal irrigation, but they cultivate only about half of the area that is irrigated by canals.  

Widespread unemployment and underemployment are the cause of social unrest in many parts of the country. At present, the composite incidence of unemployment and underemployment, as captured by the current daily status (CDS) basis, stands at 9 per cent of the labour force. Among the younger age group, unemployment is 13 per cent. This means that additional 35 million persons join the ranks of the unemployed every year.

The poor and the disadvantaged in this country face other kinds of problems such as untouchability, exploitation, deprivation and displacement. The problems faced by tribals, the SCs, the OBCs or the minorities are complex and acute. In many parts of the country, these communities are not only exploited but are displaced from their respective economic occupations, their lands and their common resources. Indebted farmers and artisans are committing suicides in Andhra Pradesh and Maharastra. The acute famine conditions that plagued Kalahandi in Orissa are still vivid in our minds. Has there been an attempt to analyse the factors that lie behind and find out lasting solutions? Neither the Plans nor the budgets consider providing adequate safety nets for those that are affected in this process.  

Despite five decades of efforts, problems persist in the provision of basic amenities. Some bare facts like, 44% Households in rural areas do not have safe drinking water; 15% Habitation gets less than 10 liters per day; 1.77 Lakh habitations are problem villages; More than a third of Hand pumps are Defunct Electricity; 69% Households do not have electric connection and 91 % Householders do not have toilets.  

An interesting development brought out by the data relating to allocations to the social sector, particularly education and health, is that though the states and union territories have a major share in these sectors, they have registered smaller increases relative to the increase in central government particularly, in respect of current expenditure. This suggests that the Central government is increasingly intervening into the day-to-day aspects of the social sector. This is evident particularly in the case of education. The central assistance to the states, however, has relatively declined during the period of the reform, even for the sectors like welfare. The centrally sponsored schemes under the social sector also exhibit similar trends. Though in the case of some sub-sectors of the social sector, the share has shown an increase, in their case, the increase is marginal, particularly in relation to the needs of the sub-sector.

Poverty, unemployment, exploitation and displacement from common resource endowment are at the core of the problem of extremist activity that is sweeping across the many states. In the latest budget, P Chidambaram has referred to his social sector programmes as an ‘assault’ on poverty, though the budget allocations he has made are far too meager to permit any such decisive action. If the defence sector could be allocated resources amounting to 2.4 per cent of GDP, would not the social sectors with all these ramifications deserve that much of attention, if not more? Of course, defence purchases are a big business and they stand on a different footing, in the perception of our political leadership. If external threat is bad, internal social tensions can be worse, as they tend to tear at the very fabric of the society and disrupt the façade of democracy in the country.  

Since, independence, certain institutional changes have been taking place as the unintended consequences of policy measures and developmental programmes. The fundamental lesson of the Indian experience of the past five decades can be stated very plainly: if planning is not used to share the institutional structure of the economy, that structure will come to shape the entire planning process and the nation’s economic policies in general.                                   June 2007

The writer is a Lecturer, Rural Development, Tripura University, Suryamaninagar