Highways often point to the worrying contradiction that is India, and National Highway-8 is no different. Stretching from Mumbai to Delhi via Gujarat and Rajasthan, it is the kind of road that would have been little more than a dream in the '90s. Four-laned for most parts and six-laned on a short stretch, it exemplifies India's rush to the future, but on the sides of the road the country is stuck in the morass of the past.
Barely a couple of kilometres off NH-8, about 120 km from Mumbai, Parvati Wartha is glad to have lights in her home for the first time in her life. A widowed mother of six girls, one of whom lives with her, she beams with joy when asked how life has changed after the government recently gave her four tiny lights powered by a solar panel. "I even leave a light on at night," she says, smiling. About 30 homes like hers in Charoti village in Palghar district have got solar-powered lights in the last four months under a government scheme.
When asked if she knew that she was aware of this scheme, she says, "No, we don't know about any of the schemes. The government officials just came one day and installed these lights." Making people like Wartha aware of the schemes they are eligible for is one of BJP member of Parliament (MP) Poonam Mahajan's tasks in Charoti, the village she has adopted under the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY).
Launched on October 11, on the birth anniversary of Jayaprakash Narayan, by prime ministerNarendra Modi, it is one of the key programmes of his government, which involves MPs cutting across party lines. Modi asked each MP to take responsibility for the development of a village by 2016, two more by 2019, and then one each year till 2024.Lok Sabha MPs were asked to choose a gram panchayat in their constituency, and if their constituency is an urban area, a village near their constituency. Rajya Sabha MPs were asked to pick a village in their home state.
As per the latest data, 491 of the 543 Lok Sabha MPs and 185 of the 244 Rajya Sabha MPs have picked a village each. Though there are no specific funds allocated to this programme, the MPs make use of the various schemes available to villages and among the objectives of SAGY are better livelihood, education, self-governance, gender equality, financial inclusion and cleanliness; and there are targets every other month. "This is not a rupiya-paisa yojana but a demand-driven, people's participatory scheme," Modi said at the time of the launch.
Mahajan, who won from the Mumbai North Central constituency, says she wanted to adopt a tribal village as part of the programme and hence adopted Charoti, threefourths of whose 4,600 residents belong to scheduled tribes. "It is shocking and depressing that not far from Mumbai people are still living in purana Bharat," notes the daughter of the late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan. She says the fact that the Parliamentary constituency Charoti falls in, Palghar, is held by her party member was not a factor in her choosing the hamlet. "Though I did meet the MLA and MP, I interact mostly with government officials," notes Mahajan.
She admits that though she may not be able to visit the village every month, she is keeping a close watch on the developments in Charoti through her associates. "She is very focused on this. She has asked for a report every day. Even if nothing happens, she wants us to tell her that," says Kushal Mehra, former co-convenor of Friends of BJP Mumbai, who visits Charoti every weekend to meet officials and villagers as part of SAGY.He adds that one of their first tasks is to get every department to list the schemes they have and collate them and put them out in a Marathi booklet. "I personally found about a hundred schemes. I'm sure there are more," he observes.
Charoti could do with some serious attention from the government. Its literacy rate in the 2011 Census was 58.1% compared with Maharashtra's 82.3% and nearly 60% of its residents live below the poverty line. One of the first things Mahajan's team did was to go to all the 10 blocks in the village to ascertain their problems and demands. Later, on May 2, a meeting was called with the villagers and officials and a map of the 10 blocks was drawn in the sand with what needed to be done where.Mehra says the village development plan will be ready in a few days.
Part of the plan will be a '4 crore project under the National Rural Drinking Water Programme, and 16 other water supply projects totalling 1.4 crore'.
Among Mahajan's first priorities was lavatories for those who did not have it. In the last four months, 30 households have built lavatories and been paid 12,000 each for it under the Swachh Bharat Mission. By the end of the month, another 50 households will also have lavatories. Vinod Wagat, who rides an autorickshaw, dipped into his savings and built a concrete toilet with an asbestos top after he came to know of this scheme."Till I built it, my wife, two daughters and I would go to the field behind our house," says Wagat.
Besides the solar lights and toilets in homes and solar-powered motors to draw groundwater, the main school in the village has been painted and seven solar street lights have been installed recently.Mehra says there are plans to set up a 20-computer lab and train students under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in the school. Also on the anvil are encouraging farmers to think beyond the paddy crop, the mainstay of the region, and to practice organic farming, and also train the unemployed youth of the region to stitch the uniforms of the 900 school stu dents in the village, providing them a source of income.
Mahajan says a lot of companies have written to her about their interest in projects in Charoti, but she says she first has to set the house in order before inviting them. "What we are trying to do is show how efficient the government can be," she adds. Tribal development inspector AS Ingle appreciates being pushed to deliver on the government's objectives: "We can then proudly tell people how Charoti has developed."
While SAGY has not attracted as much attention as the other marquee initiatives of the Modi government like the Jan-Dhan Yojana and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan as it is more incremental than the latter, it has the potential to be a game-changer for India's villages if only our MPs treat it with the seriousness and commitment it deserves.