National Rural Livelihood Mission: Understanding the vulnerability of low-income groups
If NRLM has to succeed in raising the livelihood of poor rural people, where previous programmes have failed, it is necessary to involve low-income producers in the design and implementation of various programmes, as only then can the structural causes of poverty be substantively tackled
Launched in June 2011, the $ 5.1 billion National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM)i is one of the flagship programmes of the Ministry of Rural Development. It is also one of the world's largest initiatives to improve the livelihood of poor, rural people and boost the rural economy. The World Bank is supporting the programme with "credit of about $1 billion, in continuation of its long-term engagement in the sector."ii
While the NRLM promises a lot with regard to creation and strengthening of rural livelihood, it does suffer some shortcomings, which if not addressed are likely to see it move in the same path as the erstwhile Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP), Swarnjayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY) and/or other programmes.
So, what then are the critical issues that raise the risk of failure with regard to implementation of the NRLM? I present my views with all humility!
Let us understand what the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) stands for?
"The core belief of National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) is that the poor have innate capabilities and a strong desire to come out of poverty. They are entrepreneurial, an essential coping mechanism to survive under conditions of poverty. The challenge is to unleash their capabilities to generate meaningful livelihoods and enable them to come out of poverty. The first step in this process is motivating them to form their own institutions. They and their institutions are provided sufficient capacities to manage the external environment, enabled to access finance, and to expand their skills and assets and convert them into meaningful livelihoods. This requires continuous handholding support. An external dedicated, sensitive support structure, from the national level to the sub-district level, is required to induce such social mobilization, institution building and livelihoods promotion. …Strong institutional platforms of the poor, enable them to build up their own human, social, financial and other resources. … NRLM also believes that the programme can be up scaled in a time-bound manner, only if it is driven by the poor."iii
First, the vision of NRLM is great, but its design seems inappropriate as it talks of rural livelihoods primarily through self-help groups (SHGs). In other words, the thrust of NRLM is on building and maintaining institutions of the poor-defined as SHGs in this context and then enabling members in SHGs to access various services for better livelihoods. Several aspects deserve mention here:
- This whole issue of creating and maintaining grass-roots structures like SHGs is something that has been attempted regularly (with varied success) by many stakeholders over the last two decades and it is continuing. Therefore, I am not sure that we need a national flagship programme (like NRLM) of the Ministry of Rural Development, funded by a World Bank loan, exclusively just for this task.
- Also, when the NRLM argues that to access its services, SHGs must come under the programme fold, pluralism and choice are lost, as by default all SHGs (irrespective of who nurtured them in the first place) have to become loyal to the state. This idea is fraught with danger and the chances of political abuse of SHGs cannot be ruled out.
- Also, while the Andhra Pradesh (Indira Kranti Patham) and Kerala (Kudumbashree) experiments of mass SHG programmes have shown positive results in many ways, the same perhaps cannot be said about other states. Both the programmes were led and supported by brilliant and committed officers who had a long tenure in their organisations/ positions and this cannot be guaranteed in other contexts, especially today.
Second, on a substantive note, SHGs have had differing degrees of success with regard to livelihoods initiatives. While they may work reasonably well for small livelihoods and consumption-related matters, I am not sure that serious livelihood interventions (in fisheries, agriculture and similar areas) can happen ONLY through these SHGs. There are several reasons for this:
- While I very much appreciate the contribution of SHGs in financial services and development in India, relying only on them (as an institution of the poor) is fraught with danger, as not everyone in the rural areas is a member of a SHG, and not everyone may desire to become a member of a SHG. Furthermore, rural folk may perhaps like to access various services through other aggregation mechanisms (like cooperatives) and/or even individually.
- Also, in today's fast-paced rural economy, the number of people who are likely to be actively involved in the kind of social intermediationiv that so-called good SHGsv have to practise, appears rather far-fetched. Given the (fast) changing nature of our society, the choices available and information explosion that is going on, the long-winding meetings of SHGs would be very difficult to sustain in the medium- and long- term. And without such preparation, the quality of SHGsvi will surely become low, and the moment we forcefully push for targets with regard to quick establishment of (such) SHGs , then, the process will start getting corrupted as numerous available examples (including one given below) are evidence. Therefore, using SHGs as the only mechanism in NRLM may become counter-productive.
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