Govt aims for Ujjwala repeat with big push to rural roads

The Union government on Wednesday signed off on several new initiatives to create the next category of beneficiaries modelled after its electorally favourable Ujjwala scheme.

The cabinet gave its approval to the construction and improvement of 125,000km of rural roads with an investment of over ₹80,000 crore that will connect villages with schools, colleges, agricultural markets and hospitals.

“Our government believes in bettering the condition of our rural people. This rural road connectivity to important nodes of activities will directly benefit the people in villages," said rural development minister Narendra Singh Tomar.

He said the scheme, part of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (phase 3), would be carried out over five years between 2019 and 2024.

“Under the PMGSY-III scheme, it is proposed to consolidate 125,000km road length in the states. The scheme will also include ‘through routes’ and major rural links that connect habitations to gramin agricultural markets (GrAMs), higher secondary schools and hospitals," the cabinet said in a statement.

The construction and improvement of 125,000km of rural roads is part of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (phase 3) and will be carried out between 2019 and 2024.

Of the total estimated cost of ₹80,250 crore, the central government will contribute ₹53,800 crore and states ₹26,450 crore. The funds will be shared in the ratio of 60:40 between the Centre and states, except for the north-eastern and Himalayan states— Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand—for which the ratio is 90:10.

The selection of a road will be based on its importance on parameters, including population served, market, and educational and medical facilities. It proposes the construction of bridges up to 150m in the plains and 200m in hilly states, double the current provisions.

“The Modi government talks about development and our performance is liked by citizens," labour minister Santosh Gangwar said, indirectly indicating how the National Democratic Alliance returned to power in 2019 based on its past five years’ performance and people-oriented schemes.

During the 2019 general elections, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party said that around 70 million underprivileged households benefited from new cooking gas connections and that under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, more than 90 million toilets were built. However, critics argue that high gas refilling costs have prevented many beneficiaries from using the cooking gas connection effectively.

“Yes, rural road initiative will benefit the people and the government, but not as much as Ujjwala," said Jai Mrug, a political analyst. “The gas connection was a greenfield initiative, but this is not. We have some connectivity and they want to improve it. So, I think it will have a diminishing marginal utility effect."

Other than rural road connectivity, the Union cabinet approved a new labour code on occupational safety that will merge 13 existing labour laws related to working conditions. Among others, the code talks about better healthcare facilities, annual health check-ups and a mandatory appointment letter for all employees and shall be applicable to firms and organizations both in the services and manufacturing sectors employing 10 or more workers.

The Union cabinet also approved merging all water tribunals into one and fixing a time frame for solving water disputes. “By merging all tribunals into one, we have made the provision of solving all water-related disputes within two years. Some tribunals are continuing for 15-20 years. That will change," environment minister Prakash Javadekar told reporters.

An amendment to the Inter-state River Water Disputes Act, 1956, approved by the cabinet, the government said, would speed up and streamline the adjudication of the disputes relating to waters of interstate rivers.

River water disputes including those involving the Cauvery, Narmada, Godavari and Krishna remain among the most contentious issues facing state governments.

Under the Act, if any request regarding interstate rivers under the State Act is received from any state government and the central government is of the opinion that the water dispute cannot be settled by negotiations, the central government would constitute a single stand-alone water disputes tribunal for the adjudication of the dispute. The tribunal will have different benches and will fix strict timelines for adjudication. The decision of the bench of the tribunal will be final and binding on the parties involved in the dispute.

Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator for South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, said: “The amendment does not address the fundamental issues leading to these disputes. Unless, the government does not rethink its integrated water resource and management and give priority to groundwater management, the problems of river water would be difficult to address. The fundamental nature of the dispute is excessive demand and limited supply."

( 11 July 2019)