Digvijaya Singh

Speech in United Nations General Assembly at Geneva

Speech in United Nations General Assembly at Geneva

General Assembly at Geneva | 29th June 2000

Panel on Poverty Reduction Strategies

I extend my greetings to all of you on behalf of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. To be invited here is a great honour for me. I am very happy on getting this opportunity of presenting before you our efforts in the direction of poverty alleviation in the largest state of India and also sharing the experiences we had during our journey. Poverty alleviation and social progress are our biggest concerns. In a democratic system, it is only natural that we first deal with issues which affect the quality of life of the people. The Global concerns, that were aired after the 1995 summit, were the foundation of our thinking right since the Independence. India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, defined the challenges of Independent India in the following words—"India’s freedom struggle is aimed at the elimination of poverty, ignorance, disease and inequality of opportunities". Poverty does not only mean having less income. It also means being deprived of opportunities. This is a matter of our concern. I believe that to find the way to battle with poverty, we need a dream, a vision. In the context of India, the moral formulation of equality of opportunity has a very deep significance.

Gandhiji had said that we should judge our every step, our every act by how it has affected the life of the poorest man.

Amratya Sen has also said that the objective of progress is freedom from restrictions and getting introduced to the possibilities that freedom affords.

If we turn back and cast a glance on our record vis-a-vis poverty alleviation and creation of opportunities since Independence, we discover that we have definitely moved ahead in terms of enhancing life expectancy and literacy rate and reducing the infant mortality rate. We have also succeeded in creating a machinery within the democratic political set-up that delivers results. We have, indeed, tasted success. But, our agenda of poverty alleviation and potential-building is unfinished and poses immense challenges. South is the home to the largest number of poor and there too, in India live the highest number of poor people.

You might not be aware of the fact that most of the India’s poor live in four states. And Madhya Pradesh—from where I come—is one of them. Being the political head of India’s biggest state, I wish to share some of my experiences with you.

When, in end-1993, I entered upon the office of the Chief Minister, Madhya Pradesh was far behind the national average in terms of education, life expectancy at birth, child mortality rate and the people living below the poverty line. It was necessary to immediately begin work for providing health and employment security and spreading education in general and especially in the rural areas. It was also necessary to steer clear of the bureaucratic model of service delivery. It was this model that was coming in the way of utilising the strengths and creative energies of our common people in a way so as to expand the circle of freedom to include those who had remained out of it.

For a few moments, let us revisit the last social summit where strategies for poverty alleviation were discussed. In that context, I would like to present before you, some issues, the challenges thrown up by which have engaged us in Madhya Pradesh. What we needed was a decentralised system which worked with the poor and for them. We needed quick development, a system that was centered on the common man and we needed such arrangements for making a living that were dependable and solid. Improving health and education levels became out first priority in our battle against poverty. There was also a demand to refashion our model of development so as to make it pro-poor; that our money and resources should be diverted towards the projects of social development. We also felt that we should have some kind of a scale or standard to measure the extent to which we have been successful in reducing the poverty among the people.

Given the time allotted to me here, I will like to confine myself to some key issues.

Decentralisation and pro-poor local government,

bringing education and health services within the reach of the people,

ensuring dependable means of livelihood,

arranging necessary paraphernalia for social development,

setting targets for alleviation of poverty and fixing measures of success.


I will like to add here that when I took over in 1993, if the challenges had grown big, there were also new opportunities to do something, to prove oneself. At that time, we had just implemented a Constitutional amendment on Panchayati Raj. The world over, in the decade of 1990s, different societies had started challenging their governments and 'partnership in development' came to be recognised as a goal in itself. We felt that these opportunities can be put to proper use by partnering directly with the people to fulfill some of their needs. At the same time, we also adopted the 'mission' mode for some of the things that we intended to do - such as decentralisation of powers and making development community-based - which were directly related to human development.

For this, we chose basic education, rural health and environment and job security for those residing in vulnerable areas. To a great extent, this was what the dream of Gandhiji was. He believed in decentralisation and in people governing themselves in local communities. His concept of 'Gram Swaraj' guided us in our endeavour to decentralise powers. Our country has had a long tradition of local communities managing their affairs, their work, themselves. This tradition got reversed during foreign rule. Local democracy helped us re-discover some of those old traditions.

I have been asked to dwell especially on those issues that were part of our new initiatives in Madhya Pradesh. For instance, 'Education guarantee scheme' for education to all or our watershed mission, which served the dual purposes of reduction in poverty and betterment of environment or 'Joint Forest management scheme' which is helping us rejuvenate our forests or livelihood protection programmes, which we are running in deep poverty-stricken areas. It will be pertinent to mention here that in all these problems, we see the common man as part of the solution. The people themselves effectively solve their problems at their level. Through our education scheme, we have been able to reach the facility of primary education to all habitations of the state in a very short period of time. I would like to tell you something about the scheme. We have made arrangements to open a primary school within ninety days of a demand being made by the local residents in any village which does not have a primary school within a one kilometer radius and where there are at least 25 school-going children. The people were entrusted with the responsibility of making the demand, identifying a local resident who can be the teacher or 'Guruji' and also arrange a suitable place to open the school. The government's responsibility was to train the Guruji, arrange the necessary equipment, provide mid-day meals to the children and to give a grant of Rs. 14,800, which was used to pay salary to the Guruji for a year and meet the petty expenses relating to the school. The Panchayat's responsibility was to manage the school. We launched this scheme on January 1, 1997 and within 18 months, we could reach primary school to every habitation in the state. Today, there are 26,000 education guarantee schools in the states. The cost of building and running these schools is very low. The management is in the hands of the people. We have brought the facility of schools to those sections of the populace which never had it; for instance tribals, other weaker sections and girls. What is most important is that we have made it mandatory to open the school within 90 days of the villagers demanding it. This experience has taught us that we can meet the challenges facing us better by partnering with the people. Our education guarantee scheme has become a model for the entire country and Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Orissa have adopted it. The 'Commonwealth International Innovation' award was conferred on the scheme in 1998. Our literacy rate was 44 % in 1991, which grew to 56 per cent in 1997. Recently, we have devised another scheme to increase literacy. The residents of the village get together to elect their Guruji. What the Guruji teaches is tested in an annual exam. And the Guruji gets "Guru Dakshina" according to the number of people who clear the exam. Our endeavour is to associate the educated persons with the task of eliminating illiteracy. We have set an ambitious target for ourselves. We want to attain 70 per cent literacy by the end of this year. People are now coming forward in groups to acquire education. More than two lakh such schools have sprung up in our state—which make people literate in the first step and then help them build their lives through fruitful economic activity.

We have used diversification to better the state of health also. We have launched 'Jan Swasthya Rakshak' scheme which aims at providing health services at local level from village to village. The traditional midwives are being given modern training in the science of child birth to enhance their skills. These community health workers are acting as a link between the village and the nearest health centre. Through institutions of Panchayati Raj, we have tried to bring about an improvement in the pre-requisites for better health viz clean drinking water, nutrition, hygiene and health education.

Now, I will like to share with you the initiatives taken by us to combat poverty and environmental imbalance while generating employment opportunities. Our Watershed management mission is aimed at meeting the joint objectives of reducing poverty and rejuvenating the environment. In 8400 villages of Madhya Pradesh, projects for conservation of environment were implemented with the active involvement of the people. The residents also got employment in public projects. The work is being handled by local community members organised into 'Watershed management committees' with technical and financial help from the government. The results of the endeavour have started showing.

The environment has changed for the better in the drought-prone districts of the state. The satellite pictures taken between 1994 and 1997 indicate that greenery and water resources have increased in these districts. The Watershed management programme, on one hand, fulfills the people's primary need of employment and on the other, enhances the productivity of natural resources by implementing water and soil improvement programmes. The agenda 21 of UNCED clearly states that such a model of continuous development should be implemented in poverty-stricken areas, where unemployment is a perpetual problem. This recommendation, by and large, remains unimplemented. We are confident that this model would enhance productivity, increase the incomes of the rural populace and improve the environment. Providing nutrition and safe water are keys to meeting the challenge of reducing poverty. Our mission has been consistently working in this direction and as a result, productivity and incomes have increased. Due to watershed development programme, the land under cultivation has increased by 17.6 per cent while productivity has grown by 35 per cent. The underground water table has also risen in 4,680 villages. By associating more than 10 lakh villagers with water shed committees, the programme has helped empower the community. We have adopted a similar model for the management of forests. One-fourth of the country's forests are in Madhya Pradesh,. We have involved the people living around forests in the work of conservation and development of forests. We have made them a shareholder in the profits accruing from the forests. All this has been done under the Joint Forest management programme. Twelve thousand villages have been associated with this programme. The success of this programme, undertaken with people's participation, is evident by the fact that according to satellite imagery, for the first time, the forest cover of the state has grown by 650 sq. kms. This is beneficial not only for the forests but also for the peopl. An assessment made by World Bank assessment has shown that the programme has generated an additional income of 280 US dollars per family per year. These are some examples of community-based programmes for poverty alleviation and for providing better health and education facilities.

We are concerned about the discrimination against women in our country and in our state. In our country, women face inequalities born out of caste and class considerations, besides on account of gender. Panchayati Raj has given the women an opportunity to lead in the public sphere. Today, more than 1.75 lakh women are occupying various positions of power. Under our women's policy, we have given them land rights, more employment opportunities, micro finance facilities for small self-employment projects and educational facilities for improving the literacy level. The fact that we made available adequate resources for the social sector is an indicator of our priorities. Under well-considered policy changes, we have made higher allocations for the social sector. Whereas in 1993, only 18.7 per cent of the total expenditure was made on this sector, it went up to 36 per cent in 1997, 37 per cent in 1998 and 42 per cent in 1999.

We have adopted a new methodology of assessing human development because of its effectiveness in measuring poverty alleviation and in keeping the focus on this issue. Using the human approach pioneered by Mehbub ul Haq, Madhya Pradesh became the first state in the world to produce a human development report for a unit of any country. We took the human development report issued in 1995 as reflective of the reality. It was a report of our failures and its objective was to demonstrate our concerns and priorities and to raise resources and build political consensus. It helped us to invest more in human development. Our second report was released in 1998 by Prof Amratya Sen. It gave an account of our journey since the first report. Now, our endeavour was to make human development, the cornerstone of our decentralised system. By 2001, the basic facts regarding every village with respect to human development will be available. What we have learnt from our these efforts is that community-based programmes are more effective. They have helped us reach our goals faster and achieve the objectives of democracy. They have made the administration accountable and transparent. These are easily-understandable basics but they also point to the need of political will that can override the bureaucracy-dominated state apparatus.

What should be our course of action in this era of globalisation? Globalisation should benefit every person rather than a select few. Policies should be laid down in such a manner that they benefit the maximum number of people. Globalisation has the potential of both reducing or increasing social disparities. Here, I have mentioned some sectors which can be on the agenda of the world community.

Agriculture, agro-based industries and agricultural business can create employment opportunities in and bring development to developing nations.

Bio-technology can help us push the frontiers of production and knowledge.

Research should be focussed on making small holdings more productive. How can an acre of land or an acre of forest be made so productive as to suffice to meet the livelihood needs of one family? I feel that the world community today has the capacity to find the ways to do it.

Information technology has afforded us unprecedented opportunities in the fields of sharing of knowledge, employment, education and health.

If I have the permission, I would like to slightly re-rephrase the slogan of a leading IT company of India in the context of this new economy: "Turning knowledge-driven system into value-driven one". At the national and international level a way should be evolved to ensure that if the poor are not allowed to use the natural resources like forests and bio-diversity in public interest, then they should be compensated for it. We are facing this challenge in Madhya Pradesh. If the right policies are laid down, the poor may get permanent means of livelihood.

The international aid agencies should use their resources for capacity-building of the people in developing nations. By strengthening the community, the ill-effects of globalisation can be contained. The revolutionary opportunities offered by IT can be used for e-governance, alleviation of poverty, elimination of middlemen and linking the local primary producers with the world market. The e-education and e-health projects are in their initial stage in the state. These offer opportunities to the poor regions to take a big leap forward and overcome all their problems. In Madhya Pradesh, we have taken an initiative called 'Gyandoot'. Under it, information kiosks have been established by the local people. These kiosks not only provide government services but also the market rates of agricultural produce. This is nothing short of a boon for the farmers. 'Gyandoot' has been conferred with this year's Stockholm award for democracy and public service. We are also using this new medium to make the world aware of our concerns and our priorities and also secure the participation of the citizens of the world in our work. The list of all the 26,000 education guarantee schools in the state is available on the website fundschool.org. Any person can help run the school for one year by making a contribution of 400 US dollars. This has paved the way for the world community supporting the efforts of the local community. I have referred to this only as an indicator of the ways and means of giving a new direction to the system of governance and the strategies to reduce poverty.

We need a worldview which accords the highest importance to liberty and partnership. We need to be more giving and we need to link technical development with moral values. We need to learn to respect ideas that have the potential of changing the world and we need to begin afresh. These ideas and innovations can be turned into a reality only in a global structure which affords equality of opportunity.


Being a politician, I can say with certainty that people do not evaluate us on the basis of our words. They judge us on the basis of what changes we have been able to bring about in their daily lives.