Representational image of rural India
Bana village in the district of Latehar, Jharkhand (Representational image of rural India) | Photo: Prashanth Vishwanathan | Bloomberg

New Delhi: The Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) is coming up with a comprehensive plan to revitalise the Rurban Mission that seeks to develop village clusters, ThePrint has learnt.

This year, Rural Development Minister Narendra Singh Tomar had announced that 1,000 more “Rurban clusters”, i.e. “geographically contiguous villages”, will be developed above the 300 that had been identified earlier.

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In the forthcoming phase, the ministry is planning to implement a “One District-One Cluster-One Product” model and to create a digital public interface with a spatial plan of rural areas, according to sources.

The Shyama Prasad Mukherji Rurban Mission or SPMRM was launched in 2016 to replace the earlier Provision of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas (PURA) initiative, touted as former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s dream project. 

Similar to PURA, the mission is centred on the “development of a cluster of villages that preserve and nurture the essence of rural community life…without compromising with the facilities perceived to be essentially urban”. Simply put, the mission aims to bridge the urban-rural divide.

However, in the last few years of its implementation, it has failed to make a dent.

“Because it came from Abdul Kalam’s PURA the focus of Rurban in the past was more about the availability of civic amenities, what the Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) said about aatma gaon ki ho, suvidhaein sheher ki (soul of a village, amenities of a city). But the new thinking emerging is to develop decentralised economic growth clusters,” said an expert closely working with the MoRD. 

ThePrint emailed the ministry for a comment but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.

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Revitalised Rurban

For the revamped Rurban mission, the MoRD is planning to seek an allocation of Rs 30,000-40,000 crore — a drastic leap from the Rs 600 crore that it was allotted in 2020-2021.

This is because the MoRD is working out a comprehensive plan to create “smart villages” founded on a “Spatial National Knowledge Platform”.

“Based on scientific input, all information will become available in digital format on a single platform for the entirety of rural India,” a source at the MoRD said.

Data from schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the Swamitva scheme, National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) will be incorporated into the proposed interface along with other information like that about calamity-prone zones.

“In a nutshell, the principles of urban planning have been blended with spatial planning to map farmlands and topography landscapes, and a digital planning exercise has been created,” the expert quoted above added.

The Bhaskaracharya Institute for Space Applications and Geo-informatics has been engaged to revamp the Rurban portal while “mentor institutes” from across the country will also be brought on board, the source said.  

The revitalised framework will also follow a “One District-One Cluster-One Product” model. “Different places have different things around which that cluster emerges. You need to have a mechanism around which the private sector can be attracted and participate,” the expert said. 

This phase will also see the completion of the planning notification process, a significant component of the Integrated Cluster Action Plan (ICAP) that outlines the requirements of each cluster.

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Never ‘PURA’

The Rurban Mission has its roots in PURA, which had sought to address “lack of livelihood opportunities, modern amenities and services for decent living in rural areas”. 

“To achieve this, an economically viable cluster of villages have to be created through a mission mode programme into physical, electronic, and knowledge connectivities, leading to self-sustained economic prosperity for groups of villages,” Kalam had said on the eve of the 56th Independent Day speech in 2003.

Following the pilot phase run across several states till 2007, the Planning Commission had found that the scheme lacked a business plan. Arvind Mayaram, who was the additional secretary in the MoRD at the time, told ThePrint, “That (the transformation of villages) was very heavily dependent on individuals, which meant that if you had Anna Hazare somewhere or Nanaji Deshmukh somewhere they would hold the programme with their moral authority and affect people’s habits.” 

In 2010, Mayaram along with other MoRD officials revamped PURA wherein money from other schemes under the Ministry would “flow into a single account that would then be implemented by a private party”. But the scheme didn’t take off as elections took place in several states and governments changed, he said.

The Rurban Mission that was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016, Mayaram said, “kept most of the elements, but moved away from (the private enterprise model)”.

Important signals

At the outset, a state-level committee has to come up with the ICAP that includes the “selection of cluster”, and “notification of planning area” among other components.

This is followed by a Detailed Project Report (DPR) that contains the “detailed design and costing of project components”. So far, 300 clusters have been identified, while 289 ICAPs and 279 DPRs have been approved.

But, all is not well with the scheme.

In March this year, the Standing Committee on Rural Development took an issue with the drastic reduction in the Revised Estimate for the last three years — an indication that the programme hasn’t taken off. 

In FY 2017-2018, the revised estimate had been 60 per cent of the budget estimate (BE). Thereon, for 2018-2019 and 2019-2020, the figure had been just 37.5 per cent. Moreover, since the programme started, the actual expenditure had also fallen from nearly 200 per cent of the BE to 26 per cent (for 2019-2020).

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Why Rurban hasn’t succeeded so far

The Department of Rural Development in its response to the Standing Committee had said, “The preparation of DPRs is a time taking process and State has to mobilize DPRs from different line departments for different projects”.

The Fifth Common Review Mission of the MoRD had also stated, “The scheme has potential but the challenge is to bring convergence among various departments.”

The MoRD source quoted above stressed that the funds are not being utilised completely. Seventy per cent of the funds for the scheme come from the convergence of state and central schemes MGNREGA and NRLM.

The other 30 per cent known as the Critical Gap Funding is divided between the states and Centre. 

“States haven’t given much importance to this as there have been more focus on the implementation of bigger schemes… Also, technical people are not being recruited due to a shortage,” the source said.

The source also pointed to another issue: the planning notification was delayed and incomplete. “This wasn’t completed because of the technical difficulties in the scheme,” the source said.

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