Monday, December 22, 2014

Ranchi's splendour - Nature at its best

Jharkhand is one of the few states, I haven’t spent much time in nor travelled around and thus, it was exciting when I got to spend nearly three weeks officially in Ranchi, the state capital. It’s been almost 14 years since its becoming a state and my initial impression was thus mixed. One can’t miss few things in first few days –
first is the traffic chaos, narrow roads, hawkers & sellers on pavements & on the roads all over and it can be as chaotic as any other B class city in terms of urban management;
second, good sports infrastructure – Birsa Munda stadium, national games complex, international cricket stadium to name the few;
thirdly, a beautiful Ashram of Yogoda Satsang Society of India. It was founded by Paramahansa Yoganand in 1917 and it is here that he started teachings of Kriya Yoga. I went almost every evening while I was there and the meditation session was very soothing. The ashram is literally an oasis of peace and tranquility in the midst of utter chaos and pollution.
Fourthly, the absence of a planned part of the capital (forget setting up new capital as has been done in Raipur and now being planned in Andhra Pradesh) and the fact that the state secretariat and state assembly is being run in the run down campus of HEC ! It’s baffling to say the least! Fifthly, new malls (Pantaloons, Reliance, Hinoo Cine-complex and crossword book-store) and authorized dealers of Audi & other such upmarket durables. Clearly, Ranchi has purchasing power in its extremities.
And lastly, the names of places/roads in and around Ranchi – “BOOTY MORE”,  ‘HAHE”, RAHE, SILLI, GOBARDIH  and so on…it used to be absolutely fascinating noticing these names while traveling.
If one decides to move out of Ranchi to cover nearby places in the vicinity of about 100 kms, there are some amazingly beautiful waterfalls and natural sceneries. Then there are number of important religious places too. One should ideally make a 4-5 days programme for sight-seeing in and around Ranchi. And it can be spread out as

Day 1 – Visit to Yogoda Satsang Ashram (Smruti mandir) and local traffic chaos (& sightseeing including Kanke dam) in Ranchi.

Day 2 Visit to Itkhori in Chatra District (140 kms) via Hazaribagh and back

Day 3- Visit to “Chinnamastika devi” temple in Rajrappa (about 60 kms from Ranchi) early morning followed by visit to Hundru Falls.
Day 4- Visit to Deori temple (60 kms from Ranchi) and Dassam Fall
Day 5 – Visit to Jonha falls in the morning. Lunch in Ranchi followed by visit to “Jharcraft” emporium

Now, let me describe these places one by one in the same sequence. I did cover these places and am amazed at the historical significance of some of these places.

1.      Itkhori

 Itkhori is located about 130 kms north of Ranchi and is connected by NH 33 via Hazaribagh. The main site in Itkhori has confluence of three religion – Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, dating back to thousands of years ago. Located 1.5 kms away from Itkhori Block in Bhaduli Village, it is situated at Chatra Chouparan path. This place is surrounded by three sides from Buxa River which looks like U-shaped. The premise of Maa Bhadrakali Temple is surrounded with lush green forest.  The statue of main deity, Maa Bhadrakali is black in colur and perhaps constructed in Shak, Gupta and Vardhan period – 1500 to 1800 years ago.  Besides Bhadrakali, seen as a propitious form of Kali, Shiva and Hanuman idols complete the Hindu influence.
There is then “SahastraBuddha” - a stupa with 1,008 figurines of Buddha. The top of this stupa always has water in it. However much one dries it out, water comes in within no time. It is said that Buddha came here and was deep in meditation. In the meantime his Mausi (mom’s sister) came looking for him. She requested him to come back to the kingdom but he didn’t relent. And that’s how the name “Itkhoi – Yahi kho diya” (he’s lost here) came into being ….isn’t this amazing. I was trying to read it in “Old paths, White Clouds” byThich Naht Hanh but didn’t find mention of  it so far (I am yet to complete the book).  
 So far as Jainism is concerned, it is here that the charan paduka (slippers) of Jain Tirthankar Sheetalnath were discovered. These too are made of black stone, with similar aesthetic styles, suggesting religious co-existence in close proximity in the Middle Ages. It is said that this might have been the birth place of Jain Tirthankar Sheetalnath.

I was surprised to see lot of excavated stones and statues (pertaining to middle ages) kept in a make shift museum within the temple complex. It must also be painfully true that a lot more would have been taken away by people who found them from time to time and depressing that such precious history is lost. The Archeological Survey of India is yet to take up the formal excavation of the place and it is expected that with such important treasures and scriptures hidden here pertaining to Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, this will put Itkhori on the global tourist map. As of now, it is a sleepy village.

But, looking at the potential, it is no exaggeration that  This place must have been the Patliputra of Jharkhand ” as told by Vinoba Bhave University history professor Iftikhar Alam.

2.      Rajrappa & Chinnamastika temple-
Rajrappa stands at the confluence of the Damodar and Bhairavi (locally called Bhera) rivers.  Rajrappa is located off NH 23 connecting Ramgarh and Chas. It is 28 kilometres (17 mi) from Ramgarh, 65 kilometers (40 mi) from Hazaribagh,  78 kilometers (48 mi) from Ranchi and 60 kilometers (37 mi) from Bokaro Steel City.  Its best to take NH 33 from Ranchi towards Hazajibagh and take a detour from the road leading to Hundru falls.

Almost everybody knows about or has been to Rajrappa in this part of the country. The main attraction is the  Chhinnamasta (also known as Chinnamastika) temple.   Chhinnamasta ( छिन्नमस्ता, Chinnamastā, "She whose head is severed"), often spelled Chinnamasta and more popularly called Chhinnamastika and Prachanda Chandika, is one of the Mahavidyas, ten Tantric goddesses and a ferocious aspect of Devi, the Hindu Divine Mother. Chhinnamasta can be easily identified by her fearsome iconography. The self-decapitated goddess holds her own severed head in one hand and a scimitar in another. Three jets of blood spurt out of her bleeding neck and are drunk by her severed head and two attendants. Chhinnamasta  stands on the body of Kamdeo and Rati in the lotus bed. Many smaller temples have been build around the main temple such as the temples of Ashtamatrika and Dakshina Kali.
The temple is very old and the place Rajrappa finds mention in the Vedas, Puranas and Hindu scriptures as a "Shakti Peeth" which is flocked by devotees from Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Assam and Nepal.    The art and architectural design resembles the design of temples of Tantrik importance.  The temple is considered as notable as the tantrik site of Kamakhya Temple of Assam which has a similar architecture.   The ancient temple of Goddess was destroyed and later a new temple was constructed and the original idol of Goddess was placed in it. Animal sacrifice is still practiced in the temple. The sacrificial animals are killed on Tuesdays, Saturdays and during Kali puja.

A large number of pilgrims arrive here throughout the year. Large congregation of people takes place here during the full Moon and New Moon nights. Owing to the religious importance of the place, it is also popular among the disciples for marriage and ritual of Mundan or shaving the head. Vehicle owners come here to get blessings for their new vehicles as they believe that the first worship of vehicles here multiplies the life of vehicles and brings luck to the owners. Tantriks look upon this place for Tantric accomplishment.
Rajrappa also is a pilgrim centre for the Santals and other tribals who come for immersion of the ashes of their loved ones in the Damodar. They come mostly during the month of December, in groups known as yatri. As per their mythology it is their final resting place. In their folk songs Rajrappa is referred to as "Thel Kopi Ghat" (Water Ghat) and they use oil after bathing. They come in significant numbers from the southern parts of Jharkhand state such as East and West Singhbhum and Saraikela districts. Maa Chinmastika devi is also known as Manokamna devi due to the belief that it fulfils the wishes of the devotees. Devotees tie a red thread around a rock in the temple for the fulfillment of their wishes.

In the month of January a special fair is held here on the festival of Makar Sankranti and attended by lakhs of people. A fair is also organized during the festival of Vijaydashmi, Vijayadashami and attended by large number of people. Visitors take holy bath in the river.
Geographical significance - Rajrappa Falls (more of a misnomer since the height (about 20 feet) isn’t very imposing) has tremendous geographical significance. The Damodar valley at Rajrappa is a typical example of polycyclic valley or topographic discordance which is characterized by two storey valley. The Damodar developed its broad and flat valley of senile stage before the onset of Tertiary upliftment. The river was rejuvenated due to upliftment of landmass during the Paleogene and Neogene Periods (66 million to 1.8 million years ago) by the side effects of the Himalayan orogeny and thus the Damodar excavated its new deep and narrow valley of youthful stage within its broad and flat valley of senile stage. The Bhera river coming from over the Ranchi plateau makes a waterfall while joining the Damodar and thus presents an example of a hanging valley. The Damodar gorge near Rajrappa is a typical example of incised meander.

The region around the temple gets very quiet and eerie after sunset.  This might be the reason,  Satyajit Ray chose Rajrappa as the setting for Feluda adventure Chhinnamastar Abhishap.
Rajrappa is a project under Central Coalfields Limited (CCL), a subsidiary of Coal India Limited and is part of Ramgarh Coalfield. It is one of the biggest coal-fields in its region. It is widely known as the Rajrappa Project, which consist of the main quarry (a huge open cast mine), offices, colonies, recreation facilities, shopping complexes, a police out-post and public utility buildings. It is a complete township in itself.

3.      Hundru Falls
The Hundru Falls is created on the course of the Subernarekha river, where it falls from a height of 98 metres (322 ft) creating one of the highest water falls in the state. The different formations of rock due to the erosion by the constantly falling of water have added to the beauty of the place.

The Hundru Falls at one of the edges of the Ranchi plateau is one of the several scrap falls in the region.  During rainy season, it takes a formidable form but in the dry season it turns into an exciting picnic spot. At the base of the Hundru Falls, there is a pool, which serves as a bathing place. There are a total of 745 steps one necessarily has to get down from the top to get a complete view of the Fall. The best time to visit would be after monsoon, say September- November when there’s enough water.
There are two ways to reach Hundru falls. One is via Angara block from Ranchi where the distance will be 45 kilometres (28 mi) from Ranchi, off the Ranchi-Purulia Road. One has to travel some about 21 kilometres (13 mi) from the main road. The other route (and the recommended one) is taking NH33 and then diverting on the road leading to Hundru falls. One can have Rajrappa darshan followed by visit to Hundru falls. There is also a Suvarna Rekha Hydal Project located down the falls which is also a good place for Tourists.

4.      Deori temple
Deori temple, an ancient shrine dedicated to Goddess Kali, is situated in Tamaar village in Bundu block of Ranchi. The idol of Goddess Kali has 16 arms and is locally known as 'Solahbhuji Devi'. Believed to be built by a tribal chief, the temple wall and pillars are made of sandstone. A new structure has been constructed over the old temple which includes a few domes that are sculpted with colorful images of Gods and Goddesses.
The deity of this temple is believed to be very powerful. Devotees are seen tying red and yellow sacred threads onto bamboo poles that are kept in the premises. This temple has recently attained popularity, thanks to the regular visits of the famous cricketer MS Dhoni and his family.
The temple is open on all days from 5.00 am to 8.30 pm. The best time to visit is during the Holi festival which is celebrated with great dedication.

Deori temple is about 70 km from Ranchi and lies on the National Highway 33.  It’s just by the side of the national highway.
One can also visit Dassam falls which is 20 km away from Deori temple on the journey back to Ranchi.

5.      Dassam Falls
The Dassam Falls ( दशम जलप्रपात) (also known as Dassam Ghagh) is a waterfall located near Taimara village in Bundu police station of Ranchi district. Dassam is a changed form of word Da:song which in mundari (local) language means the act of pouring water. Da: means water and song means pouring or measuring. The water fall resembles like somebody is pouring water so the name was Da:song earlier but afterwards the name was changed to Dassam. 

The Dassam Falls is a natural cascade across the Kanchi River, a tributary of the Subarnarekha River. The water falls from a height of 44 meters (144 ft).  The sound of water echoes all around the place. Dassam Falls at one of the edges of the Ranchi plateau is one of the many scarp falls in the region.

The water of the Dassam Falls is very clean and clear. It is natural for a tourist to be enticed to enter the water for a bath or swim but tourists are warned not to do so because of the current that is generated. There have been many cases of drowning in Dassam Falls. Nine people died of drowning between 2001 and 2006.

The Dassam Falls is 40 kilometres (25 mi) from Ranchi on NH 33 or Ranchi-Jamshedpur highway and can be seen on the journey back from Deori temple towards Ranchi.

6.      Jonha Falls
Situated at an edge of the Ranchi Plateau, the Jonha Falls is an example of a hanging valley falls. The Gunga River hangs over its master stream, Raru River and forms the falls.   Water in the falls drops from a height of 43 metres (141 ft).

All these three Falls are an example of a nick point caused by rejuvenation. Knick point, also called a nick point or simply nick, represents breaks in slopes in the longitudinal profile of a river caused by rejuvenation. The break in channel gradient allows water to fall vertically giving rise to a waterfall.
The Jonha Falls is 40 kilometers (25 mi) from Ranchi. It is approachable by both road and train. Jonha Station is just 1.5 km from the fall. For travel by road, one has to take the Ranchi-Purulia Road and after travelling for about 20 miles (32 km) one has to travel about 3 miles (4.8 km) off the main road.

A lot many people would apprehend that Ranchi/Jharkhand might not be safe because of maoist activities but it is also a fact that not a single incident has happened in any of these religious / tourist sites. I would recommend these places strongly primarily because they are beautiful and also because they are still not commercialized and continue to be pristine.  I enjoyed and I hope you will enjoy as much.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Scaling down MGNREGA - a case of economic rationality or a political gimmick

The debate on Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Assistance (MGNREGA) (details about the scheme, eligibility, monitoring mechanism, progress made can be seen at its official website), which is perhaps as old as the scheme itself has becomes extremely livid in the recent past.

Two articles, one by Prof Abhijit Banerjee titled “Mr Modi, we need to talk” in HT and
"Rural Guarantee Scheme chokes as funds dry up” in ToI are the latest in this series. I must forewarn that I will play the role of a devil’s advocate and will criticize all that’s going wrong presently in the scheme.

While the TOI article talks about drop in fund allocation from Rs 39000 crores (Rs 390 billions) in 2013-14 to Rs 24000 crores (Rs 240 Billions) in the current financial year and as a result, only 8.3 crores households could be provided jobs out of 10.5 crore households who had applied as on Nov 25, 2014 thus leaving a gap of 2.3 crore households without work. The corresponding numbers last year for the same period were 9.8 crore households out of 10.9 crore households who has applied for job. The article also mentions about pending liabilities of the panchayats and pending wages.
Abhijit in his article mentions that while “he has never been a huge fan of MGNREGA”, the scheme has done something good for the poor and by that he means that 2.2 billion person days of work were generated under the program in 2013-14 covering 50 million households and over 200 million people. This makes it one of the largest welfare programs in the world. He has quoted an Oxford University study which by comparing NSS data with MGNREGA database for 2011 points to a gap of 20% ie 20% of the reported days of work did not happen and how this is an improvement over 50% gap which was reported in 2007-08. Abhijit further points out that work is not entirely unproductive and that in their study in Bihar and Rajasthan, almost all the works carried out under MGNREGA could be traced down. He further says that there has been “less temporary out-migration” from MGNREGA villages that clearly establishes that “program is doing something”.
Abhijit then points out issues in MGNREGA in its present form such as panchayat specificity, inter-state differences which depend on state’s access & ability to utilize and not exactly proportionate to state’s backwardness, frauds (which he points out have come down in recent past), panchayat’s requirements versus State’s inability to match funds such as in Bihar, delay in realizing payments which may vary from few weeks to months and gaps in proper micro level targeting.
He has, as an alternative, proposed a universal cash transfer in the form of a minimum guaranteed income, based on a hypothetical program proposed by Rinku Murgai, Martin Ravallion and Dominique Van de Walle from the World Bank. This according to him would be better option than scaling down MGNREGA since it removes selection & location bias, will be universal and will be easy to implement.

I would like to analyze each of his arguments one by one
Abhijit admits he is not a huge fan of MGNREGA. He does however point out the significant impact on the employment that has been generated under the program making it the largest welfare program in the world. But, the question is – what’s been the outcome of this employment generation? Has it led to creation of productive capital assets (having a life of at least 5 years if not more)? Merely doling out money in the name of wages for works which are either seasonal (and thus need to be undertaken again next season such as de-silting) or which can’t be verified, is a criminal waste of money. It neither adds to the capital nor builds a productive work force. If at all, it deprives the same labor which could have been used elsewhere and thus, in some sense, leads to inflationary tendency in the economy. Moreover, works like de-siltation of drains are something which Panchayats are supposed to carry out from their mandated budgets and taking them up under MGNREGA often implies double accounting.  While de-siltation of drains/tanks are required to be carried out, carrying out such works under MGNREGA is fraught with dangers since a good proportion of these works are often bogus as actual measurement is difficult and any discrepancy can often be attributed to further siltation during the intervening period. My point is, there are more pressing works in villages which can be measured and should take precedence over something which is subjective and highly prone to bogus reporting.

While Abhijit does point to matching on ground the number of works undertaken under the scheme in Bihar & Rajasthan in his study, the issue is regarding the longevity of these works and whether the same can be confirmed for all works undertaken under the Scheme? Or for what proportion of all works, can this be confirmed? This is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein kutcha drains, desilting works and other such one-season works are taken as works existing on ground. They will of course be silted up in the next rain or in the coming season and the same works will be taken up again! Does this amount to creation of works? Is it not a wasteful expenditure? Let such works be taken up by Panchayats/Municipalities from their regular budgets if needed.

Abhijit points out to a 20% gap in MGNREGA reporting and how it’s an improvement over 50% in 2007-08. By its own admission, one-fifth of the total enrolments continue to be bogus and this is in the 8th or 9th year of the scheme! Converted into funding, this means an outgo of at least Rs 5000 Cr – Rs 15000 crores as leakages! Do we need a scheme in its present form which implies such a colossal waste on its own account? This leakage would be at least double if one is to consider the payment made to those who get it without doing any work (bogus works with proper enrolment), mismanagement and administrative leakages. Who are we working for?

There are other serious issues. More developed states like Andhra Pradesh (erstwhile) could draw many more times under the scheme than the states with greater concentration of poor such as Bihar, UP and Jharkhand. The concept of allocation/utilization under the scheme in proportion to the poor population has been conveniently replaced by the allocation based on the state’s capacity to utilize the funds. So, while at the national level, we get a sense of positivity in terms of overall numbers (coverage and expenditure), its actually doing a disservice to poorer and needy states as their share is actually knocked off by relatively more developed states. The question remains- why should the poor and needy suffer because of inability of the state to contribute its share or because of bureaucratic apathy & lackadaisical attitude? Should we not have a more transparent system based on the requirement?

Then there are administrative glitches. I wonder why have we not been able to overcome them by now? While there have been constant improvements in the scheme such as aligning it with Aadhaar and direct payment in the beneficiary account, I recall reading horrifying details of how MGNREGA enrolments were done in the name of villagers who actually exist, their bank accounts were opened and the entire money in their names were drawn for over 4 years fraudulently by the Panchayat official in collusion with Bank official! This would have been a part of 80% of the actual enrolment! While its true that some of these aberrations are bound to happen in a scheme as large as MGNREGA, what if such fudging is more than 15-20% or even more?

The scheme is already going to complete a decade soon since it started. The underlying intentions and objectives of the schemes are highly laudable and there is no doubt that it has helped millions of families in their fight against poverty in a significant manner. But then, there are too many operational and economic issues in its operations. The basic issue remains – should one go on continuing a welfare scheme where while income is being provided to the needy families, the productive outcome of the scheme is seriously doubtful. The average annual outgo has been Rs 35000 crores plus and overall, thus, it might be more than Rs 250,000 crores cumulatively. Such schemes obviously come at a cost of capital development and I feel, time has come when we need to strike a balance between income needs, employment potential and productive capital investment. The idea of a universal guaranteed income scheme proposed as an alternative is ludicrous. The country doesn’t have that kind of resources to simply fritter around and if we take pride in advocating our demographic dividends, it’s time we start showing the results of this so called dividend rather that continuing with the “white man’s burden”!

So, what can be done? One thing which certainly must not be done is to try and limit it to certain number of Blocks in the country. Poor exist in all parts of the country and limiting the scheme to certain blocks will be hugely unfair to the poor in the blocks left out.
The list of works permissible under the scheme is quite inclusive and has all good intentions. But that’s where the problem lies. My suggestion is more to do with what all should be taken out from the list of permissible works and that we should take up only capital works, at the panchayat level, which are of simple nature under the scheme. I thus propose as under

1.       All works which are purely earthen work based and without any capital should henceforth be discontinued. This means that works such as desilting of drains, construction of kutcha drains etc should be discontinued.

2.       Only those works which have longevity of more than certain time period say 4-5 years should be taken up under the scheme.

3.       Some of the works such as construction of class rooms in village school, based on the strength of school children, coloring of government buildings in a uniform manner etc can be taken up.

4.       Water conservation works such as mini check dams, lined drains, water harvesting structures can be taken up in a big way.

5.       Construction of individual toilets can be an integral part of the scheme (it’s been included recently)

While I may be criticized for not knowing about the scheme in detail, I am of the humble opinion that too much money (as percentage of overall allocation under the scheme) has been wasted and the scheme cannot continue in its present form as not only it’s not sustainable, its also creating an unproductive dependency syndrome among the working age group who would have worked otherwise and contributed productively.