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Editorial Articles


Issue no : 03, 15-21 April 2023

Vibrant Villages Programme

Integrating Border Regions in Developmental Framework

 

 

Ritesh Kumar

 

Border villages are of utmost significance to a country for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, they serve as the first line of intelligence against any external threat, as exemplified by the Kargil war of 1999, when the local shepherds alerted the authorities about the infiltration of enemy forces. In Arunachal Pradesh, the indigenous populace residing in the border areas has time and again reported construction activities carried out by China's People Liberation Army (PLA) along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), prompting the authorities for swift vigil. Thus, the locals play a pivotal role in providing valuable intelligence to the security forces and help in safeguarding the territorial integrity of the nation. The strategic importance of populating and developing border villages has long been recognised by governments worldwide. India, with its vast land borders and diverse cultural landscape, has taken a significant step towards this goal through the Centrally Sponsored Scheme - "Vibrant Villages Programme" (VVP). In February this year, the Union Cabinet approved this program with a financial allocation of Rs 4800 crore for the years 2022-23 to 2025-26.

 

Out-migration: The Silent Alarm: After India gained independence, while most of the country was making progress, border villages unfortunately got left behind in terms of development. This led to a host of issues such as poor connectivity, substandard infrastructure, and difficult living conditions, which subsequently resulted in massive outmigration. Those who stayed behind in their villages fear exclusion from mainstream development processes. Their major concerns include education of children, old age care, good health facilities, access to quality physical infrastructure and above all, remunerative income opportunities outside agriculture. These challenges are further compounded by the location of the villages in high-security zones, where there is a pervasive perception of threat or conflict. A classic example of this is the state of Uttarakhand, where the border districts have been grappling with a massive out-migration of people due to the hostile living conditions, poor infrastructure, and lack of essential amenities such as healthcare and education. The predicament is documented in Population Census 2011 which shows a very slow growth of population in most of the mountain districts of the state. Shockingly, over 185 villages in three border districts of Uttarakhand have been declared as "completely depopulated" and are now known as "ghost villages." Most of the villages belong to Pithoragarh district that share border with China and Nepal. Agriculture was the backbone of the economy of these villages and as it became harder and harder to make a living as small scale farmers, inhabitants started to desert the villages in search of other livelihood opportunities. There are several causes of migration, the nature of which predominantly depend on the conditions prevailing in a household or a region. Analysing migration in a typical classical and neo-classical theoretical framework in developing countries like India is inadequate to capture the complex interplay of variations in the labour market (both expanding opportunities elsewhere and failure of the rural labour markets in providing jobs), social and political reasons, the living environment (housing, sanitation and access to basic infrastructure such as education and health). Nevertheless, in brief, factors that lead to out-migration significantly are uneconomical land holdings, abysmally low earnings, improved educational levels yet lack of skill training, lack of employment opportunities in and around the villages and rising aspirations of youth. Social pressures to out-migrate such as stigma of being in the village and working in fields, particularly for educated males, are also growingly becoming important. The obsession of hill society for regular/secured jobs irrespective of salary and working conditions has been built over the years due to growing vulnerability of rural households to income fluctuations.

 

Vibrant Villages Programme: A Stitch in Time: Under the Vibrant Villages Programme (VVP), initially, 662 border villages have been identified for comprehensive development on priority. State wise number of villages are as follows: Arunachal Pradesh455, Himachal Pradesh- 75, Ladakh (UT)- 35, Sikkim- 46 and Uttarakhand-51. Under this programme certain focus areas have been identified for intervention: (i) economic growth-livelihood generation (ii) road connectivity (iii) housing and village infrastructure (iv) energy security with focus on renewable energy through solar and wind power (v) television and telecom connectivity including setting up of ITenabled common service centre in the village (vi) regeneration of ecosystem (vii) promotion of tourism and culture (viii) financial inclusion (ix) skill development and entre-preneurship (x) development of cooperative societies for managing livelihood oppor-tunities including agriculture/ horticulture, cultivation of medicinal plants/herbs etc.

 

Key Features of VVP

·         Development of essential infrastructure and the creation of livelihood opportunities in border blocks across four states (Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand) and one UT (Ladakh) abutting the northern border. By providing funds for the development of such infrastructure, the scheme aims to improve the quality of life of people living in identified border villages, while simultaneously retaining the population in these areas. This, in turn, will lead to inclusive growth and sustainable development in the region

·         Identification and development of economic drivers based on local natural, human, and other resources of the border villages on the northern border. The scheme seeks to develop growth centers on the "Hub and Spoke Model" through the promotion of social entrepreneurship, the empowerment of youth and women through skill development and entrepreneurship, leveraging the tourism potential, and the development of sustainable ecoagribusinesses. By doing so, the scheme aims to create an environment conducive for economic growth, which will not only benefit the local population but also have a positive impact on the region's economy.

·         The Vibrant Village Action Plans are based on a participatory approach which involves the local community in the development process, ensuring that their needs and aspirations are taken into consideration. The action plan will entail convergence of existing schemes of Central and State Governments with focus on projects in the identified areas of intervention

·         Traditional knowledge practices, NGOs and self-help groups will be on boarded, with a special focus on youth and women.

·         With respect to tourism, regular field trips will be held for students as part of a Seema Darshan programme. Since many of these border areas require permits and permissions to access, the idea is to start with organised trips and gradually extend the scope to include domestic tourists.

·         Officials from the Central and State Governments will be sent to these villages on a regular basis for stock-taking during various stages of the programme.

·         VVP will not overlap with the Border Area Development Programme (BADP), which is already in place. Instead, the VVP will complement the BADP and provide an additional impetus for the development of identified border villages.

 

Financial allocation approved for the VVP from 2022-23 to 2025-26 is as below: Concerned States/UT have been informed about the approval of programme and requested to initiate planning process for the villages. They have also been requested to organise activities like fairs/ festivals, cultural programme, visit of school children, visit of senior state/district officials, tourism related activities, promotion of handicrafts etc. in the villages identified for coverage on priority. Similarly, Central Ministries/Departments have been requested to ensure convergence of their ongoing Central Sector and Centrally Sponsored Schemes and organise activities of their Ministries/Departments in the identified villages.

 

The Hub and Spoke Model: The hub and spoke model is a business paradigm that involves a central hub or primary location that serves as a nexus for connecting to various spoke locations. These spokes are typically smaller locations that are connected to the hub and function as satellite locations. While this model is commonly employed in transportation and logistics, it can also be applied in other fields such as rural development. In the context of Vibrant Villages Programme, the hub and spoke model can be utilized to establish a network of small satellite locations that are connected to a central hub. This hub can provide access to resources, expertise, and training, while the spokes can disseminate information and resources to rural communities. The Hub and Spoke model also enhances efficiency by reducing duplication of resources and efforts. It can be adapted to accommodate the needs of different communities and regions. The hub and spoke model can facilitate rural development in terms of employment generation and skill development in several ways.

 

·         Training and Education: The hub can provide training and education to individuals in rural areas (spokes), enabling them to acquire new skills and improve their employability.

·         Access to Resources: The hub can provide the spokes with access to resources such as equipment, materials, and funding that can be used to initiate businesses and create jobs.

·         Networking: The hub can facilitate networking between individuals and organisations, fostering collaboration and knowledge-sharing.

 

Why Earlier Initiatives Were Inadequate: The Vibrant Villages Program builds on India's previous border management policies, which have prioritised security concerns over other socioeconomic considerations as exemplified by the Border Area Development Program (BADP). The BADP was introduced during the Seventh Five-Year Plan (1985-1990) to enhance infrastructure in 457 blocks, 117 border districts across 16 states and two Union Territories for security purposes. Although BADP was later revised to address issues such as health, education, and agriculture, it initially faced difficulties due to the absence of a socioeconomic focus. The main issues that continued to plague border communities in India's northeast region were declining population, lack of connectivity, resource shortages, and the sense of alienation. After the Kargil War (1999), the Indian Government established the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) to comprehensively evaluate national security and border concerns. The KRC's findings indicated that safeguarding border security would require measures beyond traditional security approaches, such as improving border infrastructure. Consequently, various initiatives, such as creating the Department of Border Management (2004), the Land Ports Authority of India (2012), and constructing Integrated Check Posts along the border to facilitate crossborder movement of trade and passengers were implemented. These initiatives were geared towards enhancing connectivity rather than reinforcing the borders' physical structures. However, they were limited in coverage, predominantly focused on major land trade routes, and were security-centric, neglecting infrastructure development in other border areas.

 

Indispensable Component of Sound Strategic Planning: India shares borders with seven countries, including Pakistan and China, with whom it has experienced several territorial disputes. Tensions between India and Pakistan have been high since India's independence, with numerous military conflicts, such as the Kargil War and the Uri attack. Similarly, India's relationship with China has been strained, chiefly because of border disputes in the Himalayan region. Nevertheless, India and China also continue to be major trade partners. Despite frosty bilateral relations, the trade between the two countries touched an all time high of US$ 135.98 in 2022. The Nathu La in Sikkim and Lipulekh Pass in Uttarakhand serve as key border crossing for road transport of goods between the two countries. Hence, the imperative to bolster village settlements derives from an array of considerations that extend far beyond the immediate tactical exigencies of territorial security. Rather, it encompasses a range of multifaceted dimensions that include economic, cultural, and social factors, all of which are integral to the holistic development of the nation. In current circumstances, India's key considerations for bolstering border village settlements through infrastructure development and sustainable livelihood measures include the following:

 

Enhanced surveillance: Popu-lating border villages and enhancing border infrastructure will enhance the surveillance capabilities of the Indian Army. By populating border villages, the Indian Army can garner intelligence about the enemy's troop and weaponry movements. Moreover, it would facilitate the establishment of a closer relationship between the Indian Army and local communities, ensuring cooperation in the event of an attack. Also, supporting infrastructure could be used to deploy advanced surveillance technologies such as radars, drones, and satellites to monitor the enemy's activities. This would enable the timely detection of any suspicious movements and prompt action.

 

Better military mobility: Enhanced border infrastructure would facilitate better troop and weaponry mobility. The construction of roads and bridges would enable speedy movement of troops to the border regions, while tunnels would provide cover and protection from enemy attacks.

 

Facilitate cross border trade: Border villages are not just frontline defence outposts, but also key loci of cross-border trade and commerce. They serve as critical conduits for the exchange of goods and services, and their prosperity contributes to the economic health of the nation. In this regard, strengthening their capabilities can also enhance the nation's economic resilience and competitiveness

 

Preserve cultural diversity: Border villages are often characterized by a high degree of ethnic and cultural diversity, which endows them with unique social and historical significance. By investing in the development of these communities, the state can bolster its social cohesion and demonstrate its commitment to the preservation of cultural diversity.

 

Countering China's Border Moves: As a countermeasure to China's aggressive infrastructure development, the Government of India (GOI), in 2006, began focusing on building strategic roads in the northeast, with a particular focus on Arunachal Pradesh. The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved the initial construction of strategic highways in 2006. A plethora of schemes and measures have been in place since then for augmenting infrastructure and connectivity in border areas. However, the Vibrant Villages Program mainly comes as a timely response to China's developments along its own border post 2020. There have been heightened tensions along the Line of Actual Control since May 2020, when China deployed a large number of troops and heavy equipment to change the status quo in eastern Ladakh. While the disputes that ensued after the May 2020 border skirmishes are still to be resolved, in January 2021, China adopted a new border law. Under the provisions of this law, China has been developing towns along its borders and increasing the involvement of local residents in surveillance efforts in the regions surrounding India, Nepal, and Bhutan.

 

Conclusion: The lack of development and prosperity in the border villages is a stark contrast to the progress experienced by the rest of the country. The underlying reasons for this disparity are multifaceted and require a thorough examination of the ground realities to devise effective strategies to integrate these regions into the developmental framework of both the nation and the world. Therefore, it is imperative to acknowledge the complexities of the situation and devise informed and nuanced approaches to address this issue and the Vibrant Villages Programme aims to do exactly that.

 

(The author is a journalist working with South Asia bureau of an international news platform. He can be reached at ritesh1926@gmail.com)

 

Views expressed are personal.