(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
May 25, 2008
Thirty Years Of Panchayat: The Road Traversed
Dr Suryakanta Misra
SIMILAR conclusions can be drawn from the experience of involvement of Panchayats in the Total Sanitation Campaign based on principles of universal sanitation. In 1993-94, only 19565 families were part of this programme. The number of families having their own toilets changed from 22.94 lakh in 2002-03 to 61.12 lakh in 2006-07. Now 65 % of rural households have proper toilets. 604 Gram Panchayats and 16 Panchayat Samitis have received the Nirmal Gram Puraskar. East Midnapur and Howrah districts have applied for the certification of ‘nirmal district’. Burdwan, Nadiya, West Midnapur and other districts are also close to attaining this target. Except for 5 districts, this campaign for sanitation was conducted in all areas. West Bengal tops the ranking of the state in this regard as well. We have tried to run this programme of building toilets by consciously maintaing a low share of subsidies. The people bore the major share of the costs. This has led to increased participation. Apart from the sanitation campaign, Panchayats have become increasingly involved in the health delivery programmes as part of the campaign for people’s health. It is true that mobilization of uniform effort has not been possible in terms of these new responsibilities, but in the near future, the Panchayats will set examples in these areas too. Because of these efforts, we have been able to achieve a significant decrease in the infant mortality rate. Overall mortality rates are lowest in West Bengal compared to all other states in India.
Great progress has been achieved in our state with regard to self-help groups. Through the initiative of the Panchayats and others modes of mobilization, several self-help groups have been formed. In West Bengal, self-help groups are not based on solely on microfinance. Poor people, in particular women, have become associated with small-scale production. The people who have been most severely affected by the perils of the market economy have today got involved in these groups to improve their income and living standards. West Bengal ranks second in the country for the number of such self-help groups mobilized through Panchayats. Till January, the number of such groups was 216440 (compared to 58708 in 2002-03) and their savings amounted to Rs 182 crore (compared to Rs 13.47 crore in 2002-03). Till January, these groups availed cash credit worth Rs 302.5 crore (compared to Rs 28 crore in 2002-03). If we take into account all the different kinds of self-help groups, they number over 6 lakh. With the increase in number, problems faced by these groups are also increasing. These problems cannot be resolved unless these groups are organized as associations at the different levels of the Panchayat system starting from the Gram Sangsad and Gram Panchayats. Direct involvement of self-help groups in the work of the Panchayats, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Total Sanitation Campaign is a special feature of our state. This is why Panchayats are directly getting involved. Panchayats are playing a role in formation of the groups, capacity building of group members and enabling access to credit. Panchayats are deploying their untied funds along with other resources to extend support to the self-help groups. Land and water bodies are being leased out to these groups. The groups are being associated with different rural development projects. Great emphasis is being put on training. Successful self-help groups are being trained to play a role as resource persons. Different departments of the state are taking up a joint exercise to expand the distribution system of goods and commodities. The sale of such goods produced by self-help groups is increasing in state-level fairs that are organized throughout the country. Exports are also going up.
Work has intensified in the Grameen Sadak Yojana and electrification programmes. In 2002-03, 582 km of metal roads were constructed at a cost Rs 149.5 crore. In 2006-07, 1501 km of roads were constructed at a cost of Rs 476 crore. In the current year till January, out of the central outlay of Rs 1845 crore, Rs 1675 crore have been spent. With a lot less resources compared to the infrastructure of the department of municipal affairs, more roads have been built, but this programme does not allow any land acquisition. Villagers are giving their land. Realising the benefits that will accrue out of road construction, people are giving their land for road building.
We do not agree with Centre’s directives on the BPL issue. The parameters that have been spelt out will lead to exacerbation in social divisions in rural areas. But this list is binding for implementing central programmes. Since beneficiaries of BPL Ration Card, Anna Yojana, Indira Awas Yojana, Old Age Pension Scheme and other programmes are supposed to be identified on the basis of the BPL list, we have to work on the basis of such a list. Parallel to the struggle to reverse central policies and directives, unless the beneficiaries of the various programmes are identified on the basis of preparation of this list, the rural poor, schedule caste and Adivasi people, and women will face deprivation. This work has made substantial progress and 2946 Gram Panchayats out of 3354 Gram Panchayats have completed this task. Based on this work, more than 10 lakh old people will be able to avail of an old age pension of Rs 400 per month. In 2002-03, 3.32 lakh persons were getting this pension at the rate of Rs 100 per month. Similarly, compared to 2002-03, when 6243 families got a total assistance of Rs 6.62 crore, this year till January, 33200 families have received a total of Rs 33.2 crore as assistance. The total number of families under the Bhavishyanidhi programme for rural landless wage labourers has increased from 7.32 lakh to 9.59 lakh.
In the 2002 Panchayat election, our slogan was, not just Panchayats, we want more power in the hands of the people. The role of Gram Sangsads and Gram Unnayan Samitis (Village Development Committees) have been very important in involving the people and incorporating their opinion in the functioning of Panchayats. According to the latest available figures, in 40965 Gram Sangsads out of a total of 45154, Gram Unnayan Samitis have been formed. Out of these, 12056 Gram Unnayan Samitis have opened their own savings bank accounts where the government will be able to transfer untied funds. The rate of participation in Gram Sangsads will be enhanced further. The self-assessment exercise of Gram Panchayats has shown that 78 Gram sangsad meetings recorded an attendance of 40 percent or above, 30-39 percent in 97 meetings, 25-29 percent in 106 meetings and 12-15 percent in 1523 meetings. These figures have gone up since then but there is no alternative to the effort to make the Gram Sangsad more participatory. In the 4612 villages that were designated as ‘backward villages’, implementation of village based development plans were prioritized through the formation of Gram Sangsad, Gram Unnayan Samiti and self-help groups; however, this has not yielded uniform effort everywhere. An outlay of Rs 11.97 crore from untied funds was made for programme implementation in such villages. In the current financial year, efforts are on to achieve a four-fold increase in the targets.
Today, the Panchayat system has to take three main directions (i) deepening the roots of democratic decentralization (ii) strengthening self-governance of the Panchayats and (iii) institutionalising good governance in all the tiers of the system.
Deepening the roots of democratic decentralization entails ensuring increasing participatory democracy at the level of the Gram Sangsad so that people who face social and economic discrimination irrespective of their political affiliations can play a central role in planning, implementing and monitoring development programmes at the village level. Our experience of three long decades suggests that this cannot depend on spontaneity. The main requirement is people’s empowerment. Based on this principle, preparation of village plans, design of Gram Panchayat plan and transfer of untied outlays have been successfully carried out in 300 Gram Panchayats in 6 backward districts. This year 800 more villages in 11 districts will be covered through this process. Throughout the state, planning and implementation at the block and district levels have to be carried out on the basis of planning and implementation at the lowest level by transforming it into a people’s movement. The decisions that can be taken at a lower level should never be relegated to higher levels. Empowerment of the people comes with the precondition that the right to information and the right to express their opinion on the functioning of the Panchayats is secure. Innovative ideas have to be developed like the popular hour-long live phone-in programme at 8pm on every Saturday on Akashbani Kolkata-A.
The three bases of self-governance consist of allocation of specific powers and responsibilities at specific levels, ensuring financial outlays (through tax collection or by allocations from tax collected by the state) and provision of personnel who will be accountable to the Panchayats. The role of Panchayats in sectors beyond the 29 designated subjects listed in the 11th Schedule is undeniable in this state. Notifications have been issued for 28 of the 29 listed sectors to devolve power to the Panchayats by legislation. The constitution and the laws at the state level had already been amended. But what has been done so far is partial and incomplete and the notifications have not been implemented in all areas. We need to move forward steadfastly in this work.
The five main constituents of good governance are to deliver on responsibilities with speed, skill, honesty, transparency and sensitivity. These do not require any further explanation. To achieve this, we have to give equal importance to objective and material processes. All the avenues of training, empowerment, use of information technology and mass media along with political organizational work is necessary to accelerate this proThirty Years Of Panchayat: The Road Traversedcess.