Editorial: Needed - Rural Pragmatism, Not Urban Vainglory

Empower, for real, panchayats to shoot down superficial projects

By now, the panchayats should be rather comfortably ensconced in their posts, busy with the tasks of Panchayati Raj, and still, rather frequently, one reads of Panchayats undergoing awareness and orientation or being told what to do. They are still taken through the processes on which amendments to which Acts made their election possible, given the drill on the usual stuff about working for the people in collaboration with line departments etc etc. These are the basics that one expected the elected Panchayats to already know when they filed their nomination papers, but wait, too many of them were elected unopposed and had no need to understand either the Act or their tasks so long as they kowtowed right for the “ticket”. But that we leave for another time. And that said, one still hopes that such sessions, beyond making Panchayats “aware” about how and why they are more empowered today and whether earnest plans are afoot to divest even more powers to them, also get reassured that they can call the shots and need not “obey” babus or other politicians when it comes to the affairs of the villages they represent. The next progression should see them flex their muscles and shoot down scatter-brained projects and proposals that only somnolent bureaucrats can dream up. For instance, if a “file” was moved to invest 55% of an Innovation Fund to purchase plastic chairs and a PA system, they should be able to laugh it out of the Panchayat Bhawan. For those scoffing and claiming that such “projects” are not mooted, a quick read of the Annual Technical Inspection Report on PRIs and ULBs for the year ended 31 March 2014 by the office of the Principal Accountant General (Audit), Sikkim, is recommended. Apparently, in 2013-14, the East Zilla Panchayat blew up Rs 55 lakh (out of Rs 1 crore) towards purchase of plastic chairs and sound systems on the argument that these assets would help in “dissemination of information about welfare schemes” and would also “generate revenue” for the Gram Panchayats through rentals. The Panchayats might need plastic chairs and even sound systems, but such purchases cannot be called “innovative”. Apparently, the Thirteenth Finance Commission had recommended formulation of District Innovation Fund “with a view to support and promote innovation for better alternatives, reducing costs, increasing the efficiency of capital assets, improving service delivery and governance”. This Fund was expected to fill “vital gaps in public infrastructure already available in the district, which is not being fully utilised for want of a relatively small investment”. So, how did they propose this one – they already had the floor space and needed chairs to fill it up for “full utilization” or that they had speeches ready, but needed a sound system to broadcast them? The guidelines suggested drawing up of an Annual Plan for utilisation of funds after carrying out Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Threat (SWOT) analysis to “trigger innovative measures” with a view to make Government accountable and accessible to all section of the society. And they came up with this? The dodge must have been originally drafted and processed by babus not panchayats and the latter must have just fallen in line. Real empowerment will see them advise and demand better and be able to reject and amend. There is another glaring evidence of civil works and expense-driven problem-solving superficiality. Apparently, the Rural Management & Development Department (RMDD) (through ZP, South) developed a water harvesting structure at Tamley lake in 1998-99 to provide potable water to the three villages of Mungram, Guptigaon, Sirubari and Rajarukgaon. It should come as no surprise that this project did not age too well, and in 2008, the villagers complained that water supply was poor. By Feb 2008, RMDD-Jorethang had a DPR for Rs 79.51 lakh ready to repair the water harvesting experiment. The funds were expended and work completed two years later. So, did the people go without potable water for two years? Thankfully, no. They repaired the existing pipes carrying water from a distant source. It cost them Rs 2.08 lakh to do this! Meanwhile, the Rs 79.51 lakh spent by the RMDD delivered repairs to a water harvesting structure that does not serve as a source of water to the nearby villages! The obvious need for more rural pragmatism to direct the development and investment priorities cannot be stressed more tellingly than this example. One needs to understand that the reason the nation has empowered the rural voters is because all other attempts at fixing accountability have failed. When Panchayats decide, and if they decide from their own wits and not departmental chits, more projects will achieve fruition. When decisions are taken through informed and involved gram sabhas, then the whole village knows; when the whole village knows, the whole village watches and because it is about them and about facilities they and their children will use, they are also expected to monitor. When projects fail, the blame ends at the village boundaries and the buck can actually stop at the right door. When such accountability becomes real, the bastis will begin noticing real improvements. Urban naiveté and vainglory need to be played out of the villages and rural pragmatism allowed back in and supported to express itself more forcefully.