Panchayats and institution building

There are many challenges that we as practitioners face while working towards strengthening the organisation capacity of the government which is closest to citizens – the gram panchayats. My experience with one of the newly elected gram panchayats in Karnataka was revealing and triggered many thoughts.

Returning from a recent visit to Avani gram panchayat in Mulbagal taluk where we work along with the state government to build the organisation capacity of gram panchayats, I was rather depressed. We had just completed a Kala Jatha to orient communities to our work.

The citizens were up in arms as they questioned: There is a severe water problem here, what has the panchayat done? The PDS shop does not give us mandated quantity of rice, etc. One youngster questioned why we were discussing water problem when we were meant to talk about the panchayats. He was not aware of the panchayat’s role at all. Or of the fact that it is the panchayat’s job to provide clean drinking water, and that they get funds from the Central and State government to perform their various roles.

During the Kala Jatha, four newly elected panchayat members came and vanished within minutes. Why did they not stay? The elections have just got over, and it is not even a month since the new panchayat body has come. Why are voters criticising them already? How come there are people who do not know the role of panchayats?

As we walked around with a volunteer, he showed us an open well that he has revived along with the community. He also took us to a small pond, which he has cleaned with the help of the community. In this village, where the ground water is found at 1800ft, these are significant achievements. 

This volunteer too was critical of the panchayat- it did not support at all. I again wonder, what does the panchayat want to do, if not solve these issues? And how do we sustain the one-off well revival and pond cleaning initiative if the institution does not take responsibility?

As we moved around the village, I noticed clean and well-lit streets. The mini water supply cisterns are full. On questioning who had done all this work, I was told that the panchayat did. So, the panchayat does something and does not do others. How do we inspire them to do more?

We have to mainstream panchayats…build environment wherein many agencies can engage with the panchayats as local governments. They have to be nurtured to grow in their identity and role. How do we do this? It seems a long haul. We need to make small beginnings. To start with, we need to observe and understand small details, which make the panchayats the way they are, because as we pay attention to the hitherto unattended, they change and eventually transform.

Centre stage
What are these details? It is the Panchayat Bhawan, which the members don’t relate to, it is the registers which are not filled, it is the notice board which is empty, it is the toilet which may not be there, or is dirty, it is the staff who are not paid, it is the member who is not confident of facing citizens, and worse, the government officials.

Small details: What is required for the elected members to be inspired to change these? How do they themselves treat the panchayat as an institution, which they can relate to, which they can be proud of? Simple questions, complex answers. Where do we start?

Understand the institution: What are its day-to-day activities? Who are the people present in the panchayat? What do citizens come in the panchayat for? How are they treated? Are they treated with respect? Are their problems solved? What are the panchayat’s monthly inflows and outflows? What are the funds spent on? How are they accounted?

Understand the citizens: What are their needs? What is the status of clean drinking water or garbage on the roads? What are their children learning? What are their livelihoods? What is the status of streetlights? Are there playgrounds for children? Are there lively communities? Is there space for burying their dead? Is there a method with which people can voice their problems and get a response with dignity?

Understand members of the institution who are responsible for it – where have they come from? What is their motivation to be in the panchayat? What do they want to do in the next five years? What is likely to come in their way? Is it lack of information? Is it political pressure? Is it domestic pressure? Is it lack of time? Is it the much spoken about caste and gender inequality? What do they think are likely solutions? What can they do individually? What can they do to support each other?
As the Union government takes on an ambitious project to bring panchayats to centre stage, the practitioners need to understand. Mainstreaming panchayats can happen when we can figure out small details. The big transformation will gradually happen.

(The writer is Co-founder and Head, Centre for Decentralised Local Governance, Avantika Foundation. She is also Member, National Resource Group on Decentralised Planning, Ministry of Panchayati Raj)

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