Positioning panchayats as India’s agents of change
Panchayats have always been an integral part of India since ancient times. There are many references about it in the shastras like the Manusmriti, Arthasastra and the Mahabharata. In the pre-Independence era, Mahatma Gandhi emphasised on village-level self-governance to improve the local economy and ensure overall development. He believed in the bottom-up approach.
After Independence, nearly one-third of India’s villages had traditional panchayats, but their functioning was below par. One of the landmark efforts was setting up a committee in 1957, to study Community Projects and National Extension Service. It recommended, among other points, the three-tier system. But the watershed year for the Panchayati Raj system was 1992-93, when the 73rd Amendment Act gave constitutional status to the gram sabha.
In keeping with the bottom-up tradition, the current government has gone all out in improving the functioning of panchayats. On National Panchayati Raj Day, 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, talked about women’s empowerment, and called for ending the “sarpanchpati” practice, which is the husband acting in place of the woman sarpanch. In April 2016, the ministry of Panchayati Raj celebrated National Panchayat Day by organising the “Gramodaya Se Bharat Uday Abhiyan” in the panchayats across the country to sensitise the masses and other stakeholders of the programmes and activities carried out under the Abhiyan.
Nationwide efforts have been made to strengthen the Panchayati Raj system, and, through it, promote social harmony, foster farmers’ welfare, support livelihoods of the poor, and enhance rural development. In April 2016, a conference meant for panchayat representatives resolved to bring urban amenities to villages, strive for open-defecation-free villages, and ensure enough toilets for women in villages.
The 14th Finance Commission (FFC) had recommended assured transfers to rural local bodies for delivery of basic services. It advised that the expenditures incurred by panchayats on basic services should follow the rules and regulations. It proposed that elected representatives should utilise the rural body funds according to the FCC recommendations – on planning and provisioning basic services such as water supply, sanitation, waste management, and maintenance of roads and footpaths. It also emphasised on the need to have Gram Panchayat Development Plans (GPDP).
Other initiatives taken by the government include monitoring the outcomes such as prevention of malnutrition among children, making available proper diet for pregnant women below the poverty line, and ensuring zero casualties during delivery. It also includes ensuring regular panchayat committee and gram sabha meetings.
Besides, people living in villagers and elected representatives were encouraged to work for solid waste management. They were asked to have close and regular interaction with school authorities to ensure punctuality in attendance. To ensure children’s health in villages, immunisation campaigns have been launched. Steps have been taken to empower villages economically and improve their purchasing capacity, which in turn will help the economic empowerment. Programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, have helped create durable assets. The e-NAM Yojana has also been planned to realise Bhartodaya through Gramodaya.
In 2018, the People’s Plan Campaign (PPC) was conceived to institutionalise the GPDP. Sabki Yojana Sabka Vikas (PPC-I), from October 2 to December 31, 2018, was meant for planning at the gram sabha level, through a convergence between Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and line departments. The second PPC (PPC-II) was initiated on October 2, 2019, which aims to prepare GPDP for all the panchayat by 2020-21. The preparatory activities include a central portal, appointment of nodal officers at the state, district and block levels, deputation of frontline workers, the establishment of a dedicated Project Monitoring Unit, and organising special gram sabhas. Also, it lays down the roles and responsibilities of ministries, departments, and facilitators, stipulates timelines, arranges effective communication system, and helps in environment creation.
Each state has its initiatives on, for example, capacity building refresher training and joint training programmes for elected representatives and officials. Thematic training is given to make the panchs (the leader of the panchayat) the “agents of change”. Details of state and central schemes have also been prepared as booklets for general awareness on various schemes for convergence. Resource teams, including Gram Panchayat Planning Facilitation Team, were also engaged to ensure training up to the grassroots level. The National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj has also played a central role in the capacity building and training initiatives during both the campaigns.
A Mission Antyodaya (MA) Survey was conducted, which measured 146 parameters, covering gaps spanning infrastructure, human development, and economic development across 29 states. The survey provided the baseline data for the GPDP preparation by the gram panchayats (GPs). PRI-self help group convergence was given prominence, and livelihood action plan was prepared with the support of the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM).
A few states have set up help desk systems at the district level. States have also created social media tools like WhatsApp and e-mail groups to clarify doubts. Wide publicity has been given to include as many schemes converging with the schemes of the ministry of rural development, ministry of health, ministry of women and child development.
Notably, PPC-I focused on capacity building for gender-mainstreaming activities, convergence with NRLM, and constituting working groups for preparing schemes for the economic development of women. PPC-II went a step ahead by including Women Component Programme (WCP) in GPDP (as in the case of Manipur and Kerala). The intent and vision for panchayats to play a proactive role in nation-building are in place. All that the country needs now is maximum implementation.
Anushree Sinha is a professor and Rajesh Jaiswal is a fellow at the National Council of Applied Economic Research
The views expressed are personal