I have built now a small house in my native village in place of a hundred-year-old one hoping to spend more time in the village instead of visiting once or twice a year which is what I have been doing for over three decades. I’m intrigued and anxious to find out how come now there are four offices in the village instead of one panchayat office decades ago and why there are over thirty on government payroll against two first and then three employees four decades ago. The population of village is nearly 5000 and it is shrinking. On the face of it I hope all this proliferation of government is “decentralisation” at work? The decentralisation that Mahatma Gandhi dreamt, Balwantrai Mehta committee suggested 70 years ago, 73 and 74 Amendments and the Panchayat Act came in twenty years ago. All aimed at strengthening decentralisation and the foundations of the Republic.
It is but natural to expect that village is more prosperous now, farmers are no longer unhappy lot, villagers are being served better and are more productive and people feel liberated from clutches of any “authority”. It will take some time for me to know where exactly the villagers stand now which I hope to analyse after a couple of months. Immediately, I wonder why the village sarpanch in the state, who were only recently elected, are agitated about their inability to take on local specific and immediate compulsions. It is apparently because they have no funds despite claims of Union and state governments of allocation and transfer of funds to villages for multiple development schemes. This situation reminded me of what I wrote 20 years ago on financial devolution to villages and why it was delayed and why even state finance commission for the purpose were not being formed or delayed and funds not disbursed although over 30 functions or services were formally transferred to the village panchayats.
Panchayats have no funds
Knowing the way panchayat elections held recently in a ferocious and prolonged way,I was expecting that local panchayats would now be as much strengthened and they would be bubbling with activities. Perhaps as a result of the way the elections were held in a contentious way, as I could quickly gather, the villages are going through uncertainties with confronting and conflicting Information. Despite proliferation of news media of so many types and multiplication of government agencies, information seems to be a first causality. I have never seen villagers gripped with so many rumours and mistrust (they are two sides of same coin) on so many aspects of public life. Such a situation signals decline in the trajectory of development, democracy and governance. Even more, the trend signals that focus has shifted to frivolous or trivial. Political psychology indicates an impending turmoil as if waiting for a pin to burst the bubble. Desperate methodologies of state reflect desperate times and dampened spirits of even those who just got elected to the village panchayats and zilla parishads.
Eligible voters in villages vote for four representatives at four different levels including an MLA and MP, and yet panchayats have no funds when as the High Court reminded sarpanch is supposed to be the chief at village level same way as a CM in the state. These elected reps come to people when they wish or need to, not when they are badly needed at times of disasters and difficulties like floods or cyclone or health hazards and even when sarpanchs are a worried lot and panchayats are witnessing empty coffers – as if the legislators have no say or not so much concerned about. Otherwise, how can sarpanchs in so many districts take to streets or threaten agitation. They are facing a new phenomenon where instead of giving funds to panchayats, the government is taking away, even without panchayat’s consent or even informing, the funds received from the union government for specific flagship development schemes.
NTR’s initiative six decades ago
I do not have to wait to observe five disturbing trends vitiating the very spirit of panchayats. These trends are seeing no restraint and that is becoming so obvious. These are crucification of volunteerism, citizen dependence on the state, proliferation of government, everything reduced to party-line, and missing sensitivity about what “state doles and freebies” means directly and indirectly. Two years ago I wrote about the implications of officially describing as volunteers those selected by the government on a regular salary. The flash floods, heavy rains of last week in drought prone districts of the state should remind of a film star (NT Ramarao) led Rayalaseema Karuvu Nidhi Yatra some sixty years ago in the entire state when the response was massive from the neighbourhoods and welcome support to the victims from all.
It is now a fortnight since three districts were devastated, including the temple town Tirupati, with thousands of families becoming “badithulu” (victims) and vanishing of many houses and some villages altogether. And yet I have not heard voluntary rallying with relief to victims from outside those districts and from outside the Government. But heard of snubbing, even heckling of those rallying with support when they are not part of the ruling party leaving things to the mercy of government machinery when the fact is that in such disasters government alone cannot be expected to do justice. Government should cut across party affiliations and facilitate all sections and even of other parties to extend their assistance. And despite proliferation of Government even at village level, including paid volunteers for every 50 hh, there was no evidence that they made much difference in rising to the occasion promptly.
Volunteers should be encouraged
All that apart, villages have better opportunity now to stand out not only as better connected to but also as better places to return and live. For such a trend to gain the IT infrastructure in panchayats require to be upgraded, made accessible and reliable. Video conferencing in a two way basis should be easy, reliable and accessible to more households. Two to three phase electricity supply should be available at least on option. Portable water supply and drainage connection facilities have to be far more reliable. Mosquito menace has to be locally tackled. Proliferation of political parties and Government offices should be restrained from medalling or curbing local enthusiasm. Self-help initiatives should be saved from politics, and promoted with marketing support and voluntary initiatives should be facilitated, not snubbed or hindered by political functionaries. Panchayats should be strengthened to initiate works that are locally relevant, party politics should be kept out of common cause provisions and schemes. Villagers should have a place to ventilate their concerns and even Individual problems. Local library should be the place for a churning out for a bottom up of the Republic.
Dr N BhaskaraRao is a New Delhi based public policy analyst of long standing and an author of over a dozen books, now in his native AP.