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A model of self-governance

Print edition : May 23, 2003 T+T-

Local self-government institutions with committed individuals can go a long way in bringing about social transformation. Raj Samadhiala, a gram panchayat in Gujarat, shows the way.

"Self-government to be self-government has merely to reflect the will of the people who are to govern themselves."

- Mahatma Gandhi

THAT was the dream. My experiences with local self-government institutions have varied on a spectrum of black to white, representing badly run ones to the well-run ones, with most of them lying somewhere in between. The basic issues that the panchayats have to grapple with at the village level pertain to water, streetlights, sanitation and encroachments on common pastures and public areas. Occasionally, issues other than these but specific to the village also come up. Elections at the village level often lead to grouping on the basis of caste or communities. Such divisions, in turn, manifest themselves as bitter incidents at times, marring the cohesive and harmonious villagescape. Given the power structures at the village level, good governance often gets blurred or even lost in this maze of issues.

Are there any panchayats where most of these problems have been overcome?

The answer is yes, fortunately. Despite these constraints, there are many panchayats, which find their feet and manage to do a good job, ensuring that the basic tasks expected of them are completed. And there are others which have tackled such issues superficially through policies of coalition or appeasement where potential threats are taken care of by doling out certain `goodies'; by intelligently grouping or re-grouping; temporarily skirting touchy issues, without being able to make any marked difference to the situation.

A CASE in point is the Raj Samadhiala gram panchayat, 22 km from Rajkot. In the late 1970s, it was a poverty-stricken village, plagued by constant internal bickering, fights and class conflicts. Tobacco-chewing and alcoholism was rampant. Superstitions and the practice of witchcraft were widely prevalent. However, a seed was sown in 1978 - to rebuild this village without social evils, completely united and disciplined, and take it to new heights of development and prosperity, where processes and end-results would be of equal importance. The prime mover in this case was a young villager with a Masters degree, Hardeo Singh Jadeja, who along with a small committee of influential persons from various communities started addressing these problems. Not surprisingly, it was an uphill task.

The village soon implemented a model code of conduct with steep penalties for various offences such as littering, cutting trees, consuming alcohol, abstaining from voting, spreading superstitions, gambling and, interestingly, making direct complaints to the police. The police have not had a need to enter this village for investigation in the last 28 years! Disputes and differences are resolved by the panchayat. There are hardly any thefts and when they do occur on rare occasions, the panchayat has to compensate for the stolen goods. These measures brought about extraordinary changes in this village, which adopted the motto `unity and discipline' and lived up to that.

It was now ready and geared to take on developmental works. Based on remote sensing information and inputs from the Indian Space Research Organisations (ISRO), the villagers built over 45 structures such as check-dams for water harvesting. This ingenious water management method has provided sufficient water for drinking and irrigation purposes even during drought years. This has boosted the annual agricultural income of the village to over Rs.2.5 crores.

Similarly, with tree plantation made mandatory, there are over 60,000 trees in the village as against 1,660 in 1988. Education is compulsory with the gram panchayat closely monitoring and supervising a primary school and a secondary school. The village unanimously elects its gram panchayat members. It also has a cricket ground and an excellent team.

Looking at experiments such as the one at Raj Samadhiala, one can infer that if people are willing and a small group of persons among them takes the initiative, a village can be completely transformed. We may not need brilliant and outstanding individuals, but a team charged with dreams and aspirations. There are several panchayati raj institutions where a multitude of such problems exist; yet, local people with a `will' and a moral mandate are able to completely transform the quality of life, making a tremendous difference to the social and economic conditions of the people and most importantly, infusing a sense of pride in the village residents.

And the dream shall come true.