Overcoming disadvantages

Published : Jul 08, 2000 00:00 IST


IN 1996, two years after the Tamil Nadu Panchayat Act came into force, 1.17 lakh persons were elected in the State to run 13,000 institutions of the three-tier panchayati raj system. Thirty per cent of the posts were reserved for women, in addition to th ose reserved for members of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. However, doubts were raised about the capability of the two disadvantaged groups (30,000 women and 20,000 Dalits) to stand up to the challenging tasks before them.

Elected members representing these groups from across the State have complained of gender-based and caste-based discrimination. In several places women and Dalits were humiliated and denied cooperation. Thanks to their experience over the past three year s and the training they received from government agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), several elected women and Dalit panchayat functionaries asserted their rights and some of them grew into role models.

Several NGOs and individuals have played a significant role in bringing about this change. Special mention must be made of Rangasamy Ilango, a chemical engineer who resigned his job with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to enter p ublic life. He contested the panchayat elections and became president of the Kuthampakkam panchayat, about 30 km from Chennai, in Tiruvallur district. Ilango, 40, is a firm believer in the Gandhian ideals and the micro-development concept of the Gandhian economist, J.C. Kumarappa. When he was working with the Central Eletro-Chemical Research Institute (CECRI), Karaikudi, he was inspired by Kundrakudi Adigalar (1927-1995), the head of a Saiva math in Sivaganga district. Adigalar developed Kundrakudi into a model village with the help of CECRI scientists under the "Kundrakudi plan", which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi commended for adoption in villages in other States (Frontline, May 5, 1995).

In four years, Ilango developed Kuthampakkam into a model village with the "full cooperation of the gram sabha". He says that his objective is to prove that even with limited powers, the panchayat can change the face of the village in five years. The pan chayat's annual revenue recorded an increase from Rs.3.7 lakhs in 1994-95, when there was no elected panchayat, to Rs.12.4 lakhs in 1997-98, a year after he took over as its president. The value of works executed increased from Rs.40,000 to Rs.4.8 lakhs, the amount spent on the construction of buildings from Rs.20,000 to Rs.16.2 lakhs, and the expenditure on road maintenance from Rs.67,000 to Rs.10.6 lakhs. He succeeded in mobilising local resources and talent and ensuring people's participation through contribution in the form of labour.

One of his notable achievements is that he motivated a large number of people, who had earned their livelihood as illicit distillers, to contribute their labour for development works. By employing innovative methods, he cut down expenditure on several pr ojects. (For instance, hand-made bricks were used to build houses and cut granite blocks were reused to construct a drainage system). He is at present mobilising funds to open a high school in the village in order to bring down the school dropout rate. T he tiny panchayat has computerised its administration.

The government has decided to pick up 112 "honest" panchayat presidents in the next four years at the rate of one from each of the 28 districts a year and help develop their villages on the Kuthampakkam pattern. Ilango is motivating hundreds of panchayat functionaries through visits, lectures and consultations.

Among the other role models is a poor Dalit woman, Maalaiyammal of Pullalakundu village in Dindigul district. As the president of the Kandappankottai panchayat, she has been able to beat back resistance from upper-caste groups and develop the village in a remarkable way with the full cooperation of the people. She says that she finds no difficulty in managing the gram sabha or tackling her detractors in the panchayat. She could ensure that the panchayat's income rose by several lakhs, with a small incre ase in the house tax and by bringing a prosperous textile mill under the tax net. Several villages in the panchayat have now been provided with roads and street lights.

Another Dalit woman panchayat president, R. Seethalakshmi of Cheyyur in Kanchipuram district, never felt handicapped in discharging her duties. Daughter of a local Congressman, she commands respect from the people and is quite assertive. She attends offi ce daily and has a good rapport with the local people and officials. She manages the gram sabha with ease and gets the cooperation of all sections in carrying out development works. At the May Day gram sabha meeting, she agreed to consider the demand of the youth that a gymnasium be opened in the village.

If persuasion is the secret of Seethalakshmi's success, 27-year-old graduate S. Vasuki, who heads the Vallimalai panchayat near Ranipet in Vellore district, has been able to give a face-lift to her village through sheer perseverance. She has executed dev elopment works costing about Rs.20 lakhs in the last three years. The village has been provided with roads, sodium vapour lamps, drinking water and drainage facilities. A group housing project received wide appreciation. Vasuki never tires of visiting th e district headquarters and meeting officials to get funds sanctioned under various schemes. Impressed by her work, Ranipet MLA R. Gandhi, Member of the Legislative Assembly representing Ranipet, helps her raise resources for development works.

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