The message of panchayati raj

Print edition : April 15, 2000

Using the radio and the theatre as cost-effective communication vehicles, a research project in Mysore district disseminates information on, and raises awareness about, panchayati raj institutions, and draws an encouraging response.

A.P. KRIPA G.S. GANESH PRASAD

KARNATAKA'S record in respect of panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) is fairly impressive and dates back to the Karnataka Zilla Parishads, Taluk Panchayat Samithis, Mandal Panchayats and Nyaya Panchayats Act, 1983, which ushered in a two-tier elected stru cture. The Constitution (73rd Amendment) and the Constitution (74th Amendment) necessitated a new act. Political considerations too influenced this development. The Karnataka Panchayati Raj Act, 1993 provided for three tiers of PRIs - at the zilla, taluk and gram panchayat levels. One-third, or 33 per cent of the seats, are reserved for women; another third is reserved for the backward classes; additionally, seats are reserved for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their popu lation. The posts of adhyaksha (president) and upadhyaksha (vice-president) are subject to reservation by rotation. The gram sabha comprising all registered voters is established by the Act.

These positive legislative features, aided by interventions by non-governmental organisations as well as state-initiated training, have had an impact. Spaces within the democratic structures have been created for the marginalised sections of society. The re is, however, some criticism that those who are elected (especially women) serve merely as proxies. Even so, the scene is changing, perhaps gradually but surely.

Yet some barriers remain - principal among them being low levels of literacy, domination by the elites and the prevalence of patriarchal values. Compounding them is the lack of or unavailability of adequate information on PRIs. This has the effect of dil uting the positive dimensions of the Act. Awareness needs to be backed by information.

In order to address this need and to instil awareness about PRIs among the rural population, an action-oriented research project was taken up in Mysore district. The intervention was aimed also at imparting information on the basic structure of PRIs, wha t they can accomplish and how rising popular awareness can make them more responsive and accountable.

The project team evolved an intervention which would communicate information in an easily intelligible form to those who have the highest stake in PRIs. Given the barrier of low literacy, the team focussed on radio as the means of communication. It has a wide reach, and it is estimated that it has a potential listenership of 98.5 per cent of the population.

Having settled on the medium, a reconnaissance survey was made in select villages to decide the details. The team sought details on the best broadcast time, the preferred format (whether the programme should combine the message with some entertainment, a nd if so, what form the latter should take), and whether such a programme would evoke interest in listeners.

The preliminary survey indicated that the programme would command audience attention if it mixed dissemination of information with some entertainment.

With the support of All India Radio, Mysore, the project team broadcast a 13-episode Kannada serial, titled "Namage Naave Wodeyaru" (We are our own masters), on the panchayat system with emphasis on gram panchayats. The episodes were broadcast every Mond ay (between July and September 1998) between 6-50 p.m. and 7-35 p.m., which was the slot for Krishi Ranga (Farm and Home Programme), favoured by the respondents. This being an established programme, it had an assured audience.

THE serial is set in a fictitious village called Mellahalli. It has four permanent characters - an old man, his daughter-in-law, her college-going son and the village schoolteacher. The schoolteacher represents a literate resource in the village. Other c haracters figure in one or more episodes.

The interaction among the characters revolves around everyday problems - bad roads, contaminated water, absence of medical facilities and so on. The college student expresses his outrage and suggests that the villagers approach the government. "Which gov ernment?" the teacher asks. "Well, the one in Bangalore," the student replies. This gives the teacher an opening to introduce the idea of decentralised governance. He explains in simple language the philosophy behind panchayati raj. Even the Constitution and the process of making amendments to it get discussed. Some essential pieces of information are repeated. Several episodes deal with the gram sabha and the gram panchayat, how standing committees are to be constituted and the reservation of seats. In formation is conveyed through interactive dialogue.

Among the issues that were taken up in the episodes were: the philosophy of decentralisation; the history of decentralisation; the Karnataka Panchayati Raj Act, 1983; the Karnataka Panchayati Raj Act, 1993; panchayat elections; functions and duties of PR Is; standing committees; gram sabhas; reservation in the panchayat system; gram panchayat meetings; role of women in panchayats - reality and concept. The final episode was given over to a summing up and a question-and-answer session.

Right from the beginning, the project team was anxious to receive feedback from listeners and assess what impact, if any, the programme had had on them. Two approaches were used to obtain and assess feedback.

The first was through the medium of registered audience. The programme was given wide publicity prior to broadcast. Interested listeners were asked to register with AIR, as is normal practice. Significantly, 177 listeners registered, against the normal 6 0-70 listeners who register for AIR's popular programmes. Of the 177 registered listeners, 70 were women. Many of them were in places at a considerable distance from Mysore city, the farthest being 90 km to the southwest.

Voters at a polling booth near Tumkur during elections in February to gram sabhas or village committees, the first of the three tiers of the panchayati raj structure in Karnataka.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Impressive though these figures are, this form of feedback suffers from a handicap insofar as it is not known how high (or low) the information and awareness level of the audience was prior to broadcast. In order to overcome this, a second approach was u sed as a supplement.

This was through the medium of focus groups. Seven villages were selected from seven taluks in Mysore district. The selection was made with reference to size (between 200 and 250 households), literacy levels, and distance from the taluk headquarters. As far as possible, the focus groups were representative with respect to caste, gender, age, and economic status. In all, there were 163 focus group listeners. These included a few elected members of the panchayats.

The initial awareness level was established through a baseline survey. The groups were regularly monitored.

There was adequate feedback from the listeners: on an average, 50 listeners responded every week. The responses were either in the form of comments or questions seeking more information.

A sampling of the questions and comments received is illustrative: Why is there no reservation in PRIs for the physically handicapped? Why is reservation for women pegged at only 33 per cent? What can the gram panchayat do to provide potable water? How d oes the principle of reservation work by rotation for the posts of adhyaksha and upadhyaksha?

On a few occasions the project team contacted the Department of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj of the State government to provide answers to queries from the respondents.

Listeners offered a variety of comments and suggestions: listeners had begun questioning their representatives after learning from the programme; elected representatives were becoming more responsive as a result of electors asking questions; a gram panch ayat adhyaksha told a listener: "I understood my duties only after I listened to the programme"; the daughter of a gram panchayat member told her mother: "As a gram panchayat member you are expected to perform certain functions, and you have fail ed to do these"; a peon in a gram panchayat said: "I have realised now that even I can contribute to administration."

There was a demand for more programmes, especially programmes that focus on finances and on zilla and taluk panchayats.

After all the episodes were broadcast, the project team administered a test to listeners from both categories - those who had registered as well as those in the focus groups. This was done with two objectives - to reinforce the message and to find out to what extent listeners had absorbed the message of the programme. Some listeners had evidently done a bit of additional reading in order to be prepared for the project team's questions. On the whole, the responses were of a high quality. In the opinion o f two university teachers who were involved with the programme, the quality of the answers were comparable to those turned in by graduate students.

In order to acknowledge the listeners' enthusiasm, the project team organised a function in Mysore. Mementos were given as rewards for the best scripts. The Secretary to Government, Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, as well as the adhyaksha an d the chief executive officer of the Mysore zilla parishad attended the ceremony.

People of Magge village watch the play "Namage Naave Wodeyaru" (We are our own masters), which deals with the role of panchayati raj institutions.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The response from several elected representatives was significant: they said they would have benefited if the technique used in the project had been used in their training. But the most significant aspect of the project was the awareness the programme ha s created among people at large. They feel they are now equipped to take their elected representatives to task if they do not perform their duties. However, it is worth bearing in mind that information is only one of many tools for initiating people's pa rticipation.

The project team has suggested that the State government consider utilising its scripts in training as a supplement (possibly even a substitute) for the "dry lecture" method.

THE programme's success can be attributed to several reasons. For one thing, it imparted information and linked it up with problems of an everyday nature. The medium of radio also helped: it had wide reach and was therefore cost-effective, and it could r each people in their houses, and listeners could tune in even while they went about their activities of daily living. Further, the serial provided listeners with a forum for them to give expression to their problems and seek means of redress.

Despite these positive features, this medium has its limitations. It cannot reach those who have no access to a radio. This problem is compounded by frequent power cuts. Programmes cannot (generally) be repeated, and a listener who misses a programme los es continuity. This can be overcome through narrow casting, where the programme is directly played on tapes. This is effective, as the project team found in some of the focus villages, but it is costly in terms of money and time.

This was not the first programme on PRIs on AIR, but it was the first to string together a series of connected episodes. It appealed to listeners because information was conveyed in dramatic form.

An important lesson from the project was that no single tool was enough by itself. In particular, the project team looked for ways to reach those who had no access to a radio. Having learnt of instances where women, in particular, were discouraged from t uning in to the serial, the project team considered the possibility of using the theatre as an instrument to disseminate information and raise awareness.

THE content from the 13 radio episodes was abridged into a 60-minute play. Once again the effort was to blend information with entertainment. It was not easy to arrive at that fine blend where the viewers' interest was sustained with humour and music but the information and the message were not swept away. The play, which like the radio serial was titled "Namage Naave Wodeyaru", used traditional art forms like Harikatha, folk songs and lavanis. The play was staged in five select villages and perf ormed by an amateur theatre group. One of the actors had participated in the radio serial.

In all the villages, about 400-500 people watched the play. About half of them were women. In most places, schoolchildren formed part of the audience. The response was uniformly enthusiastic. From the project team's point of view, the most significant re sponse was by way of suggestions to improve the tone of the message. At the first performance the adhyaksha of the gram panchayat told the project team that it should make people aware of their duties as well their rights. For example, they should be made to realise that taxes should be paid on time. This and a few other suggestions were incorporated into the play.

One of the venues for the play was a tribal colony where too the response was excellent.

Many viewers felt that if the play had been followed by the radio serial, the latter would have had an even greater impact.

The play was also performed at Makanahundi, a village close to Mysore, which the University of Mysore has adopted. Vice-Chancellor S.N. Hegde watched the performance along with R.P. Misra (formerly of the University of Mysore and a former Vice-Chancellor of Allahabad University). Also in the audience were members of the academic community. All of them admitted that it was a novel learning experience for them. R.P. Misra was so impressed that he expressed a desire to have the radio scripts translated int o Hindi. The project team received tremendous support from the University of Mysore. The Mysore zilla parishad videographed the play, and its council secretary witnessed the performance.

In view of the excellent response, the project team is trying to persuade local youth groups to stage the play. This would give them a sense of ownership about the venture.

A special performance was arranged in January 2000 in Mysore. It was witnessed by Prof. B.K. Chandrasekhar, Minister of State for Information and Publicity. The Minister evinced interest in having the play telecast.

FROM this intervention, the project team identified the lines of future development. Among them are: it would help to link Yuvaka Sanghas, self-help groups and so on with PRIs; NGOs can take up programmes to train potential leaders; interventions such as this should be continuous; members of the registered audience can be encouraged to act as local resource persons; AIR could have a regular question-and-answer session on PRIs; radio, theatre and television should be utilised to train elected representa tives, and they will be far more effective than conventional lectures.

Perhaps the most valuable finding is that there is human resource available in villages. This can be, indeed ought to be, utilised to create awareness and to inform people about the working of PRIs.

It is true that there is awareness about PRIs but it does not lead to the acquisition of adequate knowledge about the working of PRIs. This is what future interventions should aim at.

It is hoped that the State government will continue to show interest in making further use of the techniques the project team's intervention employed.

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