Panchayati raj at work

Print edition : June 10, 2000
PARVATHI MENON

SET in thick green, sun-dappled vegetation, the office of the Pinarayi gram panchayat in Thalasseri block of Kannur district is a hub of quiet activity. A radiant young bride waits with her husband and mother to register her marriage. Groups of men and women stand around chatting as they wait to get their work done. K.M. Aishu, an elderly and imposing woman who, in the distinctive fashion of these parts of Kerala, has a clutch of gold rings weighing her ears down, has come to the office to find out about a cash installment due to her for rebuilding the roof of her house. K. Rajan, the president of the gram panchayat, divides his time between his duties as panchayat president and as the secretary of the Pinarayi unit of the Dinesh Beedi Cooperative Society.

A public well built with people's participation in Olavanna panchayat, which serves 80 families.-JOHN HARRISS

With a population of 32,000 divided into 15 wards of around 600 families each, the Pinarayi gram panchayat was chosen as the best panchayat in the district. Its gram sabha meetings registered a consistently high attendance, its 121 neighbourhood committees have been active, it has achieved a 100 per cent revenue and tax collection record, and its utilisation of plan funds - especially those in the productive sector - has been outstanding. It has been particularly successful in the implementation of its total sanitation programme whereby 2,500 houses have been provided with private latrines. This panchayat is a busy, focussed unit of administration that has its ears to the ground. "They are doing good work, but can do even more for the poor," Aishu said. The panchayat members would probably agree with her whole-heartedly.

Pinarayi is not so exceptional after all, our group of visiting observers soon learn. There is a certain ferment of purposeful social activity that is evident in the gram panchayats of Olavanna, Vallikunnu, Kalliasseri, Kannapuram and Chapparapadava, located in the picturesque north Kerala districts of Kannur, Kozhikode and Malappuram. We notice the authority and ease with which panchayat functionaries and ordinary people use the new vocabulary spawned by the people's campaign. Terms such as "key resource persons", "task force member", "development report", "development seminar", "participatory resource mapping", "neighbourhood committees" and "expert group member" have become part of a new language that, we learn, does not constitute a new bureaucratese, but is reflective of a dynamic new development partnership between people and a decentralised state mechanism. The number of levels at which change is taking place is bewildering.

The provision of drinking water is an important area of activity for most panchayats. It is usually conceived and planned with the beneficiaries at gram sabha meetings, who make contributions, mainly in the form of free labour, and in some cases cash. Technological expertise is sought and usually found from within the panchayat. The Kakkadukunnu mini water supply scheme in Vallikunnu panchayat is a case in point. The scheme, built on a steep hill, supplies water to 100 households. The entire scheme cost the panchayat Rs.5.2 lakhs, of which the beneficiaries contributed 591 person days of voluntary labour. "We had to carry around 50 pots of water every day up this steep hill before this scheme was implemented," Ayesha, one of the beneficiaries, told Frontline. "We now save almost two hours of our time."

This model of gram panchayat beneficiary sharing is extended to a number of schemes in the infrastructure sector. In Kannapuram gram panchayat, an entire hillside denuded of forest cover is now being reforested as part of the Punchavayil watershed management scheme. Pockmarked with rainwater trenches that were built with voluntary labour, the hillside is already showing signs of regeneration. Wells in the catchment area of the scheme, which normally run dry by April, have been recharged and this year there has been no drinking water shortage in the villages. The only cost incurred for the panchayat was food for 130 National Service Scheme volunteers for two weeks.

Janaki Teacher, president of the Kalliasseri gram panchayat where the seeds for decentralised planning were first sown.-JOHN HARRISS

According to the guidelines issued by the State Planning Board, 40 per cent of the funds devolved to each panchayat are to be spent on the productive sector, 30 per cent on the infrastructure and 30 per cent on the service sector. Each panchayat usually has a project or scheme that does it proud. In the Vallikunnu gram panchayat, it is the energy management scheme that its members quite justifiably like to flaunt. Almost 7,500 CFL bulbs were distributed to 4,500 homes with electricity supply at different subsidy slabs. "We have saved around Rs.1 crore in energy costs," said V. Kalanadhan, the president of the panchayat. Baby, Prema and Vilasini, three women beneficiaries applied for and received a subsidy of Rs.1 lakh from the panchayat under the women component plan. They contributed Rs.2,000 each and started the Tripti Vanitha Bhojanasala, a roadside eatery, their monthly earnings from which are around Rs.1,800 each.

The Chapparappadava gram panchayat literally took the law into its own hands and constructed a micro-hydel project with an outlay of Rs.2.5 lakh. The Munnur Kulam Project, as it is called, generates 1.5 kW of power from the damming of a small hill stream. The 20 families, which are the beneficiaries of this project, now get power in their homes high up on a hill for four hours a day. For them, the Rs.2,200 each of them contributed towards the scheme is well worth the reward.

The physical achievements of decentralised planning are there for all to see in Kerala today. Perhaps as significant an achievement is the changes in social roles and relationships that the people's campaign has brought about. Kalliasseri panchayat has a special place in the history of decentralisation in the State, for it was here that the seeds for decentralised planning were first sown. The first experiment at planning was held in this panchayat in 1992 with the active involvement of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad. A socio-economic survey of the area was done in 1991 and the first sample of a development report was prepared there in 1993.

It seems fitting that the president of the Kalliasseri gram panchayat is a woman. Janaki Teacher, bespectacled and grey-haired and in her fifties, who exudes a gentle warmth. Although she has been with the Left and democratic movement since the pre-Independence period, this is her first experience in office. "I never imagined I would become a president," she said. "The Party compelled me." This primary schoolteacher of over three decades admits: "I have gained confidence, knowledge and the ability to take quick decisions." Surely, that is the highest compliment that can be paid to the people's campaign.

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