IT IS easy to romanticise Panchayati Raj. The notion of happy rural people managing their destinies with help from the government has the glossy appeal of advertising brochures. But when it comes to brass tacks, delivery of development programmes is very complex. Take the case of the eco-development project funded by the World Bank (see also: "OFFICIALLY BANKRUPT"). It aimed to provide ecologically-friendly livelihoods to those living around protected areas. This it tried to do through eco-edevelopment committees, created to target specialised need groups: marginalised people who depend on forests to eke out a living.
There are cases of special target groups creating new hierarchies in villages. These run parallel to Panchayati Raj institutions. This does help make the programme more specific to the 'beneficiaries'. But this also undermines the locus standi of local government. This approach can work can work only within a limited, experimental sphere, not when you want to take the programme to a wider level involving larger villages. It is impossible to make the programme effective at this larger level without going through the pachayats. But this compromises the efficiency of the programme, for the negotiations with the powerful within a village have to begin right at the beginning. The government departments are not capable of (or committed to) this kind of negotiation and prefer to take the easy way out. So this lane of the rural development highway bypasses the panchayats.
Andhra Pradesh has perfected such undermining of local governance. The Chandrababu Naidu government created community groups parallel to panchayats for everything under the sun -- watershed development, agriculture extension services, irrigation management. The aim was to deny power to Congress-controlled panchayats.
If panchayats are to truly become local governments -- as opposed to receptacles -- they have to be taken more seriously. One way to resolve this dilemma is to make the gram sabha (village assembly) the nodal agency of local self government. The gram sabha has the potential of being the umbrella for the panchayats as well as parallel groups. Here's another case for second generation reforms in Panchayati Raj.
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