From village pradhans to Pradhan Mantri: Devolve power and invest political will

PM Narendra Modi’s letters to panchayat heads to conserve water revives the inevitability of local government in water management. But the panchayat leaders may also ask for a few political favours from him

By Richard Mahapatra
Last Updated: Tuesday 18 June 2019
Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Flickr/UK Parliament
Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Flickr/UK Parliament Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Flickr/UK Parliament

Some four days after Drought Early Warning System flagged that 44 per cent of the country’s area was under various degrees of drought, all district magistrates and collectors got stacks of letters from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These letters were meant for unusual receivers and had a pressing message: Modi requested panchayat heads to conserve water.

District officials scrambled to personally deliver the PM’s letter to more than 2.4 lakh village panchayats.

The Panchayati Raj system is feted as the world’s largest experiment in decentralising democracy. Some 28 lakh elected representatives implement 29 functions mandated by the Constitution.

Arguably they are the only elected representatives who can execute development plans. A prime minister can’t sign a cheque but a panchayat head can.

The letter signed by Modi read:

"Dear sarpanchjinamaskar,

I hope that you and all my brothers and sisters of the panchayat would be in the best of health. The rainy season is about to begin. We are grateful to God that we have been blessed by enough rainwater. We should make all efforts and arrangement to conserve this blessing (water).”

In the first few weeks of his second term, Modi gave unmissable signs that showed that he was focusing on rural India, especially water scarcity. Just after writing to the panchayat heads, at the Governing Council meeting of Niti Aayog, Modi promised to supply piped water to all households by 2024.

A throwback

This reminds one of former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Vajpayee used to directly interact with elected representatives from villages. He called them to Delhi for interactions through mega events and even wrote to chief ministers to not undermine the constitutional powers of village governments.

Modi’s direct pitch with elected village heads is also similar to the hectic days of India’s experiment with decentralised water management to fight scarcity of water and droughts.

In the late 1990s and 2000s, states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, undivided Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka were particularly battered by water scarcity that impacted agriculture.

Most of the states then took up large-scale water conservation programmes to fight drought. And the panchayats became the chosen instruments to roll them out. Panchayat members were formally made decision-makers to take up water conservation works.

CMs like Digvijaya Singh and Chandrababu Naidu directly created mechanisms to support and involve panchayats to take up water conservation, which is their Constitutionally mandate anyway. Singh started the famed ‘Ek Panch Ek Talab’ programme, encouraging each elected village member to take up one water conservation structure.

Keshubhai Patel started the participatory Sardar Patel check dam programme in Gujarat, making the drought-stricken Saurashtra region an example in fighting water scarcity at local level.

This phase did create the template to decentralise water conservation. Modi’s direct interaction with village heads furthers political traction to this, though in a different reality.

Already in motion

By the time Modi’s letter landed in the hands of panchayat heads, they were in the middle of constructing more than eight lakh structures under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme (MGNREGS). Of the, 60 per cent were related to water conservation.

Each village panchayat is already supposed to have a yearly and a five-yearly plan, mandated by MGNREGS. The local communities plan keeping in mind the villages’ and panchayats’ water needs. Accordingly, they estimate the number of water conservation work required.

Nearly 45 lakh hectares of additional irrigation potential was created by such plans under MGNREGA in 2015-16 alone, according to government data. Such has been the focus on water conservation under the Act that in 2016 the Union rural development ministry instructed the states to implement Modi’s flagship Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayaae Yojana along with the former.

But, out of this idealist situation, the implementation of MGNREGA remains weak, particularly the village plans that were envisioned to make it productive for local communities.

According to several social audits conducted by various governments, these plans are not being done in consultation with the local communities. Mostly, government officials and elected village panchayat heads mechanically draw a list of projects to be taken up and these lists are shown as plans.

Responsibility without power

Discussions with elected representatives bring out another aspect of local governance that has been haunting the Panchayati Raj system in the country.

Ideally the three Fs – functions, functionaries and funds – should have been delegated to panchayats to implement the 29 functions given under the constitutional provision.

While states have delegated all the functions to panchayats, funds and functionaries are yet to be delegated. This means panchayats have the responsibility but don’t have control over funds and the government functionaries to implement those.

This could be the reason why millions of water conservation works are taken up under MGNREGA but most of them are abandoned in half way. As communities say, MGNREGA is still being implemented by officials without the mandatory community inputs. It means works are taken up but without any planning. So, they fail to be effective in mitigating the water crisis.

This is where the political will to decentralise power in true spirit comes into play. Panchayats have not got what the Constitution mandates because the states don’t have the political will to decentralise power.

Modi’s letter, thus, is an occasion to raise this fundamental and critical aspect of decentralised water conservation programme. By now communities have the right experience of managing water — both by traditional ways and a Parliament-enacted law — to empower them with formal power to plan water management locally.

So, if one has to visualise a village head’s response to Modi’s letter, it would have been: vest us with power, the political kind suitable for an elected government to decide.

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