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Ruminating rural Raj

FOOD SECURITY AND PANCHAYATI RAJ·Edited by Pradeep Chaturvedi· Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi, 1997·Price Rs 400

Published: Sunday 30 November 1997

-- RELEASED in 1997, the book is a compilation of papers that were presented at a national conference, Panchayati Raj - the key to food security and nutrition, organised in India from July 2-3, 1996. The conference was held as part of India's preparatory process for the World Food Summit held in Rome from November 13-17, 1996.

Food security is defined as access to all, at all times, to the food needed for an active and healthy life. Food security envisages three basic issues -- availability, stability, and accessibility. At the household level this implies physical and economical access to food that is adequate in terms of safety, quality, and quantity.

The thrust of the conference was to identify reasons for lack of food security in India and to explore the potential of the Panchayati Raj system as an effective mechanism to ensure food security at the village level. Papers to this effect were presented by central and state government officials, experts on the Panchayati Raj system, food and agriculture economists, and representatives of cooperatives and non-governmental organisations.

Papers at the conference covered 6 different areas - the new features of the Panchayati Raj system, current scenario of food security in India, agricultural growth, poverty alleviation, experience of working with Panchayati Raj institutions, decentralised micro-level planning and its implementation, and training requirements for micro-level planning.

Panchayati Raj institutions have taken shape at the district, block, and village levels after the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, with a mandate of planning and implementing development schemes at the village level while ensuring equitable growth. As per the 73rd Amendment, the village panchayat has to prepare an area plan for economic development and social justice for the population that it represents. While this relates to the rural population, the 74th Amendment passed simultaneously, pertains to urban areas.

While some of the 30 papers presented at the conference were of a general nature dealing with the potential of panchayat institutions, others painted a rosy picture about the set up of the panchayats. Fortunately, a few papers dared to call a spade a spade, attempting to give a true picture of what really happens in the village panchayat. Covering the history of Panchayati Raj in India and the main features of the constitutional amendments, George Mathew, for instance, went on to describe the ground realities - the reluctance of state governments to recognise the importance of lower levels of government and their resentment of the leadership that emerges from these lower levels. Viewing them as potential competition, the officials then go out of their way adopting an indifferent attitude so that a sincere panchayat fails to become a full-fledged local government. Mathew also asks a very pertinent question - who will do the decision-making in the panchayat?

The papers based on case studies make interesting reading. Fahimuddin recommends a review in the procedure of financing village panchayats in Uttar Pradesh while N S Randhawa boldly points out the myths and realities in the Panchayati Raj system. While recommending duplication of the successful Chakriya Vikas Pranali which has achieved agricultural growth in drought-stricken Palamau, Bihar, Devinder Sharma calls for a paradigm shift in Indian agricultural policy.

The book does give some insight into the Panchayati Raj system and its potential as an agent to attain food security. However, one cannot help feel that since the conference was organised by the Indian Association for Advancement of Sciences and was based on an important issue like food security, more papers should have been devoted to the ground reality and how the system could be improved. That the Food Summit in Rome later turned out to be such a damp squib is another thing.

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