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Part I - Decentralization for empowerment of rural poor

Why decentralization is important for empowerment of rural poor

Persistent poverty in South Asia

South Asia is still a long way from eradicating hunger and poverty while the gulf between the rich and poor continues to widen in most countries in the sub-region. According to Human Development in South Asia 2002, more than one-third of South Asia’s 1.4 billion people live on less than US$1 a day[1]. The substantial progress in agricultural production in the region has been “neither adequate nor equitable enough to reduce the region’s huge backlog of poverty”, says the report.

Ineffectiveness of centrally administered local development programmes

Aware that the ‘trickle down’ effects of economic growth take too long to reach the poor, governments in the region have relied on centrally administered support programmes and planned interventions to raise living standards, such as:

These have produced mixed results. Subsidized food has often not reached the needy due to faulty targeting and the unscrupulous diversion of supplies. Micro-finance loans have been used more for consumption than investment and generally not repaid fully. For example, about 60 percent of the loans given out under India’s Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) are estimated to be in default (UNDP: 1993).

The food-for-work programmes have been more effective since these involve manual work where daily labour wages are paid partly in food and partly in cash and which, therefore, attract only the really needy. However, in many instances, information regarding periods of slack work in rural areas is not available in time for food-for-work programmes to be organized when they are most needed.

Weaknesses in rural development policies and programmes in India

Decentralization for empowerment of rural poor

These shortcomings led to the realization that poverty alleviation programmes cannot be effective unless the poor have a voice in the planning and implementation of schemes meant to help them. This, in turn, necessitates decentralization of key government functions.

Decentralization is the transfer of power and authority from the central/state government to the local level government, and to non-government and private organizations. Decentralization enables rural poor people to: a) share in decision-making that affects their daily lives; b) evaluate the outcome of their own decisions; c) minimize chances of misunderstanding; d) understand the difficulties and complexities of administration, planning and management; e) accept responsibility for failure; and f) develop a sense of belonging and commitment to civil society.

Basics of decentralization

Types of decentralization

Political - provides citizens or their elected representatives at the local level with more power in decision making and supports democratization by giving them more influence in the formulation and implementation of policies. The process is known as ‘devolution’ and is inherently tied with local autonomy.

Administrative - redistribution of authority, responsibility and financial resources among different levels of government. This includes:

Deconcentration - transfer of power, authority, responsibility or the discretion to plan, decide and manage.

Delegation - creation of autonomous units with a great deal of discretion in decision making.

Fiscal - delegation of fiscal and financial powers, including taxation powers to the local self-government bodies.

Leading forces behind decentralization

As many Asian countries adopt decentralized development models, they are searching for best ways to:

A number of training tools, methods, courses and information systems have been developed in India and across Asia to address these issues, with participatory training approaches becoming increasingly important. Training methods in India on strengthening local governance within Panchayati Raj also focus on bringing about changes in values, attitudes and behaviour - for e.g. accepting illiterate women as leaders in local development - which are now recognized as preconditions for successful decentralization. Effective training of both local government officials and local elected representatives is urgently needed because without appropriate knowledge and skill development programmes, decentralization initiatives may not yield the desired results.

This handbook has been designed to cover identified gaps in training needs of both local government functionaries and elected grassroots representatives associated with the Panchayati Raj decentralization process in India. These include the following training modules: participatory planning and management; social mobilization; enhancing women’s participation; social audit; participatory local resources management; partnership building; conflict management; planning for disaster preparedness and mitigation; participatory community monitoring and evaluation; and PRA tools.

The topics covered in this handbook will be relevant for Asian countries with programmes and activities in support of participatory local development.

Decentralization policies and legislation in India

The Constitution of India has set up a republican parliamentary democracy at the national level with the Council of Ministers chosen from and collectively responsible to the elected House of People. This structure of governance is replicated at the level of states, which form the Union of India. The Constitution provided for decentralization in the form of a general directive to the state to establish Panchayati Raj institutions (PRIs) at the village level as the lowest rung of governance. According to Article 40 of the Constitution:

“The State shall take steps to organize village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government.”

The true potential of Article 40 lies not merely in its directive to set up village panchayats as part of a constitutionally formulated principle of state policy, but in the significant concomitant mandate that panchayats be endowed with “such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government”. This means that the task would remain incomplete unless village panchayats begin to function as units of self-government as a part of a democratic polity.

The vision of village-based self-government came to be appreciated a few years after the Constitution’s adoption in January 1950 when it became increasingly self-evident that socio-economic transformation could not be achieved without democratic participation. The Community Development Programme, launched in 1952, had a ‘top-down’ approach. Although this was soon strengthened by a National Extension Service to tackle the problems of growth and development at different local and functional levels, there was, relatively speaking, only token public participation through nominated representatives of the public.

The growing awareness that lack of public involvement and participation was a major impediment to the implementation of the Community Development and National Extension Service Programmes, was reflected in the government’s Second Five-Year Plan. “Unless there is a comprehensive village planning which takes into account the needs of the entire community, weaker sections like tenant-cultivators, landless workers and artisans may not benefit sufficiently from assistance provided by the Government,” the Plan document noted.

“Indeed, rural progress depends entirely on the existence of an active organisation in the village which can bring all the people including the weaker sections into common programmes to be carried out with the assistance of the administration,” it added. The document emphasized the need for “an agency in the village which represents the community as a whole and can assume responsibility and initiative for developing the resources of the village and providing the necessary leadership”.

The thinking underlying the Second Five-Year Plan was that village panchayats, along with co-operatives, could play a major role in bringing about a more equitable and integrated social structure in rural areas. However, the Plan’s thrust was to establish statutory panchayats in all villages, more as vehicles for national extension and community development projects rather than as units of self-government. It was primarily from this angle that it set the target of more than doubling the number of panchayats by 1960-61.

The Balwantrai Mehta Study Team, appointed in January 1957 to assess the Community Development and National Extension Service programmes, observed: “Development cannot progress without responsibility and power. Community Development can be real only when the community understands its problems; realizes its responsibilities; exercises the necessary powers through its chosen representatives and maintains a constant and intelligent vigilance on local administration.”

The Team’s recommendation for early establishment of statutory elective local bodies with the necessary resources, powers and authority led to the enactment of a three-tier Panchayati Raj system in different states in 1959 with two basic objectives viz., democratic decentralization and local participation in planned programmes.

The three tiers of the system consisted of the Zilla Parishad (district council) at the apex district level, the Block Samiti (council) at the intermediate level and village panchayat (council) at the grassroots level. The States of Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh were the first to adopt the system. By 1959, most states had Panchayat Acts and by the year 1960 Panchayati Raj institutions had been set up in all parts of the country.

The introduction of Panchayati Raj signified the beginning of a new era of participatory development and laid the foundation of ‘democratic decentralization’ to:

However, the promising start towards decentralization in most states soon began to fade, either under political pressure or due to changes in the growth strategies and policies of the government. The creation of panchayats was not followed up by the devolution of powers and resources to these bodies, stalling progress of the decentralization process in the country.

Phases in Panchayati Raj evolution

1959 to 1966: Panchayati Raj institutions established in most states.

1967 to 1976: Little attention paid to the growth of Panchayati Raj institutions with no devolution of powers and resources to these bodies. A new trend favoured creation of new government departments for development programmes meant to improve the lives of the poor.

1977 to 1991: The year 1977 marks the beginning of the revival of decentralization efforts in the country, when the Asoka Mehta Committee identified these factors for the decline of Panchayati Raj:

i) dissociation of development programmes from Panchayati Raj;
ii) bureaucratic inability to involve panchayats in implementation of development programmes;
iii) internal deficiencies within the panchayat institutions;
iv) lack of clarity about the concept itself.

The Mehta Committee recommended a two-tier system with the Zilla Parishad at the district level as the first point of decentralization. At the second level, a conclave of villages would form Mandal (block) Panchayats to provide a better link between higher and local government levels.

The working of Panchayati Raj was examined by subsequent expert panels set up by the government, notable among them being the G. V. K. Rao Committee in 1985 and the L. M. Singhvi Committee in 1986.

In view of the limited impact of centrally directed development, the increasing burden on the state of expensive monitoring and the consequent increase in corruption, the committees concluded that there was a need to revitalize Panchayati Raj. Its role and powers were limited, elections were not regular and there was little or no accountability to the people at the grassroots. Some states, especially Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, took steps to reactivate Panchayati Raj through institutional reforms to make the lower tiers financially and administratively viable and closer to the people.

1992 to present: The year 1992 marks a watershed in the evolution of Panchayati Raj with the modification of the country’s basic law by the Constitution’s 73rd Amendment Act to confer constitutional sanctity and power on panchayats. It also gives them an important role in shaping rural progress with the goal of integrating the poorest and most marginalized into the mainstream of development.

The 73rd Amendment calls for a uniform three-tier panchayat system throughout the country. It reserves a quota of panchayat membership and chairperson positions for Scheduled Castes/Tribes and women; enables the weaker social sections to voice their problems and encourages the emergence of leadership among them.

The panchayats were given the power and responsibility to plan and implement programmes to promote economic growth and social justice as set out in a comprehensive list of activities appended to the Act. (See Annex for details of PRI and elected representative numbers in different states of India.)

However, the implementation of the Constitution 73rd Amendment at the field level has been gradual. Although the Amendment has visualized panchayats as institutions of self-government, these bodies have generally been viewed only as agents carrying out federal and state government programmes. Even for these, timely funds have not been made available to the panchayats.

Transparency - an essential condition for effective monitoring and evaluation - envisaged by the Amendment to be achieved through the Gram Sabha (village council) has not been effectively implemented at the field level. Studies have found that Gram Sabhas have not been convened even once in many panchayats across the country. The difficulty in convening the Gram Sabha is attributed to the quorum fixed by the respective State Act.

Despite the recognition of the need for micro-planning in India’s Ninth Five-Year Plan, the planning process did not make much headway due to the lack of expertise and necessary information at the local level.

Another dimension, which has become increasingly important, is the role of civil society organizations in local development with India’s 7th Five-Year Plan outlining the possible involvement of NGOs in development programmes.

The following conditions are considered necessary for the successful implementation of the 73rd Amendment Act:

Power to the panchayats; 73rd constitutional amendment

The Eleventh Schedule added to the Constitution of India by the 73rd Amendment Act lists a comprehensive range of development activities to be entrusted to PRIs as part of the decentralization process.

  1. Programmes for productive activities - agriculture, irrigation, animal husbandry, fuel and fodder, poultry, fishery, small-scale industries including food processing and cottage industries;
  2. Land development programmes - land reforms, soil conservation, minor irrigation, water management and watershed development, wasteland development, social forestry and grazing lands;
  3. Education and cultural activities - primary schools, adult education, technical education and libraries;
  4. Social welfare - women and child development, family welfare, care of people with physical and mental disabilities;
  5. Provisions of civic amenities - drinking water, rural electrification, non-conventional sources of energy, rural roads, bridges, culverts, waterways, sanitation, rural housing and health;
  6. Poverty alleviation and allied programmes for social and economic advancement of the weaker sections;
  7. Maintenance of community assets and public distribution system;
  8. Organization and control of rural markets and village fairs.

The Constitution of India directs state governments to endow panchayats with the powers and authority necessary for their functioning as institutions of self-governance with the key responsibility of preparing and implementing plans for economic development and social justice. Local bodies have been given direct responsibility for decentralized development planning with the introduction of Article 243 ZD in the Constitution. This establishes a District Planning Committee in every district “to consolidate the plans prepared by the panchayats and the Municipalities in the district and to prepare a draft development plan for the district as a whole”.

Decentralized planning has thus become a constitutionally recognized key function of the panchayats and many state governments have taken steps to enable elected PRIs to discharge this responsibility. (See Annex I).

PRIs as a model for participatory local development in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala

Panchayati Raj in Andhra Pradesh

Legislative framework for the establishment of Panchayati Raj

The Andhra Pradesh Panchayat Raj Act, framed in the light of the Constitution’s 73rd Amendment, came into effect in May 1994, setting up a three-tier PRI structure with a Zilla Parishad at the district, Mandal Praja Parishad at the intermediate and Gram Panchayat at the village level. It also provides for the constitution of village Gram Sabhas made up of all registered voters in the village.

The state government has satisfactorily conducted elections to constitute the PRIs and has devolved functions, powers, and resources to these bodies.

Election, tenure and composition of members at the three Panchayati Raj levels

The PRIs have a five-year term. Members are to be directly elected on the basis of Wards of the Gram Panchayat and Territorial Constituencies in the case of Mandal Parishad and Zilla Parishad, with reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their population.

One-third of the total number of directly elected seats in each of these bodies is reserved for the backward classes and another one-third for women. The Mandal and Zilla Parishad have one or two members co-opted from the minority communities. The Head of the Gram Panchayat is elected directly by the electorate in the village whereas the Mandal Parishad President and the Zilla Parishad Chairperson are elected from among the directly elected members of these bodies. One-third of the top PRI posts are reserved for Scheduled Castes/Tribes and another one-third for women.

There is an organic linkage among the three PRI tiers with the elected heads of the lower levels being permanent invitees to the meetings of the next higher tier. Thus, all Gram Panchayat Heads in a Mandal participate in Mandal Parishad meetings and Mandal Parishad Presidents within a district attend the Zilla Parishad meetings. The District Collector (top district administration official) is also a permanent invitee to the meetings of the Mandal and Zilla Parishad Standing Committees. Permanent invitees can join the discussions but without the right to vote.

Powers, functions and resources at each Panchayati Raj level

Ten out of 29 subjects in the Eleventh Schedule of the Constitution of India have been transferred to Gram Panchayats. These include minor irrigation, water management, watershed development, drinking water, roads, culverts and bridges.

The Gram Sabha is expected to meet at least twice a year to consider matters placed before it by the Gram Panchayat. These generally include the annual statement of accounts and the audit report on the administration of the preceding year; programmes of works for the current year; proposals for fresh taxation or for increasing existing taxes; and selection of schemes, beneficiaries and locations. While implementing programmes, the Gram Panchayat gives due consideration to suggestions made during the Gram Sabha meetings.

There is provision for seven Standing Committees at the Zilla Parishad level, dealing with planning and finance, rural development, agriculture, education and medical services, women’s welfare, social welfare, communications, rural water supply and power. Each Standing Committee has the Zilla Parishad Chairman as ex-officio member and others nominated by him or her according to prescribed rules. The Standing Committee is the decision-making body in its respective field, subject to the ratification of the general body of the Zilla Parishad.

Development areas under direct responsibility of each Panchayati Raj level

Gram Panchayat

Mandal Parishad

Zilla Parishad

Mobilization of resources and responsibilities at each Panchayati Raj level

Gram Panchayat

Only the Gram Panchayat can levy taxes. This includes a house tax, a tax on the produce sold in the villages (Kolagaram or Katarusum) a tax on agricultural land and a land cess at the rate of two paise to a rupee (2 percent) on the annual rental value of occupied land.

It can also charge fees such as for the use of land and for the occupation of public buildings such as shelter homes, and duty on land in the form of a surcharge at a rate not exceeding twenty-five paise to the rupee (25 percent). The state government also shares with local governments the revenue collected under certain items by way of land/local cess, surcharges on stamp duty, taxes on minor minerals and entertainment taxes. The government also provides a variety of grants to PRIs.

Mandal Parishad

The main sources of income are funds relating to institutions and schemes transferred by the government, or heads of departments funds relating to different development programmes. Other sources include funds or aid from central, state and other national bodies promoting khadi, silk, coir and handicraft; contributions from Gram Panchayat/Zilla Parishad; shares of land revenue; and annual grants at the rate of five rupees per person residing in the Mandal. A Mandal Parishad’s own resources account for only five percent of the total income.

Zilla Parishad

It derives 5 percent of its income from rents on buildings and commercial complexes, market/industrial fees, etc. The Zilla Parishad (ZP) is paid a per capita grant of two rupees per person residing in its jurisdiction. An important grant is for salaries of ZP staff and school teachers, which accounts for 50 percent of the receipts.

The Janmabhoomi programme (See Training module on social mobilization.)

The programme shows how the administrative machinery can be made more responsive to local needs and to facilitate participation by rural poor in local governance.

Panchayati Raj in Karnataka

Legislative framework for the establishment of Panchayati Raj

The Karnataka Panchayati Raj Act of 1993 incorporates the institutional structure set out by the 73rd Amendment. It has established the Gram Panchayat at the village, Taluka Panchayat at the intermediate and Zilla Panchayat at the district levels.

Local development planning, participation and resource mobilization

The PRIs are responsible, among other things, for development planning at the district, taluk (intermediate) and village level. This involves identification of local needs and resources for formulating local development projects, determining resource allocation priorities and locating projects within the integrated area development framework.

Although the Gram Sabha is expected to prepare and promote village development schemes during its open meetings, in practice, such meetings produce a list of demands, such as for school facilities, drinking water supply, a primary health centre, veterinary dispensary or a market link road. The demands are considered by the Gram Panchayat (GP), which prepares a GP sub-plan to accommodate the needs of individual villages as far as possible. The GP plans are incorporated into the Taluka Panchayat (TP) plans, which form part of the Zilla Panchayat (ZP) Plan. This process is designed to ensure that every local aspiration is taken note of.

To promote regional balance, the State Finance Commission (SFC), set up by the Karnataka Government in 1996, recommended criteria for distribution of resources among the PRIs, giving a relatively higher share to backward areas/regions. Moreover, an untied grant of Rs 100 000 is being given to every GP as additional financial assistance, which should not be adjusted against the funds recommended for devolution by the SFC.

The GPs are also empowered to levy taxes on buildings and lands, which are not subject to agricultural assessment within the limits of the panchayat area. The GP can fix the rate for supply of water for drinking and other purposes and levy charges such as tax on entertainment, market fee, pilgrim fee, etc.

However, there is insufficient resource mobilization at GP level. This has continued their reliance on the transfer of state resources on the basis of SFC recommendations, which is limiting the realization of the objective of promoting more autonomous planning and administration by local elected bodies within Panchayati Raj.

Panchayati Raj in Kerala

Legislative framework for the establishment of Panchayati Raj

Kerala enacted the Panchayat Raj Act in 1994 in compliance with the 73rd Constitutional Amendment to set up a three-tier PRI structure of Gram (village), block and district level panchayats.

Local development planning, participation and resource mobilization

Panchayati Raj institutions came into prominence during the unique People’s Planning movement launched by the state government in 1996. Initiated after a major devolution of power and resources to local government institutions, the Ninth Plan - people’s plan campaign was an attempt to prepare and subsequently implement the ninth state plan with people’s participation through these bodies.

The programme involved five phases starting from identification of needs by the gram sabhas to implementation of the projects using local expertise and resources. Nearly 40 percent of the state’s annual plan outlay was set aside for local bodies, ensuring a liberal measure of autonomy to the PRIs to draw up development programmes.

Phases in the People’s Planning Campaign - a learning model

First phase - Gram Sabhas were convened to identify local development priorities, with meetings held on holidays to ensure maximum participation. Volunteer squads visited households to explain the importance of participation while public meetings and different mass media were used to generate mass awareness. Group discussions were organized on 12 identified development sectors. The most important outcome of the gram sabhas was development reports covering local development aspirations, information on natural resources, available statistics and problems.

It is estimated that about 2.7 million men and women took part in the Gram Sabhas. Twenty-seven per cent of the participants were women. About 650 resource persons at the state level, 12 000 at the district level and more than 100 000 at the local level, were trained for active participation in the Gram Sabhas.

Second phase - Local development seminars were organized to suggest action to address the identified development priorities. To facilitate the discussions, participants were given reports of the socio-economic status of the Gram Panchayat. The state of resources was assessed from existing government data, and survey of local geography and history. These exercises were guided by a group of trained local resource persons, elected PRI representatives, and government officials. This involved a massive programme to train resource persons from the state to local level.

The second phase produced an extensive local database, a comprehensive survey of the development status of the panchayat and a list of likely solutions to development problems. Task forces were set up to prepare development projects for each development sector.

Third phase - Sector-wise task forces prepared projects based on suggestions emerging from the development seminars. All the 12 development sectors had a task force of 10 to 15 members each and chaired by an elected representative with an officer from the relevant line department as the convenor.

As many as 12 000 task forces were functioning at the village level alone with a total participation of at least 120 000 persons. The task forces prepared about 100 000 projects for consideration by the panchayats. Special efforts were made to ensure the participation of officials and local level experts in the preparation of the projects. Guidelines were issued by the State Planning Board to ensure uniformity in the project reports.

Fourth phase - Projects prepared by the task forces prioritized for incorporation into the five-year plans of the panchayats.

Fifth phase - Plans are vetted by a panel of experts for their technical viability and conformity with the mandatory government guidelines on planning and costing, before they are forwarded to the District Planning Committee (DPC).

Final phase - The DPC gives formal approval to the plans. It is to be noted that even the DPC cannot change the PRI priority, but only ensure compliance with government guidelines. The final development plan for each district in Kerala thus reflects people’s needs and aspirations.

Impact of participatory planning model within Panchayati Raj in Kerala

The People’s Planning Campaign generated a successful methodology for participatory planning for local level development. The methodology is built upon lessons learnt from earlier pilot activities in participatory local development in the state.

How panchayats can make a difference

LGIs prevent water pollution

This example of the role of the middle-tier Panchayat Union Council (PUC) in Tamil Nadu State during 1986-1991 shows how elected local bodies can protect the interests of the weak.

The PUC convened an urgent meeting on 30 March 1998 to discuss the grant of a license to start a distillery in the area under the jurisdiction of one of its constituent village panchayats. In village panchayat areas, the authority to grant a license for any trade classified under the category of Dangerous and Offensive Trades rests with the PUC.

It was decided unanimously not to grant permission on the following grounds: i) the distillery could affect village drinking water sources and cause air pollution. A similar case of a distillery causing many problems in another part of the district was cited as an example; and ii) people in surrounding areas were dependent on the ground water for irrigation, which could be depleted by the distillery.

However, the distillery was to be set up by an influential businessman, whose spouse was active in state-level politics and who allegedly employed some panchayat presidents to mobilize support, besides trying to influence leaders in areas that were not likely to be affected. Knowledgeable sources mentioned that a few active presidents of these areas took upon themselves the task of mobilizing support from the other members for this purpose. Panchayat presidents from areas that were likely to be affected were also allegedly offered large sums of money and given assurances that certain development activities would be taken up in their areas if they agreed to back the resolution. There were also promises of jobs in the proposed distillery for a large number of people from these areas. Public meetings were convened in some of these villages where representatives of the businessman explained the direct and indirect benefits to the area once the distillery was set up.

Assured of the support of several PUC members, the industrialist urged some of them to demand reconsideration of the license application by the PUC. According to some respondents of this study, even the PUC Chairman was inclined to permit the distillery after being influenced by the industrialist.

Local people, angered by these developments gathered outside the PUC office in large numbers on the day of the meeting. Anticipating trouble, the police were called and the meeting postponed to later in the day. However, the crowd did not give up. When the PUC met it decided by majority to adopt a secret vote on the issue. However, six Panchayat Presidents, including the Vice-Chairman and three nominated/co-opted members, did not accept this and walked out in protest. The resolution in favour of the distillery was supported by 28 votes and only one against.

But local people petitioned the court against this permission and subsequently, when Tamil Nadu State was put under central government rule, they made representations to the State Governor. The State Government eventually refused to give clearance for the distillery, reportedly on the suggestion of a very high level functionary who, in turn, was impressed by the effective representation made by the villagers.

The case study shows that while many pressure groups can influence PRI decision making, people have ample opportunities for expressing open dissent. The fact that the people did not give up, despite the passage of the resolution allowing the distillery, deserves special mention. It may be mentioned that the proposed distillery building was abandoned without completion and now houses a religious training institution.

However, the distillery was set up in another part of the same PUC area after the term of the elected PRI representatives ended in March 1991. Since there was no elected PRI representative at the time of granting permission to start the distillery, this did not attract the attention of the people. It may be concluded that the presence of elected PRI representatives is essential for giving voice to the people.

Ex-sarpanches to the rescue of earthquake-affected people

This account of a village affected by the disastrous January 2001 earthquake in India’s western Gujarat State shows how elected panchayat leaders can expedite relief and rehabilitation following natural disasters.

“Khangarpur, 30 km off the devastated Bhuj region, presented quite a different picture in the midst of depressing news that even ten days after the earthquake hit the state, people from many villages were wandering helplessly and nobody, including the local authorities, could tell where one could expect some relief.”

The former Sarpanch of Khangarpur called a meeting of the villagers and set up a committee to keep watch on the distribution of relief. All relief material arriving in the village was stored in the community hall and given out to families on the basis of the number of members in the household, without regard to caste or position.

“I heard similar stories in most villages of Saurashtra and the surviving ones of Kuchh. The former Sarpanches and Panches have done a splendid job by coming to the rescue of their fellow villagers.” Some ex-Sarpanches maintained complete data on the loss of life, injuries, damaged property and relief received by their village. “However, there were some black sheep too. Some ex-Sarpanches exploited the opportunity for enriching themselves and their kith and kin. When people in Moti Malwari village found that their ex-Sarpanch was favouring members of his own caste, they forced him to form a village committee comprising representatives belonging to all castes to supervise the distribution work.”

(Source: Neelam Gupta, Panchayati Raj Update: 2001)

Villagers treat water as an economic good - Olavanna, Kerala State

The Olavanna Gram Panchayat in Kozhikode district of Kerala has received global attention for its initiative in providing safe drinking water in an area with three saline water rivers and potable water sources that dry up at the start of summer. During a severe water scarcity in 1985, only 1 600 of the 7 000 households in the Panchayat area were covered by the solitary Kerala Water Authority (KWA) water supply scheme.

The Panchayat commissioned a piped water scheme in 1987 in its Vettuvedankunnu ward, funded by government grants. It consisted of an intake well, an overhead tank and pipelines to distribute drinking water through public stand posts to 400 households. Some 18 piped water schemes have been built to provide drinking water to more than 1 300 families through public and house taps. The KWA implemented two more schemes in 1990 and 1998 to serve 2 400 households. Since the quality of KWA services was not up to the expectations of the people, Olavanna villagers were encouraged by the Panchayat president to meet their drinking water needs themselves.

The Panchayat scheme generated enthusiasm and applause in three villages. The Panchayat’s financial constraints led a retired school teacher to collect money from the community and install a small 1 HP pump with an intake well to serve five neighboring families in the hamlet of Kambiliparamba, with the support of the Panchayat.

With the support of the Panchayat president, 54 other households of this hamlet got together in 1989 and, with a contribution of Rs 4 500 each, formed a registered co-operative society to run a drinking water scheme. There are now more than 26 successful private cooperative societies in this Panchayat and many more are being set up. Thus, the Panchayat has enabled the villagers to start their own schemes and its role has been modified from being a provider to a facilitator and regulator.

Ralegaon Siddhi - a model of water-harvesting

Located in a semi-arid region in Maharashtra State, the village of Ralegaon Siddhi has demonstrated the power of community-based partnership and networking. The centerpiece of its success is a water-harvesting system set up by community initiative. This has led to other gains such as the advancement of women, improved school enrolment, especially of girl children and a ban on liquor sales in the village.

The initiative was a joint endeavour of the block administration, two NGOs, some schools, parent-teacher associations, media and local foresters. It has transformed Ralegaon’s highly degraded eco-system and made it one of India’s most prosperous villages. A survey commissioned by the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment found that a quarter of all Ralegaon households registered annual incomes over Rs 450 000 each.

The Government of Andhra Pradesh State is learning from Ralegaon’s example to implement its own watershed project. The legendary Anna Hazare, who is the main driving force behind Ralegaon’s success, is advising the Andhra Pradesh Government.

Sukhomajri - community action transforms once barren village

Located in the rainfed Shivalik hill region in Haryana State, Sukhomajri village was once incapable of feeding its people, most of whom preferred to migrate to the cities in search of a livelihood. Today, it is a model watershed development village and produces three crops every year. Sukhomajri now has a forest of Acacia Catechu, locally known as khair, valued at Rs 900 million.

As with Ralegaon, Sukhomajri’s success is based on partnerships among communities, biologists, holders of traditional knowledge, NGOs and foresters, which have transformed the once poverty-stricken area into one of India’s richest villages.

Community action enables farmers to counter drought

Under the leadership of a local NGO, 500 semi-arid villages situated in the Aravalli hills in Alwar district of Rajasthan State are reviving the local tradition of water harvesting and restoring depleted groundwater resources. This has enabled local farmers to withstand consecutive years of drought. As in Ralegaon Siddhi and Sukhomajri, distress out-migration has been largely arrested. Studies show that the Village Domestic Product has increased in proportion to the investments made in water conservation.

With dozens of villages undertaking water-harvesting activities in the same watershed, the five rivers in the area are no longer ‘monsoonal drains’ and flow round the year. Over 25 villages in one river basin have come together to form India’s first community-based River Water Parliament to jointly manage the regenerated rivers.

The success of the Alwar villages is rooted in a solid community network and its links with the district administration, research institutions and environmental activists. The concept of a Water Parliament, initiated by inspirational leader Rajendra Singh, is now inspiring similar ventures in other arid areas of the country.

[1] MHHDC. Human development in South Asia 2002: Agriculture and Rural Development, (Islamabad. Mahbub-ul Haq Human Development Centre, 2003), page 4.

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