Debating India

PANCHAYATI RAJ

An interface in a Kolar village

Tuesday 7 June 2005, by VISWANATHAN*S.

WHEN Union Minister for Petroleum and Panchayati Raj Mani Shankar Aiyar planned to visit Karnataka first in his "one State a month" mission to bring about "genuine panchayati raj’ in the country, he could have been influenced by the fact that the State had an impressive track record in this sphere. Explaining why he identified Gulbarga and Kolar districts in the State for the purpose, he said it was because of a language problem. "I cannot speak or even follow Kannada," he said. "In Gulbarga, Urdu is one of the principal spoken languages and I have a fairly good grounding in Urdu. In Kolar, of course, I may not have any problem, because it has a large population of Tamils and Tamil is my mother tongue." This was enough to indicate how serious he was about his interface with the elected heads of the gram sabhas and other elected representatives.

After completing his visit to Gulbarga on April 30, he drove to Kolar on May 1. As soon as he reached Sethurayasamudra village in the district, an hour or so late, he rushed into the panchayat office. He was taken to the meeting hall, where he saw two women, Padmavathamma, the panchayat president, and Rathnamma, her deputy, both seated on a bench. The president did not occupy her chair so that the Minister could sit there. Introductions over, Mani Shankar Aiyar declined the chair and offered to sit on the bench along with the two women, both Dalits. The women, who were perhaps meeting a Union Cabinet Minister for the first time, appeared a bit nervous. He had no hesitation in sitting beside them on the bench. And it worked the right way. The interface promised to be "on equal terms".

But, the Minister was disappointed when he learnt that the women could not speak Tamil, being Kannadigas. So the Minister had to rely on an interpreter. Joint Secretary in the Union Ministry of Panchayati Raj, T.R. Raghunandan, who was until recently in Karnataka government service and is deeply committed to the cause of panchayati raj, came to his assistance. The Minister asked them about their family backgrounds. Both said they came from poor families. He then inquired about their education. The president said that she had studied only up to the fifth standard and her deputy said she had completed the tenth standard. He expressed his happiness over their election to these posts. The president said that it was her second term. He was even more pleased.

The women leaders appeared less nervous now. After establishing such rapport with the panchayat leaders, he queried: "Do you find any difficulty in working with male members of the panchayat?" They said they did not. Then he asked whether the officials showed any disrespect to them on grounds of caste or gender. They said they had some bad experiences early in their term, but not later. "Are you now able to speak to local officials on equal terms?" he wanted to know. They replied in the affirmative. Asked whether they had any formal training, they replied in the affirmative. Probing further, he asked whether their husbands or any other male members of their families had ever acted as proxy to them. Both said, "No." The Minister asked whether the office secretary, who is male, sought to influence them, and they replied in the negative.

Turning to the mediapersons present, the Minister commented on how such underprivileged women had got elected, one of them for a second time, and got over their initial difficulties through sheer will and proper training.

Then he asked the two women and the secretary what their priorities would be while spending panchayat funds. The secretary said he would spend 25 per cent on drinking water supply and the rest on repairing fishing ponds and irrigation tanks, food-for-work programmes and housing projects. Both Padmavathamma and Rathnamma said they would allot 35 per cent of the funds to drinking water supply, since water scarcity was so acute. The Minister was happy and was insistent on knowing how much they would allot for each of their other priorities. He was pleased with their replies.

Again turning to the mediapersons, the Minister said: "See, here are two women, condemned as illiterate, under-educated, less intelligent and so on, but they could identify what they needed most and in what order they could divide the panchayat expenses among the prioritised items on the needed proportions. But bureaucrats sitting in the comfort of their offices in Delhi or Bangalore say that village people are not intelligent enough to understand their problems and they cannot plan for themselves." He then commended the village administration for ensuring higher property tax collections and greater tax compliance by the village people. He visited the panchayat’s computer room.

Later, he met the taluk panchayat members at Mulbagal and heard the views of the zilla panchayat members at Kolar. While the taluk panchayat president, also a woman, complained that a significant proportion of the funds went towards payment of salaries, the Minister suggested that government officers could be redeployed for panchayat work if necessary.

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