Round Table on
‘Inclusive Governance through Digital Panchayats and Constituencies’

October 17, 2008

By Vikas Das

In a country where most of the population resides in villages, one cannot ignore the fact that empowering the villagers would lead to a developed India. Digital panchayats could be viable platforms to that end. Therefore, the roundtable on Inclusive governance through digital panchayats and constituencies was a mind striking effort towards discussing better governance through digital panchayats. DEF Director and Manthan Award Chairman Osama Manzar gave the background and informed how DEF visited number of villages in Maharashtra last year and trained villagers in creating and managing their own panchayat portals. Most of the local body representatives participating in the session were enthusiastic about taking the efforts further.

T.R. Raghunandan, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, who was chairing the session, started the discussions by venting his ire against the double standard of Corporate Inc. “Corporates have been continuously undermining rural citizens and their capabilities,” he said, and candidly accepted the fact that government officials are less than willing to share power with panchayat bodies at any level.

The joint secretary talked about India’s five thousand-year-old history of the poor being exploited by the elite. “Five thousand MPs and MLAs are heavier over thirty-two lakh panchayat bodies. This has to change and it will happen only through strong assertion by panchayat bodies,” Raghunandan claimed.

“Today, the Indian society is under the double pressure of coping with rising globalization and localization as well. Rural youth, who are receiving education within the villages or outside, are raising fingers at the current power structure. They are now struggling for their legitimate share of power and have started dissenting with their MPs and MLAs,” he added.

What is the improvement?

Self help groups of women have increased their bargaining power. In Bihar, women got 50% reservation in local body elections.  Mr Raghunandan added that computerisation has made Information accessible for panchayats. The Ministry of Panchayati Raj has allotted each gram panchayat and zila panchayat free cyber space on its official portal.

The lacunaes

Although the central government has ninety-nine schemes like National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Swarnajayanti Gram Swarojgar Yojna Scheme (SGSYS), Indira Awas Yojna (IAY) the panchayat bodies are not getting any information about the spending on these schemes. RTI has not been utilised much.

Mr Raghunandan claimed that the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) could be a stumbling block. The state government may have diverted all funds meant for panchayat bodies which are to be given to the panchayats directly. They have created parallel institutions against panchayat bodies. Gram panchayats get direct funds from four schemes only, ie, NREGS, Central Government’s and State Government’s   scheme and revenue collected by panchayat themselves. So it is the necessity of panchayats to have its own source of revenue for the purpose of local development and their maintenance. In Maharashtra, the amount collected through local Panchayats was rupees four hundred crore and in Karnataka it was rupees one hundred sixty crore for the last year. Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan have abolished local taxes, therefore the panchayats have been made dependant upon state governments for funds.

The path taken and its stumbling blocks

It was also informed that in Maharashtra, there is no District Planning Committee; hence the Central Government does not give funds other than those allocated in planned schemes. Mr Raghunandan also spoke about the Backward Regions Grant Fund that is designed to redress regional imbalances in development. The fund will provide financial resources for supplementing and converging existing developmental inflows into 250 identified districts.

He said that the task of preparing the data base for villages should be done by the villagers themselves. It is the National Informatics Centre (NIC) which prepares the data base for villages. The joint secretary, ministry of Panchayati Raj, further explained ways for implementation of different schemes and told that there are three-levels of intervention viz. through courts, NGOs and civil society.

Joint Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Maharashtra, Varesh Shinde informed that the ministry has made a proposal to the thirteenth Finance Commission to increase the honorarium for Pradhan upto Rs 2000 which is already in practice in Kerela. He gave the example of Kerala and Karnataka, where survey for Below Poverty Line (BPL) families was conducted by gram panchayats and not by any external agency like primary teachers. This has proved more effective, with less chances of corruption. This method should be followed by all state govt, Mr Shinde said.

Emphasis was laid on how connectivity and interaction among panchayats is necessary to share knowledge and experience, and how Internet is the most convenient media. The problem is to enable transaction in regional languages.

Mr. Raghunandan suggested that efforts should be extended to make a wish list for the development projects and making use of available funds with the help of a software PLANPLUS which is available free of cost. A citizen data base should also be prepared for development planning. Here IT would come to help. In this context, he told a story about an NRI couple who created a website for donation by philanthropies to the poor, stating the role of IT in social sector.

Round Table outcome

The roundtable reaped some sound results. Mr Raghunandan spoke about various points given by him to panchayat representatives on ten-fifteen such schemes, to fight corruption as far as funds allocated for panchayats are concerned. Mr Osama Manzar assured Mr Raghunandan that initiative would be taken on the suggestions given by him.

Mr Manzar said that DEF would take hundred gram panchayats under honorary leadership of social activist Anna Hazare Saheb, the man behind RTI in India. This way it would try to track corruption in various schemes with the help of guidelines given by Mr Raghunandan.

It was Padmashree Anna Hazare’s inspirational speech that gave a concluding note to the discussions. He said that the world has come closer and competition has increased. To keep pace with the rest of the world, we need to make use of the power of IT. Reminding that Gandhiji had advocated decentralisation to strengthen democracy, Shri Hazare explained how IT is now the best tool for enabling decentralisation, eradicating corruption and increasing people’s participation in democracy. It is only with the help of technology that digital panchayats will help in good governance.

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