Mainstreaming panchayats- small steps to institution building

There are many challenges that we as practitioners face while working towards strengthening the organisation capacity of the government which is closest to citizens – the gram panchayats. My experience with one of the newly elected gram panchayats in Karnataka was revealing and triggered many thoughts.

Returning from a recent visit to Avani gram panchayat in Mulbagal taluk where we work along with the state government to build the organisation capacity of gram panchayats, I was rather depressed. We had just completed a Kala Jatha to orient communities to our work.

The citizens were up in arms as they questioned: There is a severe water problem here, what has the panchayat done? The PDS shop does not give us mandated quantity of rice, etc. One youngster questioned why we were discussing water problem when we were meant to talk about the panchayats. He was not aware of the panchayat's role at all. Or of the fact that it is the panchayat's job to provide clean drinking water, and that they get funds from the Central and State government to perform their various roles.

During the Kala Jatha, four newly elected panchayat members came and vanished within minutes. Why did they not stay? The elections have just got over, and it is not even a month since the new panchayat body has come. Why are voters criticising them already? How come there are people who do not know the role of panchayats?

As we walked around with a volunteer, he showed us an open well that he has revived along with the community. He also took us to a small pond, which he has cleaned with the help of the community. In this village, where the ground water is found at 1800ft, these are significant achievements.  

This volunteer too was critical of the panchayat- it did not support at all. I again wonder, what does the panchayat want to do, if not solve these issues? And how do we sustain the one-off well revival and pond cleaning initiative if the institution does not take responsibility?

As we moved around the village, I noticed clean and well-lit streets. The mini water supply cisterns are full. On questioning who had done all this work, I was told that the panchayat did. So, the panchayat does something and does not do others. How do we inspire them to do more? 

We have to mainstream panchayats…build environment wherein many agencies can engage with the panchayats as local governments. They have to be nurtured to grow in their identity and role. How do we do this? It seems a long haul. We need to make small beginnings. To start with, we need to observe and understand small details, which make the panchayats the way they are, because as we pay attention to the hitherto unattended, they change and eventually transform.

What are these details? It is the Panchayat Bhawan, which the members don't relate to, it is the registers which are not filled, it is the notice board which is empty, it is the toilet which may not be there, or is dirty, it is the staff who are not paid, it is the member who is not confident of facing citizens, and worse, the government officials.

Small details: What is required for the elected members to be inspired to change these? How do they themselves treat the panchayat as an institution, which they can relate to, which they can be proud of? Simple questions, complex answers. Where do we start?

Understand the institution: What are its day-to-day activities? Who are the people present in the panchayat? What do citizens come in the panchayat for? How are they treated? Are they treated with respect? Are their problems solved? What are the panchayat's monthly inflows and outflows? What are the funds spent on? How are they accounted?

Understand the citizens: What are their needs? What is the status of clean drinking water or garbage on the roads? What are their children learning? What are their livelihoods? What is the status of streetlights? Are there playgrounds for children? Are there lively communities? Is there space for burying their dead? Is there a method with which people can voice their problems and get a response with dignity?

Understand members of the institution who are responsible for it – where have they come from? What is their motivation to be in the panchayat? What do they want to do in the next five years? What is likely to come in their way? Is it lack of information? Is it political pressure? Is it domestic pressure? Is it lack of time? Is it the much spoken about caste and gender inequality? What do they think are likely solutions? What can they do individually? What can they do to support each other?
As the Union government takes on an ambitious project to bring panchayats to centre stage, the practitioners need to understand. Mainstreaming panchayats can happen when we can figure out small details. The big transformation will gradually happen. (A version of this blog first appeared in The Deccan Herald on September 1, 2015)


Thank you, Sonali!
I second that.

Sarada Muraleedharan, joint secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj

Your article raises some basic and fundamental issues pertaining to working of panchayats not only in KARNATAKA but also elsewhere. Although these peoples' institutions have been regarded as integral part of our federal polity, particularly after 73rd Constitutional Amendment, with the passage of time, now more than two decades, these institutions are slowly losing their importance and relevance in day to day rural development governance. This is mainly because of lack of political will among both political and administrative leadership at the higher levels of polity. With the Central Government taking a prime lead in providing funds to panchayats through its flagship programmes, the respective state governments hardly evince any interest harnessing these institutions either in devolving more mandatory powers and funds or allow them to function freely independent of line departments. The Karnataka Government did make an effort in this direction by appointing a Committee, under the Chairmanship of Mr. Rameshkumar, but unfortunately, the Government could accept only a few amendments ( out of more than 80 recommendations) which clearly shows the state's attitude towards these institutions. What best can be done in such a scenario is to create a meaningful awareness among the elected representatives not only through capacity building programmes and also encourage them to form their own associations to voice their grievances and more importantly, to train them in the areas of alliance building, negotiations, lobbying and networking. Also there is need to make grama sabhas as vibrant ones through devolving more mandatory powers as it is done to grama sabhas in PESA states.
My compliments for an interesting and engrossing article

Dr. N Sivanna, Adjunct Professor & Head, Centre for Political Institutions, Governance and Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore

Thanks for sharing the ever-green issue about the Village Panchayats' working ! These could be omnipresent observations---True...that something needs to be done. Many such NGOs or researchers visit the villages only when they have some business(?) or really some genuine urge and care about rural development issues!! So most of them abuse the Government functionaries...its a fashion !!! WE can not blame any single factor in the system. GramSabhas are empowered by constitution but the petty political minds have defeated the spirit of it. The author has pointed out that the Panchayat members did not stay there to answer or help discuss the issues which the Author and the common people of that village wanted to discuss. I am sure if you check the educational qualifications of those members---may be very highly qualified( rare possibility) or must be high school drop-outs!! Good level of education gives you moral support and confidence to face the villagers and the outsiders like NGOs or the higher officials from any department!! Well educated ( Sushikshit...) people generally do not run away from the problems. Our Great Democratic system and the Great followers of it or the So called BhagyaVidhata of the common people do not allow them to be educated well. Last year in the Progressive state like Maharashtra, the Humble Rural Development Minister tried his level best to propose the reform in criteria for contesting the LSG elections, he wanted to set some minimum educational qualification for a person wanting to contest the election !! The whole cabinet laughed at him and the issue was not even discussed !!! What can you expect from the poor , uneducated and politically motivated and expecting Returns on their Investments after getting elected ---so called People's representatives?? I have spent more than 25 years in Panchayat Raj system, the scenario is not that bad as it is described by the so called activists. But Yes, lot needs to improve upon, especially in educating ERs ( why not the New government take it Head on to bring the reform of minimum qualification criterion?) or training them rigorously ( we had proposed to make training mandatory ---if not trained in first year---s/he will be disqualified...but who listens?)....In the light of 14th FC flow of funds to the VPs directly, system needs to be more vigilant and Responsive !!! Jai Panchayat Raj...

Jayant Gurav, Retired Development Functionary.

Thank you for sharing an interesting note.

Dr. Jos Chathukulam,Director,Centre for Rural Management,Kottayam

Yes, these are the challenges we are facing. The main problems starts when they are not ready or willing to sit in the training. The main person for whom we conduct and sponsor the training are avoiding while other persons who are basically beneficiaries not the provider or facilitator of the facilities are sitting and talking of entire village problems. The challenges is how to make them sit in the training compulsorily.

Kiram, SIRD, Itanagar.

About Sonali Srivastava

Sonali Srivastava was the former Head-CDLG, Avantika Foundation. As an Organisation Development professional for over two decades, she has designed and managed complex change management interventions across corporate, government and non-government organisations. Prior to working with panchayats, Sonali has been a Principal consultant with Eicher Consultancy Services Ltd, and worked as an HR professional in Asian Paints (I) ltd. She is an accredited assessor for Modified Career Path Appreciation (MCPA), Matrix of Work & Organisation Diagnostic under the Brunei Institute of Organisation and Social Studies (BIOSS), South Africa. Sonali has also worked in the Barefoot College, Tilonia, Rajasthan, leading their efforts in income generation. Sonali was a part of Arghyam since 2009, where she helped conceptualise the Gram Panchayat Organisation Development framework and later transitioned it to Avantika Foundation in 2013. She is a Post Graduate Diploma in Personnel Management and Industrial Relations from XLRI, Jamshedpur, and a Masters in Development Studies from SOAS, University of London, UK.

Mainstreaming Panchayats

As practitioners working towards strengthening organisation capacity of the last (or first) tier of government – the gram panchayats, we are often asked – how will you increase the accountability of panchayats to its citizens? Inquirers often answer the question themselves suggesting- you should work with citizens and strengthen citizen bodies…if citizens are aware, local governments will become responsive and accountable.

Of course this is true, as is the premise that if citizens were responsible, we would not have garbage on the streets, crime or tax evasion. However, we the citizens are a mixed bag, and even the best of us are not consistently good. We need reminders, we need carrots and sticks and we need to see fruits of our good behaviour. Who will do this?

Organisation is an age-old concept, explaining systems and structures to ensure order in society. Rather than engaging with masses, it may be worthwhile to focus on the smaller unit- an organisation, which is accountable to the masses. So, how do we build local governments, which are accountable to citizens?

This blog will explore means to enhance accountability of rural local bodies in general, and to its citizens in particular. It will specially focus on one idea, which is to create formal means to 'mainstream' panchayats in addressing issues which impact not just panchayats but other agencies such as those related to conservation of natural resource, rehabilitation, food security etc.

As corporate, development and government agencies recognize and engage with local bodies, they are no longer operating in isolation and there can be an exchange, not just of knowledge, systems and processes, but also of work cultures. On the other hand, as they deal with local bodies closely, it gives a chance to other organisations to find common ground, thereby questioning their stereotypes.