GRAM Sabha also known as Deh Maljis under J&K Panchayati Raj Act 1989 is the Nerve Centre of Panchayati Raj system of governance. Majority of Govt officials , journalists and even the people living in rural areas have a misconception that Gram Sabha means a Sabha or Majlis of Panchayat members (Sarpach or Panchs),the village elders or the influential people. However, the Back to Village Programme (B2V) which was launched by the Government around June 2019 changed the mindset of people who were otherwise reluctant to participate in the Gram Sabha or Panchayat meetings.
When the senior Govt officers were designated as Visiting Officers and were asked to stay in villages for 2 days, it not only brought the governance to the doorsteps of people but also made people understand what Panchayati Raj was all about especially strengthening the Gram Sabha which is like a Mini Parliament for every village.
My own experience
In 2019, Back to Village (B2V) programme did not look promising (at least to me). I took it casually in spite of the fact that I have been a great proponent of decentralization of governance through Panchayati Raj Institutions or Municipalities in urban areas. The local Panchayat members asked me to attend the meeting at the local Panchayat building next morning. I thought I must visit the place and on June 20th . Early morning that day, I went to the Panchayat Ghar. A Government Higher Secondary School Lecturer had been sent to our village as a Visiting Officer. I was of the opinion that the Lecturer’s visit to our village would be a useless exercise as he was neither from any administrative background nor he had enough experience about issues related to rural development. As I participated in a session meant for prominent citizens in the local Panchayat Ghar, I started developing some interest. Infact, the lecturer (Visiting Officer) had good knowledge of the Panchayati Raj system and the developmental programmes of Govt. Many women including local Asha workers, Anganwadi workers, helpers also participated in that meeting and that was very much encouraging. The Back to Village programme had been nicely conceived when it was launched during summer of 2019. There was a complete agenda and activity chart prepared for Visiting Officers which included evening interaction programmes. The evening interaction on June 20th 2019 was held in my house. The meeting was energizing and people who hardly used to take part in Gram sabha meetings or hated the local politics also started speaking out as they got a platform to express themselves. Many started yelling at Panchayat members or Panchayat Secretary as they got to vent their anger & highlighted the local misgovernance affecting their lives, like corruption in execution of local developmental works etc.
Next day (June 21st 2019) the Gram Sabha was held at the local Panchayat Ghar. This meeting began at sharp 8 am and around 100 people had assembled in the premises of the building. I had hardly attended any meeting there in the past and the same was the case with other prominent citizens of my colony which is a semi urbanised habitation in view of being located mere 11 kms away from Srinagar city. Our village Gopalpora -Wathoora is located just 5 kms away from the Srinagar municipal limits, but falls under the jurisdiction of Rural Development department district Budgam.
Participation of 100 people in Gram Sabha (Deh Majlis) didn’t even constitute 20% of the adult population of the area but this was for the first time that we had more than 100 people having assembled to take part in a Gram Sabha meeting. This was encouraging indeed. When the Panchayat Secretary read out the village plan prepared some days back, the participants raised their voice. They alleged that the plan was arbitrary and was not prepared in consultation with people (Gram Sabha). The officials of the rural development department argued against these allegations by stating that people didn’t come to the Gram Sabha because of which it was obvious that their voice would go unregistered. This might have been true but I along with several locals didn’t agree with the Panchayat Secretary or the members of Panchayat and Sarpanch. Why weren’t people and other stakeholders invited over for the meeting?
The plan was changed as people demanded it. Therefore, participation in Gram Sabha meetings is most important to fight against corruption in the execution of rural development programmes.
Gram Sabha Meetings
There is a notion that people don’t attend Gram Sabha meetings . It is true in the case of rural areas which are some way urbanized or developed but in many villages the Sarpaches,Panches, Panchayat Secretaries, JEs and a few affluent people work with each other.These people have created a coterie within the village and all the developmental works are executed by them.They don’t want to call people to Deh Maljis/Gram Sabha meetings. They want to eat the cake themselves and organise closed door meetings which are later on called Gram Sabha meetings.
The village developmental plans, selection of beneficiaries under various Govt schemes and spending of PRI grants are decided by them but in villages where Back to Village (B2V) programmes during last 3 years had good participation of people,the illegal works and corruption by PRI members or the officials of Rural Development Department (RDD) have come down to a great extent. The reason is that people in these villages have become much aware about the Govt welfare schemes by attending the last four B2V programmes and participating in the Gram Sabha as well during B2V meetings. More awareness has to be created and we need to ensure people’s participation in Gram sabha at least once a month. The participation of women needs to be encouraged as well because very few women come and attend Gram Sabha meetings.
Visiting Officers as Mentors
Recently, the Chief Secretary Dr Arun Kumar Mehta while speaking to Visiting Officers and PRI members when the B2V-4 was launched said that Visiting Officers would act as mentors for one year for their respective panchayats so that they act as a bridge between them and the government. This is a very good decision as the Visiting Officers will remain in touch with people of the panchayats they visited. Otherwise, after B2V meetings, people in villages would have to wait for another B2V meeting.
However, some Visiting Officers are not staying back in the villages. This needs to be taken seriously by the Government. The evening interactions should also be encouraged and future BTV meetings should be held in summer months so that there are activities until late night in the villages.
It must be noted that a grant of Rs 23.30 lakhs per annum to the Gram Panchayats (PRI Grants) with effect from B2V3 last year, has revolutionised the village development. In addition, the Govt provides Rs 71 lakhs annum to every District Development Council (DDC) Member & Rs 25 lakhs to Block Development Council Chairperson (BDC) and this amount is also helping execute the developmental works in rural areas. Around 54 IAS officers were designated as Visiting Officers during B2V 4. Senior IFS officers, senior Engineers, JKAS officers have also been Visiting Officers in all the B2V meetings. Dr Mohit Gera Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) was the Visiting Officer in Choon village of Budgam, Basharat Kawoosa Chief Engineer PHE Jal Shakti Kashmir was Visiting Officer for Wathoora and their presence had a great impact indeed as many decisions were taken on the ground.
The Back to Village programme (B2V) in Jammu & Kashmir is not only helping people address their village developmental demands but this activity is also strengthening our Panchayat Institutions and there is more participation of people in the Gram Sabha meetings now.
The Back to Village (B2V) programme is a very good platform to express resentment or even anger by the people in a democratic way. This is quite encouraging.
Going further, the Government must seek suggestions from experts to make the B2V programme more participatory. Additionally, open suggestions should be sought from people, research institutions, NGOs as well. The Govt must also reconsider the My Town My Pride programme that was launched by the Govt in October 2020 for people living in cities or towns.
- Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
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