Mahatma Gandhi believed that India could become a developed nation if every village in our country achieved 'Gram Swaraj', meaning they are democratically empowered, economically self-reliant and the decision makers of their own pace of development.
To witness the achievements and to understand the best practises in some of the truly empowered Panchayats, the State Institute of Rural Development & Panchayati Raj (SIRD&PR) had conducted an exposure tour for the Panchayati Raj members and its officials to Maharashtra. The exposure tour was an ‘eye opener’ to the participants and these Panchayats truly lived upto to the saying “Where there is a will, there’s a way”.
These villages are located in the rain shadow area of the state which meant they received scanty rainfall and were drought prone areas. Water being the basic necessity for agriculture, these villages were plagued with problems of food insecurity, unemployment, alcoholism, migration and extreme poverty. But today these villages have become centers of development, imparting training to other villages and are also being flocked in by institutes and researchers willing to learn and understand their miracle story.
The major takeaways from the exposure visit and interaction with the Sarpanch/Gram Panchayat Chairpersons have been summed up below:
Social leadership: Padmashree awardee Anna Hazare was one of the pioneers attaining Gram Swaraj for his village Ralegan Siddhi. He motivated the villagers to conserve water through watershed development and rain water harvesting. With the availability of water, agriculture flourished and so did other allied activities like dairy business. This increased the per capita income of the village and became inspiration to the other villages with similar problems to take up development in their own hands which began with electing visionary leaders like Popatrao Pawar, Santosh Tikekar etc. They have now become self-sufficient, economically stable and are even providing employment to other villages. These leaders were not created overnight, but people reposed their faith in them because of their commitment and social conscience of continually working towards the welfare of the people without any malice.
Community engagement: Gram Sabha plays an active role in the development activities of the village. In many cases, villagers pooled in their own resources to enhance the fund allocated by the Govt for any project. Therefore, there was a sense of ownership for all the community infrastructures being built which resulted in minimal wastage of resources and creation of need based projects only.
Keeping villages at the driver’s seat of development: The PRI system in Maharashtra saw the state government’s active involvement in village development but it was being done by keeping the requirements of the villages at priority. Gram Sabha was the ultimate decision maker for all major policy implementation in the village. They had adopted a bottom up approach rather than top down.
Own Source of Revenue (OSR): All these villages had developed economic models with the aim of problem resolution along with revenue generation. Some examples are: a) Setting up of Water ATM- 20 litres of water was available for 5 rupees at Tikekarwadi village. b) Biogas plant which ran on kitchen waste of the villages and its by-products like electricity, gas, bio fertilizer was available at Rs 400 per annum only. c) Hybrid wind & solar system which reduced dependency on electricity. d) Leasing out farm machineries, flour mill, marriage halls at nominal rates. e) Setting up of photocopy centres run by the Panchayats.
Innovation: At the core of all the developmental activities innovation for each of the problems specific to their village was pertinent. Each village had a solution unique to their village. Shramdhan: Every able member of the village had to voluntarily work for any collective project for a certain number of days free of cost. This saved the cost of hiring labourers and ensured participation from all.
Installation of solar water heaters in order to stop felling of trees because they believed that saving trees was more important than just planting them. Some projects were taken up on public-private-partnership. Drip irrigation to save loss of water. Water is delivered directly to the root which ensures there is no wastage. Mini Biogas plants were set up in most of the households which used kitchen waste as the raw material. This reduced the consumption of firewood and declined health hazards associated with cooking fumes.
Cultivating native plants to mitigate effects on climate change. Many native species of birds are now returning to the villages, some of them being spotted after decades. Schools built with own funding and curriculum. The school set up at Ralegan Siddhi had a unique model of admitting only failed students and those that have fallen to the prey of tobacco & alcohol abuse. The village believed in moulding the lives of students who are weak in studies or have morally gone awry. Many students have been reformed in the institute and have a flourishing career today.
Health Check-up camps especially for women, installation of sanitary napkin vending machines.
Library and coaching centres for the village youths who are unable to afford the fee in the cities.
Limiting the number of temples in the village for easy maintenance and most importantly, social cohesiveness as temples are the activity centres of the villages. This has greatly reduced caste barriers in these villages. Complete ban on sale of alcohol and tobacco in the village. Conducting mass marriage and renting out marriage halls at economic rates.
The exposure tour has broadened our horizon of exploring ways to innovate and work beyond Govt aided schemes/ projects alone. We have seen the monumental change that one visionary leader in a small village can bring and how a village can be completely transformed through community mobilisation and engagement of the Gram Sabhas. These villages of Maharashtra who were subjugated to extreme geographical & economic suffering have proved that through unwavering willpower, dedication & hard work one can turn a desert of hardship and poverty to an oasis of development and prosperity.
As we are in the middle of Panchayat bye-elections, let us hope our elected Panchayat members take these learnings to the field and emulate atleast some of these best practises in our villages and bring out unique solutions to our own unique problems.
(The contributor is an APCS officer, posted as Circle Officer at Ziro, Lower Subansiri district)