Not From A Bhavan In Delhi, How Indian Democracy Actually Runs From Villages

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If one thinks about it, managing an entire nation with a booming population of 133 crores is not remotely possible from a single room in Delhi. The reality, which we rarely realise, is that the administration of the country actually rests upon one concept – decentralisation of power.

No matter how many acts and ordinances are passed in the parliament or how many policies are debated, the functioning of the government depends upon the very root of the governance hierarchy – Panchayati Raj.

Twenty-six years ago, on April 24, 1993, the Panchayati Raj was officially enshrined in the Constitution following the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act (1992). A quarter of a century later, the concept is the main driving force of development throughout the country, one panchayat at a time. On National Panchayati Day, Efforts For Good takes a walk down the lanes of history to revisit the origin of Panchayati Raj in India.

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The soul of India lies in her villages

As per the 2011 census data, Indian demography constitutes 68.84% of rural distribution. Understandably, the figure was much higher at the dawn of the Independence era, when a newborn country was slowly warming up to the concept of democracy.

At the Asian Relations Conference in 1947, Mahatma Gandhi declared, “This is not India. You people are seeing Delhi. This is not India. Go to villages; that is India. Therein lies the soul of India,” – wrote R.V. Jather in his book Evolution of Panchayati Raj In India. His statement holds true for India since the times of ancient kings and mythical folklore, where decentralised administration featured heavily.

Local governance during the colonial regime

In the pre-independence times, the British have time and again tried to adopt decentralisation models to properly administer India from the grassroots level. Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, the precursive strongholds of the East India Company witnessed the introduction of a municipal administration in 1793, which evolved in policy and structure over the upcoming two centuries. Villages were under the control of regional monarchy at that time; they did not feature in British governance until 1863. By then, the colonial rule had penetrated the very veins of the country and further decentralisation was an urgent necessity.

The framework of local governance under the British evolved over the next few years, with the focus being shifted down the provincial pyramid, from states to districts to villages. The Government of India Act of 1919 mandated the creation of the Gram Panchayat system in eight major provinces.

During the Second World War, the British administration in India witnessed a chaotic setback, not only due to the rising nationalistic sentiments but also due to the failure of local governance, since village population became a neglected entity at the time of the biggest war in history.

Gandhiji & Ambedkar’s differences over local governance

Mahatma Gandhi, the proprietor of Grama Swaraj, first tabled the idea of self-sustainable village units. “This Panchayat will be Legislature, Judiciary and Executive combined, to operate for its year of office. Any village can become such a republic today without much interference,” he had described.

However, post Independence, when the Constitution was being drafted, somehow the crucial concept of decentralised governance did not find much prominence. In fact, the First Five Year Plan of 1952 completely overlooked the local governments. One reason often cited for this was the ideological differences between Gandhiji and B.R. Ambedkar in this regard. While Gandhiji advocated the importance of local democracy, Ambedkar was concerned about the existent casteism in villages which might hinder equalist legislation.

Balwant Rai Mehta – Father of Panchayati Raj

Balwant Rai Mehta, recognised as the Father of Panchayati Raj, came into the picture in 1957 when the government appointed him as the head of a committee to decide on the structuring of local governments. The Balwant Rai Mehta committee recommended ‘democratic decentralisation’ which paved the way for the establishment of Panchayati Raj much later.

Though the committee’s recommendations were made before 1960, implementation was halted due to an imminent agrarian crisis, political turmoil and two consecutive wars that marked the 1960s decade and the early years of 1970s.

Final recognition in 1993

In 1977, when the Janata Party government assumed power, the Ashok Mehta committee reiterated the need for establishing Panchayati Raj. The consideration was abrupted by a political turnaround. The same happened later as well during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure from 1984 to 1989. The idea was there, but the question of local governance found little attention amid the tumultuous political scenario at the Centre.

Eventually, in 1993, officially Panchayati Raj came into being which segregated local government into three tiers, namely, Gram Panchayat at the village level, Panchayat Samiti at the block level and Zilla Parishad at the district level.

Panchayati Raj – evolution over the years

Since then, the attitude of the Central government towards Panchayati Raj can be deemed as quite lukewarm, though there had been occasional adoption of progressive measures like the enactment of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in 2005 under the UPA-I regime. There had been consistent upgradation of the scheme in every financial budget ever since.

Perhaps another great success of the Panchayati Raj is 50% reservation for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) since 2009. Speaking from a grassroots level perspective, the Self-Help Groups (SHGs) constituted by women in Panchayats across India are highly effective in initiating immense socio-economical change.

Success rates differ from state to state

Recently, annual Panchayat awards were introduced in diverse categories to identify the best Panchayats in the country who have spearheaded substantial development. Still, the overall success of the Panchayati Raj in terms of development cannot be coalesced simply in binary terms. In states like Kerala, Panchayati Raj has been instrumental in bringing forth many changes, while states like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab or Jharkhand have grossly failed to utilise the local government institutions. At the same time, progress at Panchayati levels has stagnated in the traditional Panchayati Raj States like West Bengal, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat, with some isolated exceptions.

Efforts For Good take

Imagine one of those gigantic machines you find at factories. Outwardly, the fully automated robotic giant might evoke awe, but malfunctioning of a single cog will send the entire mechanism into complete disarray. Such is the significance of the local governance units or Panchayati Raj in the context of Indian administration.

However, the hype around national politics often shifts the average citizens’ attention from development in his own village to certain vague political doctrines which hold little relevance in everyday life. The outlook can be mended only if the Central government pays more attention to the devolution of power and maintains better cognisance of the work done at Panchayat levels.

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Goonj Is Working With 1000’s Of Volunteers & Partner NGOs To Provide Covid-19 Relief In 18 States

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With the extension of the lockdown the crisis of migrant labourers and daily wagers has just grown bigger due to uncertainty and fear of future. In the migrant colonies, slums and for people in the villages hunger and desperation is building up day by day. This is high time we step up our efforts to support our people who are in dire need of food and hygiene essentials to survive the pandemic, Covid-19.

After the India-wide lockdown, a lot of jobless migrant workers are stuck in cities with hardly any resources while many started retreating back to their villages. With the loss of livelihoods, a large number of them are now struggling to support their families.

Goonj activated its pan India teams and a pan India network of partner organizations and volunteers in urban and rural India. This network, built over the last two decades, helps them learn from the ground, reach material quickly and review and adapt strategy periodically. Intensifying this network has helped Goonj reach and start work across 17produced states/UT in the last three weeks.
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Goonj’s focus: 

Majority of the Covid-19 relief work by non profits right now is in the metros and cities but Goonj is the only non profit that is also simultaneously focusing on the people in the villages and the ones stuck on highways or somewhere.

Goonj is targeting daily wagers, migrants and other vulnerable groups, who even traditionally are left out like the disabled, sex workers, LGBTQ community.

“COVID-19 is a crisis, yes…But, it’s also an opportunity for us to build the society anew. Not ‘for’ the people…but, ‘with’ the people. And in the process, we will build ourselves too.” – Anshu Gupta, Founder-Director, Goonj.

Direct Monetary and Material Transfer

Wherever Goonj got the permission to open their centres for packing and disbursement of relief material kits, they are creating a kit consisting of 20-30 kgs material including dry rations, masks, sanitary pads and other hygiene material and reaching them to people, as per needs and as per regulations with all safety precautions. This kit will help a family survive for 30 days.

Information till 10th April 2020:

  • Distributed 15,100 ration kits reaching thousands of people
  • Reached 17,700 families
  • Supporting 12 community kitchen across India with 16,600kgs of ration
  • 77,800 food packets provided to migrant laborers and daily wagers walking on the roads across the country.
  • Provided direct financial support to 32 organisations
  • Made 42,800 cloth face masks
  • 24,900 cloth sanitary napkins produced
  • Produced 1500 litres of organic sanitiser

In Goonj’s processing centers its trained team of women are making cloth face masks and cloth sanitary pads (MY-Pads), keeping all the precautions and with the permission and cooperation of the local authorities.

In this lock-down phase if you are facing any difficulty getting sanitary pads or you are running out of stock, here’s a detailed but very simple process of making Cloth Pads at home created by Goonj. “This is how we make Goonj MY Pads.” This is how our mothers and grandmothers turned their spare cloth into pads.

This disaster, unlike any other, is unprecedented in its scale and impact and that’s why we all must do our bit with Goonj to continue its relief work for millions of people in this still unfolding long-tailed disaster.

The need is huge.. We are there.. Need You too !!

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It's not how much we give
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- Mother Theresa Quote
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