ARTICLES FROM THE SUNDAY GUARDIAN
Copyright. All rights reserved. Ram Jethmalani. 2019.
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It has been a bad time, but also a good time for our subcontinent. Pakistan’s unprovoked clash at our international border in the Jammu sector may have been triggered by several internal causes that I detailed in my last article. But I was deeply saddened at this huge step backward, as India-Pakistan peace is something I have stood for all my life, and have done whatever I could to work toward it. Sub-continental peace is the only option for both countries, which not very long ago were the same country, to solve our pervasive problems of poverty, illiteracy, economic development, and for national progress. But it appears that there are too many destructive influences and irrational forces at work for this dream to come true. However, the good news is that both India and Pakistan have been honoured by the Nobel Committee for this year’s Peace Prize — Malala Yusufzai, for her heroic battle against the same destructive and irrational forces that aim to keep Muslim women illiterate and unempowered by denying them education, and Kailash Satyarthi, who has dedicated his life to saving young children from the inhuman practice of child labour, rampant across our country. The social evils that both Peace Prize winners have fought against plague both our countries — suppression of children, young people and women. May their work expand and their successes multiply.
When I think of the tragic events of Malala’s life at such a tender age, and her epic battle confronting one of the most hostile environments for women in the world today, I count the blessings that the Hindu way of life or religion, call it what you will, has given us “where women are honoured, there the Gods delight; where they are not honoured, there all acts become fruitless”. It is said that the original Hindu pantheon had only female goddesses. But slowly, as male dominance increased, each of the goddesses got married, except Durga, also called Kali, who continues to be worshipped in her own right. Let us have more of them and let us never have a blasphemy law among us.
As I write this piece, I have just heard the very positive exit poll results for the BJP. There is no doubt that these results will be translated into reality, something that would be a reaffirmation of the people’s faith in their Prime Minister. Narendra Modi had to make a very categorical point in Maharashtra and Haryana, both states being personal fiefdoms of the Gandhi-Maino clan, where all political and executive behaviour was controlled by them. We will know the results by the time this piece is out.
Prime Minister Modi has demonstrated clearly that even though he has spent much of the last two months on international diplomacy, spelling out our national imperatives, and strategic interests in important countries, he has never put on the backburner the big things he has to do for small people. He had stated in his Independence Day address that he wanted to start a programme for Model Villages under the MPLADS programme. In record time the programme, Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY), was unveiled to the MPs and people of India on 11 October, with all its nitty-gritty.
Surprisingly, the Congress has not commented on this yet. And I don’t expect much criticism either, because the programme accurately packages Mahatma Gandhi’s vision and aspirations for the development of Indian villages, the real India. Modi speaks with experience about an ideal village in Gujarat, Punsara, which he has helped develop. His effort is to directly connect the Centre with the grassroots, and provide the gram panchayat with a comprehensive development template, which has to be brought to reality through the common efforts of the MP (who is anyway the custodian of the public good of his constituency), the gram panchayat (who are the elected but often uninformed representatives of the village) and the permanent bureaucracy headed by the district collector, whose job is to implement government programmes for public good. The Prime Minister expects, and rightly so, that the Adarsh Gram Yojana will have a terrific multiplier effect, and is bound to get replicated by state legislators, corporates and philanthropists, so that within the next few decades India should be saturated with ideal villages. This has the makings of a silent revolution that can transform the country. Most importantly, in our administrative system, any programme that originates from the Prime Minister, becomes its own advocacy agent, and gets grounded much more easily than other routine programmes. Being the PM’s programme, the bureaucracy and local administration place the highest priority on it.
But I must confess that to begin with, I found the document quite intimidating, and highly aspirational, something like an election manifesto. But on second reading, I realised that what the Prime Minister was aiming at was introducing each and every Central and state development programme in the ideal village, plus innovative ideas and successful initiatives of NGOs, corporate, and experts.
I also find that the programme provides valuable information and knowledge at several levels about urgent rural issues that need to be addressed for India to accelerate its developmental progress. And without information and knowledge, neither the villager, nor the administrator will have the required capacity to overcome chronic rural problems. First and foremost, it informs the MP of the impressive list of government programmes enumerated in the guidelines, which ought to be happening in the village, but are not necessarily happening. A programme mapping of the village will inform us as to how many programmes have remained on paper, and how many have actually reached the people; how much public money has been rightly spent, and how much has been misappropriated. Corruption and casteism are known to be rampant at gram panchayat levels in many areas of the country. This perhaps might explain why the bottom of the pyramid, mostly the Dalits and Adivasis continue to have the worst social and economic indicators, without much hope for upward mobility. I am given to understand that in many places, gram panchayats have in place the perfect formulae for division of spoils bequeathed by generous flagship programmes, between contractor, elected representatives and officials. I am certain that the right message has already reached the right quarters.
The programme will certainly empower the gram panchayat with information, and a roadmap for several issues and public services that touch the villagers’ lives, such as, profitable agriculture, skill development, health and nutrition, female literacy and care of the girl child, public cleanliness, protection of the environment, etc. It would be interesting to see if any khap panchayat is selected, and the path it adopts to convert itself into an adarsh gram.
I do believe that focus on village development will start the process of creating sound, enlightened village systems that would spread across the country eventually, and improve the quality of life of the people in our villages. Distress migration to urban destinations in search of subsistence livelihoods will also decrease. Today, village systems are indifferent, chaotic, caste ridden and often corrupt, and most gram panchayats are as uninformed as their constituents. Hopefully, this programme will upgrade their capacity to understand and implement their priorities by reaching out to the most vulnerable. Even if 50% of India’s villages become adarsh grams, the face of India will change. And this would also transform 50% of gram panchayats into adarsh gram panchayats, making them the most valuable assets for true democracy.
Not all the interventions proposed in the guidelines will be demand driven. Environment protection or garbage disposal is certainly not demand driven, though healthcare, education, electricity, roads and connectivity are. Data regarding the total sanitation programme (around 30% coverage) also indicates that sanitation is not an area of demand. Hence demand needs to be created with efficient “public good” messages at the grassroots, even though many of them emerge from the supply side. Paternalistic though this may sound, it becomes the responsibility of the supply side to create demand for facilities for which there is no vocal demand.
The main catalyst for village transformation is behaviour change, something easily said, but most challenging to bring about. Behaviour change is a long process, more so in our liberal democracy, where private and public cleanliness cannot be brought about by law and guidelines, where no one can be sent to jail or punished for spitting in public places or relieving himself in public. Providing continuous energy for the ideal village is another great challenge, requiring innovation, introduction of non conventional energy like solar and wind power. But this is perfectly possible and doable, and can bring about an energy revolution in India.
The guidelines for the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, are a bureaucrat’s delight, with all their favourite terminology and smart words. But for the gram panchayat to understand them, the guidelines must be converted into a simplified handbook minus the gobbledegook. And for the gram panchayat to implement them, the activities must be sequenced into eight to ten actionable points to be introduced each year, so that they can be absorbed meaningfully, and get grounded in a sustainable manner.