Odisha’s date with grassroots democracy

Villagers take fate into own hands, join palli and gram sabhas to decide development work, demand their entitlements

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | November 6, 2012


Gram Sabha meeting in progress in Dhavalapur in Sheragada block in Ganjamon on October 18
Gram Sabha meeting in progress in Dhavalapur in Sheragada block in Ganjamon on October 18

Media for Accountability

Something historic took place in Odisha last month — a first for not only the state but the entire country.

While the panchayati raj institutions were revived through the 73rd constitutional amendment in 1992, never have village meetings (or palli sabhas, as they are called here) and gram sabhas (comprising adult members of all villages of a gram panchayat) been truly meaningful or participatory. People have never demanded and decided the kind of development work they want in their area.

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Take it to each village across the state, and the dimension of Odisha’s own ‘October revolution’ comes close to being called mind-boggling.

For 10 days from October 2, village after Odisha village held palli sabhas. They discussed local problems, deliberated on government welfare schemes, listed works they want, and staked claims to various benefits under these schemes. These lists were then forwarded to respective gram sabhas, which met on October 17-18, deliberated and finalised five-year perspective plans and annual action plan for 2013-14.

The details were subsequently uploaded on their respective websites and forwarded to senior officials for necessary approval and funds.

All the meetings were photographed and videographed for evidence.

There sure there were glitches, as there were expected to be. Of 44,544 palli sabhas, for instance, meetings couldn’t be held in 300 due to Maoist threats (mainly in Malkangiri and Koraput districts), there were protests over land acquisition (in Sundargarh, Anugul and Jagatsinghpur districts), and there were local fights. As a result, meetings couldn’t be held in 161 out of 6,236 gram sabhas.

But they were minor irritants at best in the face of the massive crowd participation and “unprecedented success”, as Aparajita Sarangi, commissioner and secretary, panchayati raj department, who made it all possible, put it. “I am extremely satisfied. I never expected such a response,” she remarked at the end of it all.

Is it a fest? No, a palli sabha meet
One had to see the massive election-like, almost festive, atmosphere during this period to believe it. With the entire state machinery, social activists, local politicians and, most importantly, the villagers, participating, banners were put up in villages even as vehicles made the rounds, exhorting people to participate in palli and gram sabha meetings.

Each sarpanch issued a ‘chit’, inviting people to the meetings, while groups of drum-beaters took the message of welfare schemes to the villagers and asked them to decide their fate.

And the villagers responded just as enthusiastically.

At meetings, they fought with government officials, panchayat members and health (ASHA) and anganwadi workers, demanding their share of benefits and complaining against non-existing services.

At Sagarpalli village in Sheragada block of Ganjam district, villagers heckled the BDO during the palli sabha and sought to know why the Indira Aawas Yojna list of beneficiaries existed when no one got its assistance. The health worker was also questioned on missing services.

At Gopa Palli, in Bandhaguda panchayat of Ganjam, the panchayat executive officer had to face villagers’ wrath for not clearing pension and other claims. At Dhavalapur gram sabha, the anganwadi worker was grilled by residents for not giving ‘chatua’ (the local name for ‘sattu’, made as national delicacy by Lalu Prasad) to children for a month, ostensibly because the contractor faced some problem.

Nearly all 1,000 households demanded toilets. To demonstrate that they are keen to stop defecating in the open, as is typical in Ganjam and parts of adjoining Gajapati district (What stinks so bad in Orissa CM’s constituency?), one village elder explained how they washed state highway-36, which skirts their village, a day before chief minister Naveen Patnaik was to travel. All in an effort to save the CM from the sight of the stain and taking in the stink.

Similarly, 200 people demanded toilets under the individual household latrine (IHHL) scheme at Krushna Sahi gram sabha.

How the revolution was shaped
While villagers, panchayat members and government officials said it was the first time they witnessed, and celebrated, democracy seeping to the grassroots level, sarpanches and other panchayat functionaries of all these areas in Ganjam earlier admitted that till date development plans and beneficiary lists were prepared at panchayat offices, and involved a handful of people.

There never was a true gram sabha, or a palli sabha, they said — a fact evident from the proceedings, as villagers had little knowledge of the eligibility criteria or what their rights and privileges.

According Sarangi, who took over at the panchayati raj department on August 1, she decided to formulate a structured plan, christened Grama Sabha Sashaktikaran Karjyakrama (GSSK), after seeking feedback from department officials and villagers.

GSSK set out a four-hour plan of action for each palli sabha and two gram sabha meetings — one to spread awareness about all welfare schemes and the other to finalise the action plan and claims.

After listing priorities and schemes of the pachayati raj department, it recorded schemes run by all other departments: SC and ST, women and child development, rural development, agriculture, health and family welfare, school and mass education, and tourism and culture. The focus on each head was as much on dissemination of information and sensitisation as on actually planning for the future and making a list of works and beneficiaries.

“For holistic development of a village it is essential for people to (a) know and understand all government schemes and their benefits and (b) know their entitlements, how to access them and who to approach,” said Sarangi.

She also made it mandatory for panchayat proceedings to be both photographed and videographed. Work at the state, district, block and panchayat levels were distributed, with clear instructions about the role of various government officials, including the collector, who does not report to her.

Sarangi said she sought and received full cooperation of all government departments.

Going by the response and participation of the villagers, at least in Sheragada block of Ganjam, there is little to doubt that a welcome change has begun. Once the necessary clearances come and funds are released, which Sarangi says will be done in due time, the panchayati raj department would be able to get work orders for the next financial year issued on the very first day, April 1, Sarangi said.

Going by the development so far, that doesn’t seem highly unlikely.

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