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Saturday, April 26, 2003

I was amazed to read news reports that the government had issued show cause notices to Gram Sarpanchs’ (in some instances suspending them!) holding them accountable for the slow pace of implementation of drought relief works through the food for work (FFW) scheme. Under this scheme the village governments are supposed to provide daily employment to the landless labour and pay them wages in the form of grain (rice) and utilize them for any development activity in the village. The state government is supplying the food stocks with liberal assistance from the union government.

Time and again we are witnessing this disturbing trend where the government claims credit for anything good that happens and tries to lay the blame on others for non-performance. Let us understand what exactly is happening to know the extent of government’s duplicity.

To start with, the gram panchayat has to formulate and propose a work scheme, which has to be forwarded to the Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO), through the mandal officials for sanction and approval. The RDO is in charge of 7-8 mandals and has to process proposals from all the villages under his jurisdiction. We know only too well how fast our civil servants work. Moreover the newly appointed village secretary who has to do all this paper work at the village level, doesn’t live in the village and takes his own sweet time in attending to his official duties!

As if this process is too simple and straightforward, the government has added an additional condition to this scheme, that the gram panchayats have to contribute matching grants from their own funds! Excepting for a few major gram panchayats, majority of the villages don’t have revenues worth mentioning. Then, how does the government expect them to come up with the matching funds? No wonder, execution of schemes is tardy.

This incident also throws up a more fundamental question. What right does the government have to discipline an elected gram sarpanch? Do they mean to say that a minister or chief minister elected by the same people has more sanctity than an elected gram sarpanch or Municipal Chairman? By the same token will the state government subject itself to the authority of the union government? The answer is an absolute NO. The state government will be up in arms crying indignantly that the union is trampling on the states’ rights. The fact is that the state is right in resisting bossism of the union. But unfortunately the state does not view the relationship with the local governments in a similar vein. The elected local government leaders have as much responsibility towards the well being of the people as the sate chief minister, and even if they err, it is for the voters to punish them. Only corruption or misappropriation can be punished by due process of law.

The notion that the government sitting in Hyderabad or Delhi is bigger or more powerful than the local government is not only utterly nonsensical but is also a sign of the skewed nature of our governance structure. It is well understood that in any federal structure the only differences between various tiers of governments are their size and ability to handle different functions. The question is not of a higher and lower government but of nearer and farther government. The government that is closest to the people should normally be entrusted with most of the functions that affect the citizens on a daily basis like education, health care, sanitation etc. and only those functions, which cannot be handled by them, should go to a larger government.

It is high time that the governments and parties recognized the fact that the local governments have as much legitimacy as any other tier of government and treated their leaders with the respect they deserve. Only then will good governance become a reality and the citizen will see a link between his well being and vote. The ministers and CM will do well to desist from their rhetoric of blaming some one else for their own failures.

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