Promoting Good Governance in 2.5 lakhs Gram Panchayats

By Vikas Jha

Good governance at the grassroots has new momentum in India with the announcement of Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY), the Member of Parliament Model Village Program. The objectives of SAGY are “to trigger processes which lead to holistic development of identified Gram Panchayats (GPs), to substantially improve the standard and quality of life of all sections of the population . . . to generate models of local level development and effective local governance . . . , and to nurture the identified Adarsh Grams as schools of local development for the other Gram Panchayats.” Social components of SAGY emphasize good governance, and SAGY guidelines list a number of related activities. Key among them are “strengthening of local democracy through strong and accountable Gram Panchayats and active Gram Sabhas, e–governance for better service delivery, Unique Identity Authority of India (“UIDAI” or “Aadhaar”) cards for all, proactive disclosure of all information, the role of a Gram Panchayat as an information facilitation center, grievance redressal at the Gram Panchayat level, and social audit of government program implemented by Gram Sabha.”

Village Leadership SchoolRural India is getting ready for implementation of SAGY in 795 Gram Panchayats (GPs) in first phase and it will cover 2385 GPs by 2019 as one Member of Parliament adopts 3 GPs in his / her tenure of 5 years. These GPs will receive full support from district administration, state government, and central government. The rest of the 2,50,804 GPs (appx. 2.5 lakhs), where SAGY is not being implemented, will need adequate functions, funds, and functionaries (3 Fs) to replicate SAGY in the future. However, devolution of the 3 Fs to GPs will be difficult to achieve as the majority of state level political leaders do not want independent units of governance at GP level. They fear that giving 3 Fs to GPs will decrease the importance of state-level political leaders. Thus, the devolution of power to GPs is caught in the complex politics of power struggles between various levels of political leaders. Unless state leadership shows political statesmanship like that of leaders of Kerala, 2.5 lakhs GPs will never have enough resources or 3 Fs support to replicate SAGY in their GPs.

The elephant in the room is the larger question of how good governance can be taken to the villagers living in the other 2.5 lakhs GPs of India. The implementation of good governance activities detailed in SAGY guidelines in the 5,564 administrative blocks of India can be the starting point. For example, in Mewat district, Haryana, one of poorest pockets of India, line department block offices are understaffed, marked by high level of absenteeism, and nonresponsive to villagers. With poor infrastructural facilities, they can hardly serve as important nodal office at the block level. As a result, villagers queue up before Deputy Commissioner’s office even for grievances such as electricity transformer repair, nondelivery of Public Distribution System items, nonpayment for toilets under Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, and other public services that are the responsibility of line departments. It leads to tremendous loss of time and money of villagers and loss of resources of the Deputy Commissioner, who spends a large amount of time listening to demands of nondelivery of services.

For facilitating good governance at the grassroots, state governments should seriously think of reforming block level offices. The block level offices should have the necessary presence of state apparatus to create facilities of e-governance for better service delivery; information centers, resource planning and support centers for Gram Panchayats; effective grievance redressal mechanisms; and electronic monitoring, such as cameras and biometric systems for attendance. All the facilities for service delivery, information about government program and grievance redressal should be on single windows so that the system efficiently provides public services rather than leaving villagers at the mercy of absent, nonresponsive, and unaccountable departmental staff.

While the block offices will continue to be an important point of interaction with the villagers, another way to promote good governance in GPs not covered in the first phase of SAGY is through an information technology-based good governance platform that solves basic service-related complaints, serves as information provider, proactively discloses public data, and gives spaces for monitoring of and suggestions on functioning of programs. These are essentials for providing good governance in all the GPs. Government of Karnataka’s multimode mobile governance platform, for example, has the potential to provide a good model for fulfilling these essentials of good governance. Through this initiative, citizens can access 4,500 services, both private and public. Citizens can dial 161 or *161# to access Mobile One services to reach a platform to pay utility bills and property tax, or apply for a driving license, among other government transactions.

This multimode mobile governance platform offers great hope for rural India as it brings governance to the public’s fingertips. Information about this platform should be spread to rural India through vernacular newspapers, wall paintings, community-based organization, NGOs, and community radios. The initiative has potential to bridge the digital divide in India as services are available on mobile as well as apps. It will be interesting to see how this initiative goes beyond efficient delivery of public services to proactive disclosure of public data and provision of space for citizen participation and monitoring. The combination of all these actions can lead to transparency and accountability in governance.

It is good that SAGY has begun in selected Gram Panchayats. As for the rest of 2.5 lakhs GPs, reforming block level offices and establishing a multimode mobile governance platform in every state should be high priorities on the government’s agenda for ensuring good governance at the grassroots.