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Sankar Datta: Face to face with Sarpanches

Sankar Datta  |  New Delhi 

The Livelihood School, an educational institution promoted by BASIX, one of the leading livelihood promotion agencies of the world, got engaged in training some of the elected representatives of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) in Chhattisgarh. The Director of the State Institute of Rural Development (SIRD), Raipur, thought that it would be useful to provide a livelihood orientation to the elected leaders of the PRI, as they were the critical link between the people and the State. All major programmes, which are now focusing on livelihoods, are implemented through them. Therefore he invited the to organise a series of orientation programmes. Over the last six months, the school therefore conducted more than 150 training camps, with more than 6,700 PRI leaders participating in them. In this process I got to know several of them— the Sarpanches, as they are known. We got talking, often outside the classrooms.

One day, one of the Sarpanches raised a peculiar issue. He said, “With the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution of India, a lot of responsibilities have been endowed on us. Lots of funds are now being disbursed through the Panchayat. This is a good thing. But, you know, the village Patwari continues to report to the Revenue Inspector, and the VLW to the Even the Anganwadi worker reports to the District Medical Officer and school teachers to the District Education Officer. None of them report to me. So how do I get the work done? By brow-beating, earlier I could get some work done. But now with increasing awareness it is becoming difficult for us. All the workers at the village level get their orders from different bosses, and I remain responsible for getting the work done.”

Having been a teacher of organisation theory at some leading B-Schools, this struck a chord in my mind. Though by making an amendment in the Constitution our leaders have shown their intent to decentralise, appropriate changes in the organisational forms and structures have not yet been done. So, I inquired further. “Why don’t you talk to some of the senior officers, like the Zilla Panchayat Secretary or the Secretary, Panachati Raj?” I asked him. “Sir, all of these staff report to officers who in turn report to the Collector. He is an IAS officer, so is the Zilla Panchayat Secretary. Today they call the shots. You think they will like to give up their power to us, the elected people? They do not listen to anybody lesser than a MLA. We talked to the MLA also. But we were told that this is a big change, the Collector can do nothing about it.”

It left me thinking about this interesting interface between politics and management, which had found some space in open organisation theories. But strange was the other comment that came from another Sarpanch. “There are 32 different programmes of the Government that are being implemented through the Panchayat. Thus, at best I can give slightly less than a day for each of these programmes. On top of that the Sarpanch in this country is a honorary service. If I am giving all my time to the service of the people how do I make both ends meet? You have already heard that we have no means of getting the work that we are supposed to do get done. We are always receiving orders from different Sahibs, and running around all over these places with them, for very little outcome. Then tell me Sir, why should I not take a cut? I take about 15 per cent of all that is disbursed through my Panchayat. That is not too high, Sir. That is the commission given to retail shops also.”

The first one retorted back, “Why are you feeling ashamed? Sir also knows that nothing moves without giving a cut. Sir, look at that Sarpanch standing there. He does not give cuts. Go and see his Panchayat. Nothing happens there. See my Panchayat. At least something is happening there. I just completed the temple in our village.”

“Yes, Sir, these rates have become more or less fixed across the State. The door-keeper takes 2 per cent, the inward clerk takes 3 per cent, the engineer 5 per cent and so on. It all adds up to 35 per cent. And on top of that if you add his 15 per cent, it becomes a neat 50 per cent cut. The balance we then use for our activities.

“Sir, now you know why we will not be able to do any livelihood work that you are teaching us all about.” “I will explain," came back the first one. “You see, if I am distributing clothes under the Widows’ Support Programme, even if I give a poor quality sari, she cannot find out for the allocated amount what quality of sari is to be distributed. Or if I am distributing meals, nobody can really catch me for poor quality. For example, in your training programme, we have already given all the cuts. Could you make it out from the lunch you had just now? You would have assumed this is the quality available under government programmes. But, if I have to give these cuts, can I make an investment in a livelihood programme? Will that business ever run if I have made only 50 per cent investment?

“So, you see, we will rather distribute food and clothes, or build roads. But livelihood interventions? No. “Oh, I see.” I was quite sympathetic. “If that is what the reality is, then why don't you add this also to the cost of investment?”

“Sir, you only taught us what is that called Break Even analysis. You only do the calculation, sir. Tell me, will it ever break even? At what volume?

“Sir, thank you for this course. It has been a really good learning for us. Earlier also we rarely did any livelihood interventions. But now we know why they will never make sense.”  

First Published: Sun, November 30 2008. 00:00 IST