India’s states vary in their commitment to panchayats. In some, like Kerala, panchayats have real devolved powers and plentiful funding and they have made a big impact on poverty. In others, like Tamil Nadu, the panchayats are emasculated, underfunded and ineffectual.
- VST and its partners are backing a movement of panchayat presidents in Tamil Nadu which is campaigning for more funding and genuine power for panchayats.
- We send panchayat presidents to Kerala to see how panchayats can really serve the neediest people.
- At grassroots level panchayats can become the preserve of dominant castes or traditional elites who deny benefits to the poorest. VST and its partners encourage women and Dalits to stand for election, back their election campaign, and support them in office.
- We form community groups that monitor panchayats and make sure the grama sabhas – the voters’ open meetings – take place and are made good use of.
- We try to ensure that panchayat subcommittees monitoring schools and health centres function effectively.
Nearly 500 pro-poor, pro-women, pro-Dalit candidates stood in the last election; more than half were elected. Many issues were brought up at Grama Sabha meetings. In the village of Palakombai, Dalits were not allowed to participate in Grama Sabha, but the issue was resolved after activists threatened a boycott. In Sarathupatty, discrimination against Arunthidiyar people at a ration shop was spoken of openly and resolved at the Grama Sabha. In Aundipatty block a survey of illegal high interest loans was conducted and submitted to the panchayats and higher authorities for necessary action.
In Endapuli malpractice in selection of housing beneficiaries was solved by using the Right to Information Act and the Grama Sabha resolved to choose new people. In five panchayats the list of those classed as below the poverty line and eligible for benefits was obtained through the Right to Information Act and genuine beneficiaries were then included.
The panchayats can have a big impact on the quality of life for the people. They select beneficiaries for government benefits such as housing, employment, pensions and ration cards; they organise improvements to village facilities; they hold health camps, organise health volunteers and monitor the government primary health centres; and they monitor teacher attendance at schools. We try to ensure these roles are fully exploited and benefits are fairly distributed.
We have formed dozens of activist groups to work with the panchayats. This can be done through taking up the cases of individuals entitled to benefits, such as subsidised food, or by collective action, for example staging a protest to put pressure on the water board to supply water to a Dalit community.
Case study - Suruliammal
Suruliammal of Thimminayakanpatty village is the president of Pottippuram panchayat. With no previous experience, but charismatic and empowered through training by VST partners, Surliammal has been able to overcome all the hurdles and pilot a well functioning panchayat, setting an inspiring model not only to Dalit women presidents, but to all panchayat presidents.
It goes to her credit to have transformed elected members belonging to rival political parties into a well-organised team for implementing several development and welfare schemes in the panchayat. She is capable of analysing problems, identifying proper remedies and taking appropriate decisions. After attending a training course in Kerala, she introduced the practice of conducting ward meetings prior to the grama sabha meeting, giving an opportunity to every one in the ward to participate in discussions. She also took the bold initiative of raising jatropha biofuel plants on more than 300 acres of land belonging to the panchayat, with a view to generating funds for the panchayat. She is a core team member in both the district and state panchayat presidents associations.