Elango: Dream of Gram Swaraj
Mr.Elango is a Dalit Panchayati Raj activist who was a Sarpanch in the Kuthambakkam Panchayat, which is about 35 km from Chennai, Tamil Nadu. An engineer by training, Elango left his job at Oil India to work for the development of his village. During his tenure as a Sarpanch, he worked towards transforming Kuthambakkam to a model Panchayat of “self-government”, which was in line with Gandhi’s dream of “Gram Swaraj”. He laid roads, built drains, provided streetlights and encouraged local production of value added agricultural products like oil. More importantly, Elango worked towards building friendly relationships between Dalits and Non-dalits communities by building twin houses called Samathuvapuram (equality village), in which one house was occupied by a Dalit and the other by a non-Dalit family.
Elango is disappointed that the central and state governments have neglected PRIs and their potential has not been fully harnessed. He says, “Four terms of Panchayati Raj elections have been held since the 73rd amendment in 1992, but the three tiers still do not have clearly defined powers and responsibilities, whereas in foreign countries like France and US, the local representatives have respect and their roles are clearly defined”. Elango is now occupied with his Panchayat Academy that he considers as a learning centre, and not an institution, for Panchayats. He has high hopes for the Academy and aims to connect at least 5% of Panchayats, or about ten to fifteen thousand panchayats, in the country and build them as models for ‘Gram Swaraj’ by implementing the 73rd Amendment in its true sense and spirit.
Here is what he had to say for the questions posed by RGPRS.
1) What are the 5 important aspects of Panchayati Raj?
i) Each Panchayat can be considered as a tiny republic to which the provision of self-government is given by the 73rd constitutional amendment. It paves way for the implementation of Gram-Swaraj.
ii) PR is a model for real participatory democracy. People not only elect their representatives but also directly participate in the governance process through the Gram Sabha.
iii) PR provides for micro planning at the village level. In a country as big as India, centralized planning is not suitable and sustainable. Decentralised planning through the Grama Sabha allows the villages to voice
their priorities and concerns in development projects, which is very much needed.
iv) PRI allow for localized resource management. This would also allow the Panchayats to main ecological balance in their communities by considering the environmental impact of any development work.
v) Reservation for women, SC and STs create an inclusive platform for participation in the democratic process. Reservation ensures that social divisions do not obstruct political participation.
2) How does Panchayati Raj contribute to the growth and development of India?
Panchayati Raj should ideally contribute to the growth and development of India but we are yet to reach that point. In practice, it is only an agency for the government. There is lack of spirit and belief in the
bottom up development approach. The thrust towards bottom-up development had existed during the passing of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments but that spirit is being destroyed systematically at
various levels – central government, state government and the bureaucracy.
3) What role does Panchayati Raj play in developing women and Dalit leaders?
Ambedkar feared the Panchayati Raj system to reinforce the feudal village structure and be another avenue for caste-based oppression. However, Panchayat Raj became a constitutional mandate only after 45 years of Indian Independence. Over this time, caste-based discrimination and the practice of untouchability decreased to some extent. In the traditional caste and feudal system, there were little opportunities for Dalits and women leaders. The constitutional provision has given an opening for women and Dalits, which has increased their political participation. This is a positive step towards the goal. Nevertheless, PR role in the development of women and Dalit leaders is still in the initial stages. Besides, there is no drive from the government in the development of Dalit and women leaders. In Tamil Nadu, Dalit Sarpanchs in some 2000 panchayats still face untouchability in some form, though it is not overt. The government should play an active role to strengthen Dalit and women leaders.
4) What is the relevance or the relation between Gandhi’s ideas and Panchayati Raj?
Gandhi believed that the soul of India lies in its villages and even now this is true. He also accepted the caste and the feudal system existent in the villages and the problems associated with them. However, unlike Ambedkar, Gandhi approached the problems in a positive light. Gandhi saw “Gram Swaraj” as a means and opportunity to slowly end the vices associated with caste and feudal Indian structure. Panchayat Raj very much imbibes the Gandhian idea. Moreover, India is generally known as the land of villages, grains, cows and farmers. Due to globalization and centralization of planning, we are facing the problem of sustainability of resources. If Panchayat Raj functions in the form of “Gram Swaraj”, we would achieve more of Gandhi’s dream and also prevent the problem of sustainability.
5) What are the challenges confronted by PR representatives ?
There are 5 major challenges faced by Panchayat Raj representatives:
a) Panchayati Raj is a state subject. There is no uniform Panchayati Raj code for all the states in India and its significance varies across states. For instance, Panchayati Raj receives more funds than in Tamil Nadu.
b) PRIs have become an established and extended part of bureaucracy. It has become an implementing agency for government schemes at the Panchayat level. PRIs lacks the aspects of ‘self-government’. It
would be a struggle to revive PRIs to identity themselves with the idea of self-government, as an agency culture has been propagated for two decades, but it should be done.
c) Centralised powers like MPs and MLAs want to stifle the powers of PRI. They fear losing power and significance if PRIs gain significant authority and responsibility.
d) Even bureaucracy lacks motivation to empower PRI. The systematically stem the growth of PRIs by wielding more power in their hands.
e) There is lack of capacity building in PRIs. We talk about lack of funds, functions and functionaries but they all come later. If a Gram Sabha in a Panchayat comes up with a clearly defined Development plan, funds would eventually get allotted. PRI’s shouldn’t wait for funds to commence a project and it should be the other way around. Development Planning should begin at the level of Grama Sabha but lack of capacity impedes the process.
6) What is your message to emerging Dalit Panchayat Raj representatives?
Sarpanch is the head of a panchayat, like Prime Minister to the country. Similarly, a Dalit Sarpanch is the head of the whole Panchayat and not only to the Dalits in the Panchayat. A Dalit Sarpanch should see his position as an opportunity and work for the whole community without any caste differentiation. A well performing Dalit sarpanch will be well received by the people and his caste-based identity and discrimination would be nullified over time.