Port Blair, Feb 17 (ANI): The Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, said last week, that elected representatives of panchayats should be treated as the "first tier of democracy" rather than the "third tier of development."
By making this statement, Mr. Ramesh has certainly struck at the heart of an issue that has not only inhibited development in the villages of 'mainland' India but has crippled one of its most remote Union Territories, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Even after 15 years of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, late Rajiv Gandhi's dream of empowering the villagers of rural India remains a vain hope. In the initial ten years, it was purely experimental, where both the administration and the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) stumbled on many occasions.
The relationship between Panchayati Raj Institutions and the Administration in the Union Territory has not always been a courteous one. In the tussle between the two, it is the common man who has always suffered. When the Panchayat, despite being projected as a cesspool of corruption in the area, genuinely tried to contribute towards the betterment of the society, it is the Administration that has, ironically, created hurdles.
In 2007, when a major water crisis loomed over the district of South Andaman, and especially Port Blair town, an ambitious water project was announced - the tsunami-submerged farmland in Sippighat was planned to be converted into a sweet water lake. Landowners were notified and a compensation package was announced; but before the idea could take shape, legal intricacies entangled and stalled it.
In November 2007, the Lieutenant Governor, who was on a visit to the Dhanikhari Dam, halted at Sippighat village on his way back and interacted with the villagers. He promised them alternate land and handsome compensation package, a promise he could never keep. t is learnt that Andaman Public Works Department (APWD), the implementing agency, had transferred an amount of Rs 15,48,0000 to the Revenue Department to acquire the land. However, it ran into legal obstacles and the matter has been pending there since, hidden from the public eye.
Understanding the seriousness of the matter, the Gram Panchayats did not wait for the administration to wake up from their slumber and took steps on their own initiative. They instead concentrated on the water supply scheme they had been running since the past ten years.
A perennial nallah, known as Dhobi Nallah, which starts from the Quarry on the hillock owned by one Surya Rao, makes its way through the private land of one Muniswami, who works in the Revenue Dept, culminating in a well that was constructed in 2002 in the Panchayat Office premise by the Panchayat Samiti.
The Panchayat supplies fresh water to about 196 households benefiting more than 800 persons. It supplies about 75000 litres a day through the pipelines laid and maintained by the Panchayat itself. It has also, to its credit, successfully built up a source of revenue by collecting Rs 25 from each household for the service.
Now the nallah needs to be de-silted so that the water supply is not hindered during summer, when the administration scampers to make drinking water available.owever, the administration, which harps on telling the panchayats to earn revenue and do more on the rural water supply front, has once again become a roadblock for this scheme.
"The perennial nallah, which exists geographically and topographically, is unfortunately missing on the revenue map," says Vincent, Pradhan, Sippighat Panchayat. "If the map does not have a nallah in it, how can it be de-silted?" he asks. Muniswami, the owner of the land through which the nallah traverses, used his connections in the Revenue Department and has been creating problems for the Panchayat for a long time. When the staff of the Panchayat went to de-silt the nallah with their own workers, he filed a Non Cognizable FIR against them for trespassing.
The Nallah, which has been benefitting the locals for long, has not been recognised by the Revenue Department. The Panchayat did approach Raj Niwas, Secretariat and the District Administration for a solution, but has drawn a blank. In fact, to support the existence of the nallah, one can find connected to it a 3 x 3 culvert on the road constructed by the British during the colonial regime. The Revenue Department, however, chooses to turn a blind eye to the facts.
Saraswati Narayan, ex-Pradhan, too vouches that the water supply scheme is beneficial to a large number of villagers. However, she disagrees with the Pradhan. "It might be a personal issue between the Pradhan and Muniswami. He was cooperative during my tenure, when I had asked him to surrender land for laying a hume pipe," said Sarawati.
"Such initiatives by the Panchayats need whole-hearted support," said Chaman Behari, an old inhabitant and a PRI member who is a disillusioned soul. "Even after seven years, we are just getting promises about compensation money, I hope we will get it after our death" he said.
For effective governance, the PRIs need support from the administration and vice versa. We cannot do away with PRIs as they form an integral part of our democracy. Everyone seeks to empower them - they are the face of political autonomy in the Islands.
Mr. Jairam Ramesh has recently said that if the state governments were really interested to see the villages progress, they should be ready to decentralise power and give it to panchayats. Indeed, the devolution of power is essential but with power come responsibilities.
The Charkha Development Communication Network feels that the Panchayats should also put in efforts to get rid of its stained image in the islands. To take a lead on the path of development, we simply need the cooperation of our own people - it couldn't get simpler! By Zubair Ahmed (ANI)
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