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AN OLD PLAN IN A NEW BOTTLE

By a major amendment of the West Bengal Panchayat Act of 1973 recently, gram unnayan samitis are supposed to undertake village level development planning. Made up of nominated panchayat members and development experts, they will implement the concept of “localized development” through people’s participation at the level of gram samsads — the lowest rung of the gram panchayat, comprising of around 800 villagers or voters. These samitis will receive half the money previously allocated to gram panchayats. Which is probably why there are fears of the panchayat being transgressed.

The history of this landmark amendment goes back by a couple of decades. It all started in 1986 when the Gram Unnayan Kendra of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur working with the Midnapore zilla parishad on a research project opined that village planning by villagers was indeed possible. This led to the Convergent Community Action, whose adapted and distorted version the gram unnayan samiti is. The CCA was once advocated by prominent left leaders.

It was decided that data for planning would be collected by participatory survey through numerous community, para or samsad meetings. The villagers would identify their collective needs and chart the best possible means of meeting them. This “people’s plan” would be sent to the state planning board for allotment of funds. In 1985, the government of West Bengal decided in favour of such decentralized planning through the CCA. “Aurain” gram panchayat under Kanthi II Block was selected for its application.

Failed attempt

The CCA movement had mixed results. For instance, it had been proposed that the minimum wages would be Rs 164 per head. The movement however yielded Rs 50 and two meals for men during the harvesting season, and Rs 40 along with the meals during other times — a far cry from the amount promised. Long-term changes towards a socialist future, which CCA booklets promised, failed to materialize.

The movement, taken up as a pilot project in the mid-Nineties was however shelved till 2000, when it got a second lease of life in five blocks of Alipore Sadar-subdivision. It turned out to be unsuccessful, particularly in Bishnupur-1, a block in South 24 Parganas where the records regarding income, landholdings and loans were found to be in disarray. Subsequent attempts to convene samsad meetings failed to evoke a positive response. Data forms of three gram panchayats were found to be missing while five gram panchayats had submitted their “people’s plan” without convening a single samsad meeting. However, the money for each samsad had already been disbursed.

Think again

The present plan differs from the original on two counts. The “by the people” rhetoric has been toned down. The unnayan samiti now constitutes of nominees of the panchayat and experts appointed for the purpose. Despite claims that the new scheme would reduce corruption at the gram panchayat level and would function better, the results are likely to be the same as Bishnupur-1.

This issue raises a couple of pertinent questions. First, why is such an experiment with dubious credentials being revived' Second, what has been the fate of those who had undertaken CCA with sincerity and commitment' While we cannot answer the first, we can throw some light on the second. The propagators of the CCA are a disillusioned lot today. A subdivisional officer who had played a pioneering role in implementing the project has been unceremoniously transferred. Scholars who had once enthusiastically advocated the programme now disown it.

The CCA was a failed attempt at realizing the dream of a local, direct democracy. The silence surrounding its doomed past needs to be broken. The tale needs to be told and discussed across a wider platform to ensure that the mistakes of the past do not recur with the gram unnayan samitis.

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