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Rural grit impresses Aiyar
- Women's participation comes in for praise

Assangthang/Pelling (Sikkim), April 2: Mani Shankar Aiyar, the Union minister for panchayati raj, has earned the wrath of his own party-men in Sikkim for praising the 'vibrant democracy' in the villages of the hill state under Pawan Chamling's SDF government.

But only those who were with the Congress leader during his four-day Sikkim sojourn that ended today will agree that the seasoned politician had little choice.

Appreciation flowed naturally when Devimaya Rai, president of Assangthang (near Namchi in south Sikkim) gram panchayat asserted with a determination: 'Contractors get completion certificates only after every household, which has been provided with a water connection, expresses complete satisfaction'One complaint and they have had it!'

Aiyar was as much impressed by the turnout as by the participation of women who laid out an elaborate lunch for the visitors at Thursday's gram sabha. 'Compare this with Rajasthan, where I could not get a single woman panchayat leader to utter a word," the minister told The Telegraph.

Aiyar and his team was in for another surprise at Legship on Friday (near Pelling, in west Sikkim) where the members of the Geyjing Omchung gram panchayat had lined up bottles of passion fruit squash and pickles manufactured under the Sikkim Industrial Development Programme. 'This is the only place where we found the panchayat acting not only as a service provider, but also as a body taking part in economic development,' the minister said.

Another 'new thing' that Aiyar praised is that Sikkim is the only state to have an official in the rank of deputy secretary facilitating panchayat activities. Having stood third in the national ranking (first being Kerala followed by Karnataka) in terms of panchayati services, funds to the tune of Rs 1.20 crore and an additional Rs 87 lakh have been awarded to the Himalayan state. At every gram sabha (one in each of the four districts) that he attended, Aiyar said: 'Sikkim is a model for the rest of India, particularly for the Northeast.'

But the real challenge before Sikkim would be to clean up its money supply chain. 'The system of transfer of money from the departments to the panchayat is not very transparent,' said T.R. Raghunandan, joint secretary of the ministry of the panchayati raj. On April 4, in New Delhi, a memorandum of understanding will be signed with Chamling who is now touring Europe. 'There is an immediate need for activity mapping and the devolution of finances,' Aiyar said.

In an exercise that he began 11 months ago to review the status of panchayati system, Aiyar has visited over eight states and two Union territories.

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