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Panchayat polls a huge challenge for Cong

Last year’s riots in Kokrajhar and charges of corruption have ensured that the ruling Congress campaigns hard for the panchayat elections starting from January 30, despite the comprehensive win in the 2011 Assembly polls. However, when Assam’s panchayat and rural development minister Rakibul Hussain spoke to Umanand Jaiswal of The Telegraph, he said the poll outcome would “reflect and acknowledge” Dispur’s efforts to empower the rural populace.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: The Opposition has accused the Congress-led state government of “decentralising” corruption through the panchayats.

A: There is a difference between (people’s) perception and reality. There may be one or two cases of anomalies but there is no widespread corruption. There is visible development under panchayats. We have taken firm action against those indulging in corruption. Wait for the result.

Q: What steps have you taken to check graft?

A: We have suspended or drawn up departmental proceedings against 28 block development officials and 33 junior engineers. We have also acted against panchayat members, officials and beneficiaries in a few cases. Some officials have even been jailed.

To make the system transparent, we have also started social audits in April and October, tied up with banks for direct cash transfer to NREGA beneficiaries and have also done away with joint account for IAY beneficiaries.

Q : Apart from corruption, Dispur is also accused of not transferring all 29 departments to the PRIs (panchayati raj institutions) till date?

A : Almost all development departments are being run by block offices. There is an annual budgetary provision for this. Our chief minister wants power to go to PRIs and post of zilla parishad president to be more powerful than that of an MLA. Development of panchayats is important to us because of the 3.12 crore population, 87 per cent live in villages. But I must say complete devolution without adequate infrastructure and manpower is not beneficial.

Q : What steps has Dispur taken to ensure infrastructure?

A: We have moved a proposal through DoNER to upgrade infrastructure in 25 blocks so that BDOs and JEs and panchayat members are readily available. We have completed activity mapping of all 29 departments, according to which we need around 24,000 additional manpower for smooth functioning of the PRIs. These things will take some time.

Q: What concrete changes has Dispur carried out since 2001?

A: When we regained power, our priority was how to hold the polls. Today our priority is to accelerate real development. An LAC used to get Rs 2 crore development fund while today it is around Rs 25 crore. We have managed to increase the remuneration of panchayat members and NREGA officials, procured new vehicles for BDOs, prepared service rules of panchayat officials, filled up most of the 73 vacancies for BDOs and almost cleared IAY housing backlog. There has been special focus on women’s welfare in 42 bocks under the National Rural Livelihood Mission, apart from efforts to check graft.

Q: How important are the polls to you?

A : It is a huge challenge for me because I am holding the department for the first time. I want to do something for the villages. The effort will continue even after the polls.