People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 16

April 27, 2008


People In Defence Of  Peoples’ Panchayats

From Our Special

Correspondent, Kolkata

SCENE ONE: Gagnabad is a drought-prone area in Purulia district. There was a time when no girls were given in marriage for the boys of Gagnabad as the womenfolk had to pour water in pots even in agricultural field. There were very few cultivable lands. And now? 1000 wells in Gagnabad alone, 48 of them in last five years only. Water harvesting in large scale had made the whole area not only drought-free; in fact, lush green, unusually green in this lateritic zone. So much so, that some hundreds of acres of land produce three crops annually. Gagnabad caters to a large market in adjoining Bankura, Burdwan and Jharkhand too. The peasants of Gagnabad have made impossible things possible with direct intervention and cooperation from the panchayat. There are eight mango-groves in Gagnabad now, hardly imaginable in dry land of Purulia, all run by eight self help groups. Large scale cultivation of flowers has also picked up.

Scene Two: Fulbani is a Munda tribal-dominated hamlet in West Midnapore district. Hundreds of acres of land remained infertile for hundreds of years. Even those lands were under the control of landlords. Determined struggles under the red flag in the Congress regime succeeded in wresting those lands from the clutches of landlords. But it was all the more difficult to initiate cultivation .Sustained efforts by the panchayat have now borne fruit. Fulbani is green. Roads and bridges have made this inaccessible village close to block headquarters. “Now ambulances come to the villages if necessary”, the villagers report proudly. There are 16 self help groups in the hamlet with the women producing varieties of handicrafts.

Scene Three: In 2004, the Human Development Report of West Bengal identified 12 per cent of the villages in the state as ‘backward’. 36 mouzas in Hirbandh of Bankura district were among those listed. Lack of irrigation led to lack of agricultural activities, accentuating the problem of employment in the entire area. Seasonal migration was a routine phenomenon. And now, just within four years, the intervention of panchayat has made things perceptibly changed. In 2007, Gopalpur panchayat in Hirbandh received the best performer’s award in water harvesting in the whole country. The panchayat pradhan has received the prize from the president of India .Check dams, minor irrigation projects have led to considerable expansion of cultivation. The projects of rural electrification, construction of roads, expansion of fisheries in harvested water, social forestation resulted in massive increase of employment. Hirbandh also performed very well in NREGA programme. There is no more the outflow of migrant laborers. This also led to expansion of enrollment in schools and other social activities. Detailed planning with direct participation of the villagers helped to attack the root causes of backwardness. Hirbandh is now waiting for another evaluation. It will no more be in ‘backward’ list.

Scene Four: The evaluation team from the central government was stunned to listen to the words of old Ayesha Bibi in Polsona village- “ Panchayat is my son”. She used the term beta. Like a responsible son , the panchayat has built the home for her, attached her with a self help group involved in animal husbandry ,guaranteed her a regular income, she explained to the officers from Delhi. In fact this village in Burdwan district is run by the women, so to say. There are 132 self help groups in an area where there are 3700 families. Most interesting are the rice producing groups with indigenous technology. At least 84 women groups are involved in producing rice from paddy, the basic infrastructure being provided by the panchayat. One of the groups has already donated Rs 90 thousand for the construction of school building in the village. The increased self respect of the women has far reaching social implication. Only one can be mentioned: sale and consumption of liquor is prohibited in Polsona.

Hundreads of such instances signify the role of the panchayats in West Bengal. They are not merely the instruments of implementing the rural development programmes of the government. The panchayats are instruments of empowering the people. The examples cited above also point to who ‘the people’ here are.

The campaign for coming panchayat elections is in full force now. The major thrust of campaign of CPI(M) and the Left Front is the defence of the class nature of the panchayats. In 1978, in the first full -fledged three-tier panchayat elections in the state the war cry was to destroy the influence of vested interests. More than 71 per cent of those elected were from small, marginal peasants, share croppers and landless agricultural labourers. The economic development in last thirty years has not only brought in a considerable change in the life of the rural people but also changed the co relation of class forces in favour of the toiling masses. Defending and expanding the democratic unity of the rural poor is of crucial importance to maintain the class direction of the work of the panchayats.

For the last few years, new initiatives have been taken to guarantee that unity. Making gram samsad or village council meeting more regular, more participatory and livelier is one such initiative. Another is the formation of gram unnayan samity or village development councils.These bodies consist of not only the elected members of the panchayat but also the defeated candidates of the opposition and other respected members of the society. They are empowered to take decisions in formulation and implementation of projects. There are almost 41 thousand such committees.This is a major achievement which the Left Front activists are explaining to the people.

The struggle for alternative is the core word. Innovative ways have been found to meet the challenges to defend the interests of the marginalised, deprived sections of the people. One such effort is providing basic access to education through Sishu Siksha Kendra, distinctly different from the formal primary schools. There are 16,000 such alternative schools even in remote villages with more than 60 thousand students enrolled.1800 such centre up to standard of class eight are being run .Take for example the Amnan village in Hooghly district. The income of the poor peasants and agricultural labourers has increased considerably in the village. But the nearest primary school was more than three kilometers away. The villagers proposed to the panchayat to construct a school in the village itself. Four years after, it is almost universal enrollment in Amnan, a predominantly Muslim populated village. These centres are run and managed by the panchayats themselves.

For further decentralisation and consolidation of autonomy of the panchayats at all three levels, use of modern technology has been intensified. The computerisation in village level, direct contact through computers and internet with state centre , maintaining bank accounts in nearest branch are progressing rapidly. This is no ‘tech-obsession’. These have helped to address the problems with more speed and transparency. In the election manifesto of the Left Front it is stated in clear-cut terms: “The aim of all these is to establish the main role of the people and to link the struggle of empowering their weakest sections with the mainstream struggle against class exploitation”.

Overwhelming sections of the rural toiling people are already on their feet to defend the gains achieved through their own panchayats. Wherever one goes now, there are either processions with red flags or small meetings under some shade braving the heat wave.