Panchayats and strawberries: a new take on field work

Reporting back from a trip to Bihar

Kush Verma was a principle consultant in our India office. He is a retired Indian Administrative Service officer, with interests in diverse fields such as governance, public service delivery, civil service re-design, administrative ethics, citizen-centric governance initiatives, and social accountability mechanisms.

‘A strawberry farm, in the middle of Bihar? You’ve got to be kidding me!’

This was my spontaneous reaction to a large poster adorned with luscious strawberries, smack in the middle of District Aurangabad, Bihar. As we were to discover, strawberries were not the only unusual item that we were to encounter deep in this state.

We, a team comprising Rishi, Vinaya, Niyati, and yours truly, were on a mission to capture the best practices in a Panchayati Raj project funded by the World Bank. Providing logistics support, home-spun wisdom, and communication with local officials was Rajiv Bharadwaj, from the Bihar office. We zeroed in on the Chipura Gram Panchayat, located less than five kilometres from the state capital, Patna. The Gram Kachahari (an institution for local legal redressal) of the Panchayat is housed in the Panchayat Sarkar Bhawan. From here, the Kachahari adjudicates on local issues, dispensing justice, and obviating the need for citizens to navigate India’s formidable judicial maze.

The referenced media source is missing and needs to be re-embedded.

Chipura Gram Kachahari Office (Image credit: Rajiv Bharadwaj)

The Gram Kachahari is the court of the first resort. As the Sarpanch puts it, “The Gram Kachahari is like a first doctor; if we cannot treat the patient, we will refer them to the right place.” Chipura’s track record is impressive: impeccable record-keeping, 90% successful case disposal, and public confidence to boot.

Much of the success is because of the personal commitment of the Sarpanch:

The referenced media source is missing and needs to be re-embedded.

Devendra Prasad Singh

"Mr Devendra Prasad Singh is serving his second consecutive term,” said one of his team. “He is an ex- Air force employee and his past professional background influences the way he runs the Kachahari: in scrupulous accordance to rules. With strict adherence to the norms and the protocol of hearings, he tries to resolve each case in about 10-15 days. He ensures that the Gram Kachahari remains open from 10am to 5pm and from Monday to Saturday. Any complainant, irrespective of socio-economic status and class, has access to this Gram Kachahari.’

More surprises were in store as we motored up to Dawa Panchayat, where we were met by a feisty Mukhiya, Ms Sumanlatha. As she led us on a tour of the Panchayat, it was difficult not to be impressed by her vision, her articulate presentation, and her drive for excellence. The highlights — a fully functional Panchayat Bhavan with digital infrastructure, provision of electricity to a ward which had never seen it before, construction of overhead tanks and supply of piped water, social messaging on the walls, and leveraging of corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds for setting up of a beautiful public park.

At another end of the spectrum, a single-minded focus on the ‘Swachch Bharat Mission’ (Clean India Campaign) enabled the Kutumba Gram Panchayat to move from OD (open defecation) to ODF (open defecation free) in five months. Once again, a lady Mukhiya, Savitri Singh, was at the forefront of this change. Hers was a four-pronged strategy:

  • Officials of the Panchayat spoke directly with village residents to build awareness. Ward officials went out at 4am every day to speak with people going to the fields with their ‘lotas’ (water vessels).
  • Officials also held a chaupal (village gathering) every night at a central place in Kutumba. At the chaupal, the Panchayat officials disseminated information on why open defecation is an unhealthy practice.
  • Another way to build awareness was through influential leaders of the wards. According to the Mukhiya, officials identified influential people in each of the wards, invited them for meetings, and encouraged them to construct toilets.
  • Finally, the Panchayat worked with teachers to change the behaviour of school children.

After the Panchayat’s engagement, children started persuading their parents, telling them that they would not eat vegetables until a toilet was constructed. The emotional blackmail worked!

One would imagine that climate change is too esoteric a subject to engage the attention of a village honcho. But here was the Mukhiya of the Gohi Panchayat, Mr Rajesh Kumar Saini, waxing eloquent on the subject:

“I was watching TV and I saw some coverage of the United Nations Copenhagen Conference on the issues of carbon emissions and global warming. I had noticed that many trees in our locality had been cut and I knew this was bad for the environment and for the community’s well-being. I started to think about what we could do to keep our community healthy….”

Shri Saini did not confine himself to mere rhetoric. He walked the talk----in the last two years, 3000 trees have been planted and there are plans to plant 5000 more in the forthcoming year. To achieve his goal, the Mukhiya employed an effective hybrid solution that fused cash inflow with labour requirements. Funds for procuring saplings came from a non-profit organisation, the Jan Kalyan Seva Trust. In addition, the Mukhiya leveraged the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to commission the labour required to plant the trees, thus creating a template for climate change champions!

Nor was this the only inventive thing that the team came across in its travels. Take a look at the innovative service delivery initiatives at Ughra Mahapara Panchayat:

  • installation of a water filtration plant to provide safe drinking water;
  • establishing Fair Price Shops within the Panchayat area (as one resident commented, “Earlier we had to cross the river and walk six kilometres to reach the ration dealer; now the shop is easy to reach and only takes five minutes”);
  • construction of two community bathrooms; and
  • empowerment of front-line workers for service delivery: ward members, ward secretaries, and Anganwadi workers now have greater responsibilities. They are the first point of contact for the disbursal of old age pensions, as well as for the issue of Birth Certificates.

To return to the strawberry fields that first caught our attention, it would have been an ideal finish if we could report it as a Panchayati-Raj led initiative for income generation. Can you imagine the news potential of the story? We were salivating, not only at the sight of the juicy strawberries, but at the thought of being centre-stage of a BBC documentary. Alas! it was not to be. The strawberry farmer in question had picked up his skills in Gurugram and transferred them, single-handedly, to this arid corner of Bihar. He was adamant that the local Panchayat had nothing to do with his success!

Oh well, we thought—win some, lose some. We had enough in our kitty to produce a solid report, backed up by audio grabs and a sensational video. The same were duly presented to the Bihar Government agency that had inked the contract, as we patted each other on the back for a job well done.

Mission accomplished!