Over 60 years ago, the Indian Constitution, recognising village panchayats as an essential form of self-governance and as a potent instrument of social and economic uplift, declared — in the Directive Principles of State Policy — that the state “shall take steps to organise village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government.” The basic idea is that the panchayats should, in the true democratic spirit, derive their authority from the local communities and work collectively for the betterment of the people.

By way of concretising the Directive Principle, there have been a series of attempts to democratise the socio-economic development process, through decentralisation of power, devolution of responsibilities, and distribution of resources. But the policy shifts, organisational changes, and programme innovations have not succeeded in ensuring a higher degree of self-governance at the grassroots or the satisfactory delivery of benefits to the target population.

Durgadas Roy's study, presented in 10 chapters, provides a broad-spectrum critique of planning, direction, and implementation of rural development schemes. Discussing the various impediments the rural development programmes meet with, the author points out how the public policies have failed to remove them and makes out a case for structural reforms at various levels and in diverse sectors.

Historical overview

While the first few editions of the Five-Year Plans envisaged decentralised, participation-oriented planning, Roy argues, the subsequent ones switched to centrally directed, and administered, intervention strategies. The key to enabling people's participation in the development-related decision-making process lies in reordering the policies so as to make self-government a reality at the local level. Apart from outlining the concepts of rural development, Roy gives a historical overview of the major programmes launched and funded by the Centre and implemented by the State governments at different points in time. They include: the Community Development Programme (1952); the National Extension Service (1953); the Intensive Agricultural District Programme (1960); the Intensive Agricultural Area programme (1966); the Small Farmer Development Agencies (1972); the Integrated Rural Development Programme and DRDA (1979); and the National Rural Employment Programme (1980).

Drawing heavily on official evaluation reports as well as independent critical studies, he highlights the areas of weaknesses and shortcomings both at the planning stage and in the implementation process. He is critical of the civil administration system obtaining in India where there is an obsession with quantitative targets and all the efforts are directed towards achieving them, while the equally important parameters such as the quality of the results and sustainability of the programme are ignored. The changes brought about by the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the Sampoorna Gramin Rozgar Yojana, and the Food-for-Work Schemes in recent decades are highlighted to demonstrate how the crucial decision-making power has shifted to the Government of India.

After traversing the familiar area of Panchayati Raj as an instrument of rural development and the role of voluntary agencies, Roy dwells on the need for decentralised planning at the district and local levels and proceeds to discuss the three components of participatory development. He goes on to trace the importance given to them from the First to the 11th Five-Year Plan before drawing attention to the need for the development of human resources and motivation. Not unexpectedly, he emphasises the need for focussing on the education system as a key agent of change in power and society. In Roy's view, the 73rd and the 74th Constitution Amendments (1992-93) have not resulted in any radical change in the ground situation. He argues that professionalisation of civil services, with accent on performance, productivity, and empowerment of the downtrodden, can make a difference to the five clusters of disadvantages that constrain rural development. There is a fleeting attempt to spell out the disturbing trends and the organisational gaps in the execution of rural development programmes in the third world countries.

The study shows clarity and observational academic orientation in analysis. Its prescriptions would have gained more weight had greater attention been paid to the operational experience in various States. That would have sharply brought out how decentralisation of formulation and funding of schemes could help the authorities in dealing effectively with the diversified resource endowments and the disparities in the levels of development.

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