Amid COVID-19, an ‘infrastructure census’

Ayush Prasad, zilla parishad CEO.  

While the COVID-19 pandemic has put the brakes on rural infrastructure development works in most districts of Maharashtra, and the country’s rural hinterland, it has kept its pace in Pune’s rural areas under the APJ Abdul Kalam PURA (Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas) initiative.

Headed by zilla parishad Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Ayush Prasad, the Pune rural administration carried out a gap analysis and an innovative ‘infrastructure census’ to plan rural works in a transparent manner while also coping with the pandemic.

Mr. Prasad, who is also the acting Pune District Collector, roped in the Maharashtra Knowledge Corporation Limited (MKCL) to take on this challenging task.

“Often, budgets are made without knowing actual demand for works or the relative demand between works. Hence, funds for a scheme often go unspent. Development planning processes at the Centre, State, district and even gram panchayat level face a common problem when it comes to demand generation,” Mr. Prasad told The Hindu.

Mr. Prasad went about implementing PURA by cutting through the red tape often dogging several rural projects, reducing corruption, and eliminating the imbalance in amenities prevailing in villages.

“We identified the 30 types of works we [Pune Zilla Parishad] do, and asked the gram panchayats to conduct a ‘census’ of available infrastructure. We identified gaps in each village and ward within each village and categorised them into three categories — infrastructure not available and not needed, infrastructure not available and needed and infrastructure available but not in sufficient capacity. The gram panchayats were then asked to identify available lands and check for a clear title and clear possession deeds,” he said, explaining the implementation process.

Mr. Prasad said that typically, just 20-25% of the public representatives are fully aware of all schemes, while the rest moved proposals in some schemes only.

“Generally, the better-aware public representatives allocate more funds for developmental works in their constituencies, leading to an imbalance in amenities in different villages,” he said.

“Sometimes, the same work may get approved by two or more heads of accounts, resulting in confusion and inefficiency. This also added to the paperwork, reduction of which is one of the aims of implementing this initiative,” he said.

Given that most of the development works are allotted to contractors, they at times push for works and allocation of budget through local cartels.

“So, there is a lack of transparency in the work approval processes. After our gap survey, an online system was created on the ZP website where members can log in with their mobile numbers. Members can access two systems now, material purchase to combat COVID-19 and the PURA system,” Mr. Prasad said.

The PURA system will eventually transform into a dashboard showing the status of public works suggested by the ZP members.

“Members can click and see all projects proposed by the gram panchayat. They can add new projects which may not have been set by the gram panchayat in their infrastructure census,” Mr. Prasad said.

They can then set ‘priority’ for all works suggested by different gram panchayats in their constituency. The ‘highest priority’ works will come before the subject committee at the ZP as a neat list, thus helping the committee in approving the budget to go into the next stage of estimations and tendering.

Vinayak Kadam, project manager, MKCL, said that since no funds are specifically allotted for implementing PURA which moves on leftover outlays earmarked for other schemes, they tasked gram sevaks to solicit opinions from villagers on what was needed.

“We stored this information on Google forms. Gradually, there emerged clarity on precisely which service was urgently needed by which village in Pune district. We also came to know exactly how much funds were needed for a particular work. This way, we are trying to convert all demands into projects whilst reducing manual intervention and ultimately weeding out corruption,” Mr. Kadam said, commenting on the long-term benefits of implementing the scheme.

He observed that the system for Pune rural was being designed to enable ‘proactive disclosure’ in the future.

“We have designed it to offer ‘proactive services’ to residents. For instance, if a youth is 17 years old, then the system will automatically keep upgrading his or her age. On turning 18, the zilla parishad administration will present the person with his or her voter card at their respective homes,” Mr. Kadam said.

He notes that citizens, while filing RTI applications, often complain of being denied information.

“To redress that, we are in the process of building a knowledge repository on the budget allocated for every work, and how it is spent,” said Mr. Kadam.

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2021 5:50:02 PM |

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