The government of Telangana launched its people’s planning initiative in the end of July with the ambitious aim of covering all Gram Panchayats in less than a fortnight for the collection of plans and proposals related to 25 aspects. The idea, attributed to Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhara Rao, was clear: ‘Mana Vuru Mana Pranalika’ (our village, our plan) must represent the priorities of villagers.
This is indeed a welcome move.
That said, this is the right time to reflect on the specificities of Telangana. The specific experience of State formation must be at the centre of any consideration of questions of equity and democratic governance. Agrarian distress has been a major killer — many cases of starvation, drought, farmers’ suicides, crop failures, gross inequities in the distribution and availability of water, the disappearance of a rich network of tanks (over 2 lakh unused/unusable tanks) have been richly documented by social scientists, researchers and activist groups in the course of the long struggle for a separate State. So has the crisis in the availability of safe drinking water in villages.
Tied to its rurality and constituting it, in fact, is the social composition of Telangana. With a virulent caste system and practices of untouchability determining social and production relations in these villages — importantly, access to and control over land, agricultural credit, marketing, cropping patterns and irrigation — any process that encourages the participation of the people must first ask the question: which people? Further, how will the diversity of experiences and exclusions be accounted for in planning?Education in English
Education is a second major issue. A survey conducted by the Council for Social Development, Hyderabad, concurrently with the MVMP in 18 villages across nine districts, highlighted the demand for universal education in the English medium in the State. While it may be true that English is seen, particularly by parents from very vulnerable backgrounds, as the gateway to a “better life” for their children, the ills of the education system cannot be resolved by the introduction of English as the medium of instruction.
The demand for English is tied to perceptions of poor quality of education in the Telugu medium in government schools, high absenteeism in schools in remote areas, and paucity of teaching materials and school facilities including laboratories, school and mobile libraries, toilets, safe drinking water and physical space. Official figures point to the fact that the minimum number of rooms required in each school is found only in 8,460 schools out of 15,865 schools in rural areas. It is also not uncommon to find schools actively discriminate against Dalit and Adivasi children. Added to this is the lack of safe and regular public transport for children to reach schools. None of these issues can be solved through the introduction of English alone. However, the introduction of English is not a bad idea — it can be an added skill that children can acquire with full competence.
Around the time that the survey for MVMP commenced, the Chief Minister spoke to the media about the introduction of common schools in Telangana. In 2006-2007, the Bihar government constituted the Common Schools Commission with Professors Muchkund Dubey and Anil Sadgopal as its members. A detailed blueprint was provided to the government for setting this up, rationalising the existing school system with the new system. The report of the commission includes a concrete way forward in terms of budgets, extensive and intensive teacher training, planning, and a draft legislation to bring the new system in place. Governed by questions of equality, equity, quality and the full realisation of the right to education for all children irrespective of their social background, the report of the Common Schools Commission can provide a productive starting point for this idea to the new government.
Strengthening Gram Panchayats
A third concern has been to strengthen and democratise Gram Panchayats and Gram Sabhas. Despite years of training in the early years of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, it is not uncommon to find elected women leaders of panchayats being divested of actual power and control by the local elite — in some cases by dominant caste men of the village and in others, men in their own families. Within the panchayat system too, it is not clear to the elected leaders how much authority they have for decision-making. Within Gram Sabhas, there is certainly a fair bit of scepticism about whether they matter at all. This calls for a complete revamping of a disinherited panchayat system in the State, and a full and planned devolution of powers, functions, functionaries and finances at every level.
A consideration of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 is in order here. Under PESA, Gram Sabha is recognised as being competent to act on a range of powers. These include the power to prevent alienation of land in scheduled areas and restore any such land, the power to exercise control over moneylending to Scheduled Tribes, the power to exercise control over institutions and functionaries in all social sectors, the power to control local plans and resources for such plans including tribal sub-plans, the power of prior recommendation in granting prospecting licenses or mining leases for minor minerals as well as for granting concessions for the exploitation of minor minerals by auction, the right to be consulted on matters of land acquisition, and the power to issue utilisation certificates for government works undertaken in their village. The PESA, therefore, constructs tribal self-governance around certain key features. This establishes the supremacy of Gram Sabha, whose power cannot be usurped by a superior body.
Although PESA was enacted in 1996, Telangana must draft rules that uphold the spirit of PESA as these will become critical and non-negotiable in the context of participatory planning in scheduled areas. Special measures for democratic decentralisation must include full implementation of PESA in scheduled areas and empower the panchayats in non-scheduled areas in similar ways. This would enable the MVMP initiative to be more efficient in realising the decentralised planning it envisages.
Two points on the process. Gram Panchayat was the base for MVMP. In a fractured social milieu, where a Gram Panchayat consists of several Dalit and Adivasi hamlets located at a distance from the main village, whose ooru is manavuru ? We need a dedicated effort to bring in the voices from the margins into the centre of the planning process. I am reminded of the work of the late S.R. Sankaran in the mid-1970s where he issued directives to collectors to sit in Dalit hamlets during their visits to the village and ask the upper castes to meet them there. We need to remember radical old ways of thinking about new processes.
At a time when we are attempting to bring about change through participatory planning, we must exercise caution against reducing it to a bureaucratic exercise by involving the widest range of citizen groups, researchers, professionals, occupational groups and intellectuals in thinking the process through and carrying it forward.
(Kalpana Kannabiran is Director, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad.)