Good rural governance (GRG) is at the heart of sustainability for any village development program. The role of panchayati raj institutions (PRI), as designed by India’s Constitution, is to connect citizens with the government, yet the scope of good rural governance is much broader. The spirit of village governance is manifest in the Gram Uday se Bharat Uday (village self-governance campaign), wherein the gram sabha (village government) and PRI-based agenda includes rural development, as well as increased farmers earnings, social harmony, and the welfare of the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe populations. Good rural governance involves the empowerment of the PRIs and the community members at large so that, at a minimum, all basic amenities of a village are provided.
Community-led development as the cornerstone of good rural governance was demonstrated by a women’s group in village Bainsi in Nuh, Haryana, that approached the District Secretariat to complain about the faulty water pump in their village after their complaints to the sarpanch and the Public Health and Engineering Department didn’t result in any redressal. Doli, a member of the Village Leadership School, a platform for training citizens about their rights and entitlements, led this with the help of ten women and the facilitator at the Citizen Information and Support Center, a joint CSR initiative by corporate and NGO partners. The defunct pump was fixed.
Under the PRI Act, each development plan of a village must be approved by the gram sabha. However, the majority of rural villagers are not aware of the importance or benefit of being a member of the gram sabha in order to ensure their legal standing. NALSA reports that most (approximately 70 percent) of India’s rural population are illiterate and unaware of the rights and entitlements conferred upon them by law. This absence of legal awareness is responsible for widespread deception, exploitation, and deprivation of rights and benefits experienced by village communities.
Translating knowledge to action was demonstrated by women who were trained elected representatives working for road improvement in Kharika village, Nuh, Haryana. The road leading to the government school and the anganwadi center was in extremely poor condition, making these places inaccessible. The women used their newfound knowledge to access funds available to panchayat members in view of the gram sabha resolution passed in January 2019 to repair the road.
In most states of India, PRIs are not adequately capacitated in terms of funding (which is controlled by state governments) or in the training required to undertake their responsibilities. The most vital aspect of rural governance is to empower common citizens and create awareness within the community about these roles.
Sharing how the assistance received was put into action was demonstrated by Babita Devi from village Kharika, Muzaffarpur, Bihar, who had applied for a LPG cooking gas connection under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana falling under the BPL category, but she was unable to obtain it due to improper documentation. With help in proper preparation of the application, submission procedures, and follow-up with concerned authorities, Babita received the gas connection. She went on to help other women to avail the services of the scheme.
Even in villages located nearby government facilities, such as district or block headquarters, the people do not know about them or how to access them. Awareness about government schemes and redressal mechanisms must reach a critical mass of people in the community and among PRI representatives in order for the rate of adoption to become self-sustaining and create further growth. Consistent effort over a period of time is needed for the community and PRI representatives to reach that critical mass.
Thoughtful policies, administration, and significant investments have been made by the Government of India on many rural development themes. But policy measures are not enough to transform the situation. Gaps in implementation make it increasingly clear that knowledge flow to the community must increase, and issues must be tackled at the local level. Careful grassroots efforts to manage development locally can be highly effective in improving the situation. However, relatively few grassroots organizations focus on good rural governance, and even fewer Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives recognize its benefit and vital importance.
An effective approach evolved by S M Sehgal Foundation (Sehgal Foundation) includes a comprehensive set of strategies to provide Good Rural Governance training in various forums. The model operates, in conjunction with CSR partners in some cases, in more than 500 villages across eight states as of December 2019.
A key component of the model includes the formation of a Village Development Committee (VDC) before initiating any infrastructure program in a new village. The VDC is comprised of responsible community members: opinion leaders, panchayat members, and members of village-level institutions, with representatives from all parts of the community (at least 50 percent women). The committee must give preeminence to the panchayat to ensure that it is understood as having a supporting (not challenging) role. The VDC is trained in technical aspects of projects and government schemes and empowered to engage the whole community in project activities and village governance. The sarpanch and panchayat members of the VDC facilitate relationships with government bodies, monitor project activities, collect community contributions for future maintenance of completed projects, and continue to carry on the impact of those projects after any infrastructure aspects are completed by Sehgal Foundation.
Concurrent capacity-building initiatives are essential components:
Village leadership schools are set up to train groups of interested individuals, sushasan (governance) champions, to access citizen benefits and government programs, make people aware of their rights, and take charge of the development of their village. The results are collective actions to ensure village-level benefits and knowledge dissemination to others who can also benefit.
Women’s collectives (mahila sangathans) and women’s leadership schools are mobilized to strengthen participation of women in village governance, allow women to come together, voice their concerns on community and development issues, receive training on their legal and constitutional rights and entitlements, work collectively to address local issues, and support each other.
Digital literacy training and life skills education are embedded with governance training to empower youth with an interactive curriculum that helps adolescents gain confidence, information, and new perspectives on gender stereotypes, all of which help them become positive change agents in their families and communities.
A Citizen Information and Support Center (CISC) is created and equipped with mobiles for people to obtain information from government sources on toll-free numbers and provide personalized services. So far clusters of villages in Nuh, Haryana (supported by Publicis Sapient) and in Samastipur, Bihar, are equipped with cloud-based integrated voice-response-systems (IVRS). Beneficiaries can call the toll-free number to learn details about how to apply for various government schemes and receive information about agriculture subsidies, fertilizers, pesticides, crop diseases and cures, and a package of practices for various seasonal crops. The CISC office assists the most marginalized citizens, helping them write out applications for submission to government complaint windows. The toll-free CISC number is disseminated in villages in community meetings and on wall paintings and visiting cards.
Community radio Alfaz-e-Mewat FM 107.8, founded by Sehgal Foundation in 2012, broadcasts programs and information on governance, legal awareness, and women’s empowerment, connecting with many of the most vulnerable members of society.
Achievements by governance-trained and empowered villagers have included procuring long-withheld benefits and rations, cooking gas, road repairs, water pump repairs, and the profoundly important knowledge and confidence to take action and persevere to make a positive difference in their communities.
The Sehgal Foundation Good Rural Governance model can be replicated and scaled up to a mass movement to make India a well-governed nation. Considering the huge rural population, the task at hand is enormous but achievable.
(Ellora Mubashir is an independent consultant with S M Sehgal Foundation.