One of the unsettling moments during the budget speech was when our finance minister referred very casually to the fact that Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) lack capacity. He was speaking about Digital India and how it planned to circumvent the lack of manpower or skill at the PRI level. This approach of generalisation is dangerous and factually incorrect on several levels.
Had he been specific about the available capacities for bringing in new age technology, there might still have been some truth in it.
Practically, what is expected of a Panchayat sarpanch or president and secretary are quite limited in scope. They are supposed to know the problems of their respective villages and efficiently use their resources at their disposal for finding their solutions.
Digital India initiatives can strengthen the accountability, connectivity and access to knowledge for the panchayat administration but they cannot help in problem identification or day to day monitoring of schemes that are in place for the welfare of the members of the Gram Sabha.
This is where the thinking process of the Union Government as represented by the Finance Minister is not suitable for the present conditions. It is imperative for the youth to come forward and take up the responsibilities at the local level. To make this happen, we need to inspire the youth to have a greater focus on the problem identification process and managerial skills required to handle funds and human resources at the panchayat level.
The caveat is that it should not be excessively focussed on technology but on traditional ways to have access to people, studying their problems, collecting data, bringing collective intelligence in identifying solutions and their consensual execution.
Direct Benefit Transfer has proven to be an efficient to ensure greater beneficiary access for subsidy transfer at least in the case of LPGs. However, the question remains whether targeted delivery sans human capacity should be considered as a foolproof method of transferring subsidies to achieve its intended goals.
An effective means to target the beneficiaries has been the mantra of NDA-II ever since it took over the reins. One cannot overlook the importance of identification of the underprivileged when it comes to beneficiary targeting, which has always been a persistent bone of contention among the policy makers.
Lack of data and lack of clarity about which methodology to use are some of the major challenges on that front. A composite index for Gram Panchayats is being mooted by the NDA-II government which is quite a surprise considering that it’s still unclear on how scientific the present method of identifying people below the poverty line is.
Geo-tagging of ponds and walls created by MNREGA workers can help in achieving a minimum level of accountability in the system. Investment in human capacities will help the community to assess whether we need a pond or a well. There are various sustainable ways of doing it.
The mantra of government to overlook the institutional incompetence and replace the same with technology may look good on paper, but in the long run, investment in people pays off in the form of intergenerational equity.