By Sameet Panda and Jitendra Rath:
“Why you are not providing eggs to all children and mothers as per the ICDS norms? Why is there a delay in providing cash benefits to the pregnant and lactating mothers under the state’s maternity benefit scheme, Mamata? Why were some of the ration card holders denied ration?”
These were the few questions amongst others asked by Mr Dashrath Duruka, Sarpanch of Sherpalli Gram Panchayat, in Malkangiri, one of the backward and farthest districts from the state capital of Odisha, Bhubaneswar.
He raised these questions to the Anganwadi workers and higher officials present in a Social Audit Gram Sabha attended by more than 500 constituents of the Panchayats.
Mr Duruka is not the only person to put across these questions to the service providers in a Gram Sabha. Many Sarpanch and other elected Panchayat representatives did so, in 216 Gram Panchayats across Balangir, Kalahandi, Koraput, Malkangiri, Nabarangpur and Nuapada districts in Odisha.
These Social Audit Gram Sabhas were organised by the concerned Gram Panchayats during January to May 2018, with the support of Collective Action for Nutrition (CAN) project, implemented by Spread, an organisation that works on nutrition and governance issues.
The intervention of CAN is similar to National Nutrition Mission that was launched by Government of India in March this year. The mission that has been renamed as Poshan Abhiyan very recently aims at reducing the rate of under-nutrition among children across the country.
The Abhiyan intends to work in a convergence model with decentralised planning, with a bigger role to be played by PRIs through sensitising their constituency on nutrition as well monitoring the local service providers for improved delivery of services. It has been envisaged in the mission document to make nutrition a public movement and it also talks about improving delivery of services as well as fixing accountability through a social audit.
Now the question is how it will be rolled out – that is to say, executed on the ground to gain maximum results. The experience under the Collective Action for Nutrition project is showing a path. The collective action project is being implemented for the last two years in 240 Gram Panchayats of six nutritionally backward districts of Odisha. The project aims at improving nutrition status by building an enabling environment, enhancing people’s participation and promoting transparency and downward accountability in food and nutrition programmes.
PRIs are placed at a focal position in the intervention, as they are having a dual role of implementing and monitoring the government programmes. The experience shows that building their capacities and creating a platform of engagement is quite significant.
The engagement started much in advance and continues until they perform their duties. Although there are miles to go, the experience is crucial to mention in the context of defining and redefining the role of PRIs in Poshan Abhiyan and the goal of reducing under-nutrition in India.
The PRI election takes place once in five years giving chances to new members in the village. Therefore, it is essential to engage with PRI members as early as possible. And the key is to catch them early. Therefore, not waiting for the election of PRIs to get over, we took a step forward and engaged with the contesting candidates through the pre-Panchayat election campaign. CAN prepared a people’s manifesto which articulates key demands on the issues of nutrition from the PRI members.
Our friends at CAN took a pre-Panchayat election campaign during this period. The motive was to sensitise communities on food and nutrition schemes and on the role of the Panchayat in this regard. This campaign was held across 240 panchayats through village meetings, using various local folk mediums like Pala. A public meeting was held in the Panchayat headquarter in presence of constituents and the contesting candidates where the candidates shared their plan to work on food and nutrition if they win the election and signed the election manifesto. These public meetings created a platform for dialogue and demanding accountability.
Post-election, we engaged with the PRIs on a regular basis and also created spaces where they could get an opportunity to actualise their roles as PRIs. It has paved the way for our team members being invited to attend the monthly Panchayat level nodal meetings where they update PRIs on the various developments of the project as well as seek necessary support as and when required.
We also made a point to involve the PRIs in various campaigns initiated by the organisation around health and nutrition. PRIs were involved in campaigning for Breast Feeding Week, National Nutrition Week, Global Hand Washing Week and many more. All campaigns were initiated after discussion with the PRIs and we got the Sarpanch’s flag of the campaign in their respective Panchayats. Our team is continuously working with the PRIs to keep their promise of improving the food and nutrition situation in their respective gram Panchayats.
The revolving reservation system is giving chances to new faces in the Panchayat elections. Due to entering a local governing body for the first time, newly elected members require some extra time and resources to understand the functioning of the Panchayat Raj system, various schemes and programme administered and monitored by PRI and their roles and responsibilities as office bearers. It is often observed that PRIs are mostly either not consulted or engaged by the civil society organizations while developing training materials for themselves.
To make the training process more engaging and enriching, we decided to work together with the PRI members in finalising the contents of the training modules. We made sure that their training needs were given priority. Training was organised with the PRI members with a special session for the women PRI members focusing on maternal and child health issues.
The idea behind organising the training is to facilitate them in understanding the Panchayat Raj system – its functions, the roles and responsibilities of PRI members and also nutrition-related issues persisting in the area. The training process also gives an opportunity to initiate dialogue on possible roles of PRIs in intervening in malnutrition issues and getting the commitment from them.
Empowerment is the key when it comes to effective delivery of roles of PRIs as well as improving access to services for the people. This is possible when the Sarpanch and other PRIs are well aware of their roles and responsibilities, feel empowered to monitor and direct service providers and government officials within Panchayat limit.
We learnt from the engagement that the interest among the PRIs is clearly visible to monitor and improve the functioning of the various institutions like Anganwadi centres, schools, health centres etc., within the Panchayat. We also learnt that there is interest among the PRIs to get involved in various development programmes and services in the Panchayat. However, the scope for the engagement is not clear. It can be addressed through regular capacity building and hand holding support, and by creating opportunities and spaces where they can assert their roles responsibly.
Social audit is one such approach which helps in ensuring downward accountability and transparency with the participation of public at large. The PRIs, especially the Sarpanch, can play a significant role in organising the social audit and ensuring effective delivery of services. Collective Action for Nutrition works with an objective to ensure downward accountability and transparency in National Food Security Act through the institutionalisation of social audit.
We oriented PRI members, especially the Sarpanch and ward members during the process on National Food Security Act and mandated social audit under the Act. The Sarpanch acted as the leader of the Gram Sabha in most Panchayats. They invited block and district level officials into the Gram Sabha and chaired the Gram Sabha processes. The findings of the social audit were shared at the Gram Sabha and in many cases, the Sarpanch asked for clarifications from the service providers, suggested possible remedial action and also directed the present officials to take necessary action.
The process helped the PRIs realise their potential and power to seek accountability and transparency from the service providers which was otherwise around in practice.
Our experience reflects that PRIs could play a significant role in facilitating implementation and monitoring of government services. However, many of the PRIs lack training and sustained support that empowers them and their constituencies. Civil society and higher government institutions should integrate this as part of their planning and strategy.
Sameet has more than a decade of experience working in the development sector. He started his journey in the sector working as a researcher with Supreme Court Commissioners on right to food and went on to work with national and international organisation like Child Rights and You and Action Aid. He has a master degree in social work. His areas of interest are food, nutrition, education, governance and programme management.
Jitendra has been in the social development sector since 2004. He has worked with various organizations including CRY-Child Rights and You and Oxfam India. Based out of Odisha, Jitendra writes extensively in the regional newspapers and magazines on various developmental issues. Currently, he is associated with Collective Action for Nutrition initiative. His areas of interest are child rights and governance.