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A Lesson In The Importance Of Strengthening Panchayati Raj Institutions

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The Gram Panchayat Help Desk discovered that Victor Kharia needed help.

Victor Kharia, a resident of Majhkhara Village of Pantha Gram Panchayat in Jharkhand, is a well-known face in his locality. His neighbors talk of him with sympathy as the man has nearly lost everything in the course of life, and his struggles and plight for survival is a heart-chilling tale. Victor, after losing his wife, has been alone all his life and has been fighting a lone battle of his own which goes unnoticed and unheard amidst the daily cacophonies. It is difficult for people like us, born with cushions and privileges and having got ample opportunities to make a living out of them, to even begin to understand Victor’s life struggles and situations.

Victor,  representing the most vulnerable section of society who have next to no access to resources, has one thing in common with the richest industrialists of the nation. The right to vote in independent India, a so-called thriving democracy, and one of the largest growing economies in the world, is probably the only power left with this 80-year-old emaciated man. It is during elections, that at least for a quarter of a day, Victor feels valued and needed.

Ranthi Horo, the Gram Panchayat Help Desk facilitator, looked visibly pained while she narrated the story of Victor and described his struggles. “They took him in a vehicle to vote and left him stranded after he had cast his vote, he had to come back walking to the village”, she said in a numb voice. This probably shows the true face of our democracy where the notion that “people elect government” has become a half-truth with citizens having very little choice, and the ‘power to vote’ has ended up becoming a ridiculous compulsion for many.

Victor did not probably know what he voted for and whom he voted for, yet he voted and contributed to the ‘celebration of democracy’. His fingers worked fine on the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) but unfortunately, they did not work on the biometric instrument used in making an Aadhaar Card which is compulsory to avail most government benefits. As a result, this man is excluded from availing government benefits which are on for vulnerable and destitute households.

Victor voted and fulfilled his political responsibilities to the nation, he has been doing hard physical labor and does his bit for the society, he is, in fact, fulfilling every responsibility that one must carry out as a citizen, but in return, Victor gets nothing from the state. His right to food is violated as the man is not being able to fetch his ration in the absence of an Aadhaar card. The biometric machine does not take his fingerprints since the finger lines are hazy, but the EVM does register his vote, cast with the same fingers. He is excluded from the services that the state offers for staving off poverty and hunger. Yet Victor lives on, exposing the cruelties of the modern governance mechanisms and it’s implications on the most marginalised and vulnerable sections.

The 80-year-old man, who works at a nearby house, is quite unwell and stays in a filthy, unhygienic place. He stays alone and doesn’t have anyone to look after him. He works for a family at their farm and gets little compensation and a meal which keeps him alive.

“Some days, he will get vegetables and rice for lunch and, on some days, he gets only rice”, Ranthi said with a heavy voice. Her humanitarian qualities and caring attitude got herself a place at the Gram Panchayat Help Desk, an initiative taken up by Gram Panchayat in collaboration with the local women collective.

Ranthi kept repeating that Victor works like a bonded laborer. “Ekdum naukar jaisa kaam karte hain, bilkul naukar ki tarah” (He works exactly like a servant), she murmured a number of times.

Her careful eyes did not miss that the man does not eat well and is weakening day by day, she feared that Victor might suffer more if he is not attended to. She said that Victor has three Mahua trees which earn him some income in specific seasons but it is not adequate for sustained living.

The newly formed ‘Help Desk’, which only started operating since the last couple of months, had written to the Mukhia (the sarpanch or leader of the Panchayat), describing the difficulties that Victor is facing and the fact that he is not getting ration under the Public Distribution System (PDS), and how Victor wasn’t able to access the old-age pension he is entitled to.

The Mukhia, Basant Guria, is quite popular in the Panchayat for the connect he has with the people. He is credible to the people and his leadership is widely accepted in the community. The people have great faith in his sense of judgment.

The Mukhia had arranged 15 kg rice for Victor and had handed it over to him in the Gram Sabha. Basant had further committed that the Panchayat will look after him, and will provide 25 kg rice every month to him until his ration card is made and he avails the subsidised grains.

The Gram Panchayat Help Desk of Pantha has not only identified the plights of the old man, but it also went on to make the Panchayat act on the matter by ascertaining benefits to the person through the Gram Panchayat itself. They are further helping him in getting a ‘job card‘ made so that Victor can work in rural employment guarantee schemes when in need. He might just be able to cope with his immediate economic distresses through this.

The Gram Panchayat is currently trying to get Victor’s Adhaar card made through some alternative mechanism and also, the Help Desk is helping him get a bank account so that he can avail his old age pension.

The Gram Panchayat Help Desk of Pantha, facilitated by PRADAN which is a reputed national-level civil society organisation working in the area, has been an example of how the Panchayat can be of service to its citizens and ensure doorstep governance for the most vulnerable families. It is also a model for how local collectives and Panchayati Raj Institutions can come together to serve people and ensure that citizens have access to opportunities, services, and access to information and their rightful entitlements.

The Gram Panchayat Help Desk of Pantha, as part of their special strategy for the vulnerable families residing in the Panchayat, has been identifying such people and families who are living on the margins, having little means of production, and helping them access their rights and entitlements and providing them with an opportunity to fight back within the mainstream. The social securities are a safety net for the extremely poor families and the locally elected governments have a role in ensuring the deliveries. The Pantha Gram Panchayat is doing just that, through the Gram Panchayat Help Desk.

The huge network of the women’s collective is a further advantage to such initiatives as it ensures a greater reach and maximum outcome.

80-year-old Victor is a citizen of independent India, which is just 73 years old. Victor has almost grown up with the free Indian state. While the man from Pantha is aging at 80, independent India, on the contrary, is still maturing and gaining more power. The state will attain its full power only through decentralised actions, empowering Panchayats and giving more power and control to the citizens. Often, people ridicule the fact that it seems as if citizens handover all their powers to politicians through the tip of their fingers while they vote for them. But, it is the state’s responsibility to give back the power to the citizen by decentralisation of power through the strengthening of local governance. The Gram Panchayat Help Desk may be seen as a small initiative, and Victor’s case might just go down as an inspirational story, but the lessons learned from this can change the current idea of ‘Governance’.

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