In the 2nd episode of Amazon Prime’s Panchayat, the protagonist (a panchayat secretary) had a seemingly easier task to manage. The task to decide the location for 13 solar lights in the panchayat office was sanctioned through a Member of Parliament’s grant. In the meeting called for deciding the location, the sarpanch instantly announced that each of the 10 ward members, including Deputy Sarpanch and the Sarpanch himself, will keep one solar light each.
Thus, they were left with one light whose location had to be discussed. The scene of the meeting is an amusing one. It showed that even the local community leaders may end-up with misallocation (and even corruption) of the resources at hand. These decisions were also guided by local faith. In case of this episode, it was the decision to put a light in front of a ‘ghost tree’.
This scene in the web series reminded me of a similar incidence that happened in a tribal village located in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. I was deployed at the location to manage a project to make India’s first digital village. I stayed in that village for one and a half years.
We requested the district administration to help us with 32 street lights, as the power cuts in the village lasted for 6-10 hours a day and the electrical poles were not sufficient. The request was then redirected to the Tribal Development Department, which agreed to funded the project. However, the procedure involved took a little more than a year to arrive reach the village. By that time, the power situation in the area had gotten better.
Thus, I thought that the best way to utilise the lights would be to use them for supplementing electric poles and place them at places where electric poles are less, yet, the commuting of people is substantial. The women in the 17 self-help groups (SHGs) of the village suggested these places by mapping them.
Nevertheless, I was not entitled to take any decision, the Panchayat had to do it. Just like the episode in the web-series, the sarpanch of this Panchayat was also a woman, more precisely, a tribal woman from the Korku tribe. However, unlike in the series, the de-facto sarpanch was the Deputy Sarpanch, a male who belonged to the local OBC community, which has more agricultural land, more livestock, and on an average, better education.
While Deputy Sarpanch acknowledged the decision of the SHGs, he cited that they don’t have enough knowledge about the need of the village. He agreed to let women put their opinion in the Gram Sabha of the village. But he ended up holding a separate meeting with the women and told me that he was allowing women more space and time to give their opinion. In my opinion, the actual reason was not to let a large number of women attend the Gram Sabha meeting.
Women attending the Gram Sabha of the village was a recent phenomenon then. This was because of the confidence the women gained after stepping out of their homes to attend their weekly SHG meetings. Through various training programmes in the local government administration, essential banking and government procedures, women got enough confidence in at least putting forth their demands to the village leaders. However, they were still not confident about standing up strongly in front of the de-facto sarpanch. It is important to note that the elected women sarpanch was not a member of these SHGs.
After my persistent nudging to accept the women’s proposal, the Deputy Sarpanch said, “Prakash ji, please understand. I am a political leader, and I have to keep politics in my mind as well,” and partially agreed to the places suggested by the women.
Later, he completed the distribution of the street lights on basically four parameters. One, lanes in which the house of a panchayat member was located. Panchayat members (not necessarily the Ward Panch) may not get the light in front of their house, but they could get it in the lane in which their house was located. Two, a few places that the women had suggested, the centre of the cottage industry where all SHG women used to work, those places where women used to feel scared on getting out at night, and near key hand-pumps.
Three, the overall distribution of the street lights is likely to be more towards the cluster of houses where his community members were living. His argument was that street lights were more needed there. This was reduced substantially after my persistent request. Lastly, all the temples of the village will get one solar street light, even if there is an electric pole already. But, he didn’t take any solar street light for his house or lane. Also, the elected Sarpanch didn’t get any either. In fact, she didn’t play any role in this distribution, but was informed at the end.
The story of these 32 solar street lights is similar to that of any other resource that came to the village. Interestingly, the complete need-based distribution of the resource is not true even at the lowest level of the government administration i.e. the Panchayat. These decisions were generally an outcome of factors such as local faith, caste dynamics and power relations among individuals.