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A Strong Local Self Government Network Might Be The Answer To India’s Problems

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India’s federal evolution in the last seven decades is largely relations between state governments and centre. Though local self-governments were granted constitutional status in 1992 by 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, still they were bereft of political and administrative empowerment as a true form of government. The notion India followed to call local self-governments as a true form of government is incomprehensive because they were devoid of all other aspects of ‘democratic government’ except democratic elections. This resulted in the misplaced notion of local self-governments, impartial political decentralization, inadequate willingness to accept their significance in today’s challenges and lethargy in bringing reforms to make them truly what they intend to exist for.

Then there is the confusion of calling LSG as federal units. ‘Tier of government’ is different from ‘units of the federation’. Former is constitutional recognition as a democratic government (in parliamentary polity) for decentralised administrative and political purpose and later has a direct bearing on nature of Indian federation. This means that modifications in local self-governments will change the structure of decentralized polity and governance but a modification in centre-state relations will result in changes in the very nature of terms which made India a ‘Union of states’.

Political literature on ‘competitive’ and ‘cooperative’ governance largely involves centre and state relations. Unless local self-governments were not made ‘democratic’ politically, ‘independent’ economically and ‘executive’ administratively, they can neither be ‘competitive’ nor be ‘cooperative’. I am not going into empirical analysis for the above-mentioned propositions. One can do that after collecting facts and case studies available for inductive or deductive methodological research.

Analysis about local self-governments can be summed up in two broad areas of ‘significance of local self-governments (Gram Panchayats and Urban Local Bodies) in new challenges India facing in socio-economic development and governance’ and ‘constitutional and administrative reforms in local self-government’. My discussion in this article is limited to ‘significance of local self-governments in new challenges India facing in socio-economic development and governance’ particularly for Gram Panchayats. Discussion is divided into four broad categories. One is social structure and peace, second human development, third is creativity and technology dissipation and last is resources and climate change.

Local Self Government
Representational image/Source: LiveMint

Social Structure And Gram Panchayats

Let’s understand the social structure and peace. It includes social inequality and the role of local self-government. B.R.Ambedkar called ‘social equality’ a prerequisite to ‘political equality’. In ‘social endosmosis’, Ambedkar emphasised the primacy of society to the individual. The social hierarchy of cast is characteristics of society where there is no social mobility and communication between casts and individuals from various casts.

After implementing constitutional philosophy (fundamental rights, directive principles of state policy and fundamental duties) and affirmative action (reservation policy and various welfare measures) for 74 years, India, still substantially failed to eradicate social inequality deep-rooted in the Indian society. Dominant role cast play in parliamentary and state elections, state actions motivated by religion, targeting a particular minority community, mob lynching, excessive state action against a group of particular cast and substantial influence of religious organizations on state policies in the area of law-making, no uniform civil code, gender discrimination based on religion etc. were the clear observable facts for the existence of social inequality.

There is something hidden from all the above interpretations existing in Indian villages and hinterlands. Before that, let us understand the social efficacy of welfare measures and reservation policies. Reservation policy considers ‘inadequate representation’ as the basis for reservation in public employment and ‘historical injustice’ in preferential treatment in social opportunities. Up to a certain extent, these policies fainted or changed the nature of stark social inequality by allowing upward social mobility.

But the time has come for the saturation of ‘historical injustice’ and ‘inadequate representation’. Ambedkar himself proposed a ‘minority reservation’ principle. And now, both Parliament and judiciary were considering this maturation. In welfare measures, the word ‘welfare’ itself shows the philosophy of ‘social empowerment through economic empowerment’. It is an observable fact that, after the existence of the National Food Security Act and Public Distribution System for so many years, there still exists socio-economic inequality and discrimination. After adequate representation and economic upliftment, it seems as if Indian society is adopting social hierarchy, in its peculiar subtle way, as a ‘default’ social characteristic.

Centralised policies of reservation and welfare schemes implemented by central and state governments, with minimum psychological transformation at the grass-root level, helped to secure purchasing power but no social equality. Here comes the noble role local self-governments can play to remove this deep-rooted psyche. This ‘defaulting of social hierarchy’ can only be dismantled after inclusive citizen participation at the grass-root level, not only for economic upliftment but for creating ‘just’ villages.

Local Self Government
Representational image/Photo: Sutra Consulting

Human Development And Gram Panchayats

Human development is a broad term. It includes ‘subjective’ things like culture, traditions, values, spiritual and religion and ‘secular’ like wellbeing, purchasing power, livelihood opportunities, income inequality and capacity to be creative etc. To limit the scope, let’s focus here on ‘secular’ aspects. Wellbeing includes the social infrastructure of health and education. There is a decade-old chain of hospitals like PHCs and district hospitals providing vaccination and non-surgical medical treatments.

This chain, except for vaccination, has failed significantly as observed by the substantial, out of the pocket private expenditure on health. Mission Indradhanush2.0 was implemented with more community participation to cover every uncovered child. There are issues in maternity and infant health and nutrition. In addition to this, now we have mental health, non-communicable diseases and drug addictions. These issues are well documented in cities but not in villages. Prima facie, there is no recognition.

In education, after ‘Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan’ and ‘Ucchatar Shiksha Abhiyan’, the government of India implemented ‘Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (Schools+Teachers training) making education affordable and accessible in villages and remote hinterlands. In above, a major role is played by central and state-level administration to enforce the RTE Act and implement various schemes. Local self-government too played a role in regulating government schools according to the 73rd Constitutional amendment and 11th Schedule of the Constitution.

Another area is private investment in providing affordable education in rural areas. Those who already invested were suffering from political interference, low response and quality assessments. The main reason for this is absent of credible agency to assist, cooperate and sustain invested capital and related infrastructure at the village level. For universities, there is a central government, and at the state level, there are state governments but no one at the grass-root level. For consistency and effectiveness at the grass-root level, local-self-governments can fill the space so required.

In rural areas, livelihood is largely agro-oriented with some active MSME manufacturing. Livelihood includes agriculture, allied activities, agro-processing and non-agriculture. In agriculture, Gram Panchayats can integrate and convince farmers for mixed cropping, crop diversification, organic and cooperative farming. Gram Panchayats can best lead collective ownership for farm mechanization. In allied activities, there is a lack of administrative coherence with people.

Agro-processing and non-agriculture have a minimum private investment. In both areas, private investors were concerned about consistent raw material supply (Farm produce and industrial inputs) and market linkages. Here, Panchayats can play a trident role to revolutionise these areas. Gram Panchayats can act as an immediate layer of government to assist all stakeholders. If Gram Panchayats will be man and money empowered with collaborated technical expertise from public research agencies like ICAR and various NGOs, then it would improve the confidence of the private sector by creating localised skilled manpower.

COVID-19 lockdown saw an agriculture market failure. State governments permitted agriculture as an essential commodity; the district civil and police administration played a licensing role and APMCs were waiting for trucks. What went wrong is that there is no grass-root level agency or Gram Panchayats heavily failed to become an integrative facilitator to connect farmers, administration and markets. Not only in crises like natural calamity or situations like a pandemic, but in normal times too, Gram Panchayats can play a vital role in streamlining and integrating every aspect of livelihoods in rural areas.

Local Self Government
Representational image.

Creativity, Technology Dissipation And Gram Panchayats

There is tremendous scope for individual and collective creativity in realizing policies in health, education, and livelihood and women empowerment. Village potential in cultural tourism, agriculture tourism (as on-farm Grapes Melas in Maharashtra), folk art, crafts and traditional manufacturing industry are untouched areas. These areas have the potential to assist villages in becoming independent and self-reliant.

As far as Indian villages are concerned, technology can be viewed through three aspects. These are governance, digital literacy and handpicking of particular assistive technology. ‘BHARATNET’ i.e. ‘National Optical Fibre Network’ is an umbrella scheme to connect all the Gram Panchayats through broadband connectivity. It is the main internet infrastructure on which the edifice of rural digital connectivity can be erected. But sadly, in many Gram Panchayats, fibres were only hanging on the walls and computers were never switched; far away is their effective utilization.

The economic survey of 2019-2020 emphasised ‘data’ as ‘public good’. Gram Panchayats, if equipped, with internet infrastructure can help the centre-state and itself for data-driven policymaking and implementation. With State assistance and necessary skills, Gram Panchayats can use technology effectively in the areas like localised skill training, immigration tracking, inter-villages labour mobilization, weather communications, water conservation, watershed management and agriculture technologies like irrigation etc.

In conclusion, some of the above predictions seem mere ideas or hypothesis. But they exist in the limits of realizations. They were not utopian. Some of them may seem dynamic and others may be invariant but all were achievable by removing unpredictable hurdles. Recently, the government launched the ‘Gram Swaraj Portal’ to have all information at one place about all Gram Panchayats in the country. But Indian political leadership and Parliament need to understand that the technological dashboard will not solve the problem. Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘Gram Swaraj’ can’t be realised alone with technological tokens but by concrete constitutional and administrative reforms. In short, India needs Gram Panchayats with some sort of executive to implement its policies. They must become independent for revenue beyond state and central grants and devolutions. They must be local self-governments in their true spirit.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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