Tag Archives: Village Panchayats

Stories of households in poverty [2]: Champaben Palas at Andhari village, district Dahod, Gujarat

Some time ago I studied some households living in multi-dimensional poverty conditions in various states. I spent a considerable amount of time with all the members of the families, and accompanied working members to their places of work. I tried to understand their desperate livelihood strategies, their external environment, their needs for financial services, and their access to social protection. I am sharing some selected stories here. The names mentioned here have been changed to protect their anonymity despite their express consent for using their names.

Second of such stories relates to the household of Champaben of Dahod district at Gujarat. Champaben does not know her age but she may be about 35 years of age, based on the estimates of her neighbours. She lives with her husband Ramanbhai and two sons aged 14 and 10 years. She belongs to Bhil tribe, an ST community.

Human capital

Champa and her husband are illiterate. They do not have any skill marketable in the employment market. Champa also suffers from bad health and is not able to perform manual labour. Their elder son stopped going to the school after passing class seven about a year ago, and has joined unskilled labour force seeking work at Andhari or at the nearby town, Limkheda. It may not be very long before he starts migrating to support his family. The younger one is studying in class five, and is continuing his studies primarily because the village has a school and he is receiving government scholarship available for the SC and ST children.

 Dwelling and assets

Their house is in dilapidated condition. It does not have a toilet or an electricity connection. They have four wooden cots and a few basic aluminium and steel utensils in the house. Champa cooks on a clay chulha (stove) with firewood collected by her and the children during the day. The household has five bighas of agricultural land[1]. Out of it, one bigha is rain-fed and is not suitable for growing paddy. They can only have one crop on this field and grow maize during monsoon. The other four bighas are irrigated and they can cultivate two crops viz. paddy and maize. They can also grow lentils and vegetables on this land. All of four bighas are however mortgaged to raise some money for her treatment. They have a milch cow.

Livelihood strategies

The household has mortgaged four bighas of agricultural land for raising some credit, and is engaged in cultivating maize in one bigha of the land remaining with them. It suffices to meet the household’s food requirements for three to four months. Champa’s husband was earlier migrating to Vadodara but has stopped it for last three years, as Champa is not keeping well. Along with his son, he looks for the casual work in and around the village when not engaged in cultivating the field. They also go to Limkheda in search of work. Champa cannot do much work so she works on the field, and when there is no work on the field she collects grass from the fields in monsoon and sells it at Limkheda. She also looks after the cow.

Food security and vulnerability

Their staple diet is maize chapattis and vegetable curry. They are not able to grow lentils on their remaining field as there is no means of irrigation and they cannot cultivate anything in the winter and summer seasons. As the lentils are very costly, they buy it in smaller quantities and get to eat it only on special occasions or when they have sufficient money. They afford to have non-vegetarian meals even more rarely, with one such meal in three-four months. Milk of the cow is only sufficient for making tea. The household has however not suffered from hunger in the recent past partly due to their entitlement to the PDS food.

 Other consumptions and expenditures

Champa and her husband have not bought clothes for themselves for last three years after he stopped migrating. As they have a school-going son, it requires them to buy books and stationery costing about INR 300 every year. The clothes for the children are procured with the amounts of their scholarship that is available to all the children belonging to ST and SC families (elder son also received the scholarship until last year). Major routine expense is on chandlo, but as their financial condition is not good they avoid making large payments for chandlo. They have to still spend at least INR 3,000 on it every year.

Significant events and income shocks

Champa has developed some heart problem, and keeps having fever and pain in her chest for last four years. She gets herself treated at a private hospital. She has already spent about INR 30,000 on her treatment. Whenever she goes to the hospital the doctors inject a bottle of glucose in her body, give her medicines, and charge about INR 600. She becomes better but starts feeling pain and fever again after about 20 days which is followed by similar treatment. Each round of pain and fever leaves her weaker; she gets bouts of dizziness and frequently suffers from nausea. According to her, even her husband has got tired of all this. Her treatment appears to be addressing the symptoms without diagnosing the disease. But that seems to be in the interest of the private hospital at the cost of her well-being, which also has serious economic implications for her household. She does not want to go to a government hospital, as she and the people like her, being illiterate, do not understand their procedures at the government hospitals and much of their time is wasted there on unnecessary things. Such practices delay the treatment and patients suffer. Moreover, the people attending to the patients lose their working hours and thus their wages.

She had to borrow INR 5,000, 4,500, 5,500, 3,000, and 3,000 on different occasions for her treatment by mortgaging her land during last four years. Her sickness prevents her husband from migrating and earning better incomes. Her long sickness has also turned away her well-wishers. They no longer come forward to help her when she has shortage of food and other provisions. Her household gets provisions only when her husband has work and brings home his wages. Her son does not get much work as he looks young and weak, and the people in need of casual labor are not convinced of employing him.

Financial needs

Champa’s household requires money to meet her medical expenses, reconstruct their house, meet their regular consumption needs including the expenditure on chandlo, and to provide for other contingencies. Some of the required funds can be generated by saving a part of the wages of her husband and her son, whenever they get work. They thus require a savings mechanism that is not only reliable but also has provisions for smaller but frequent transactions. It should also have provisions to conduct transactions outside their working hours. All of their financial needs, however, cannot be met by savings alone and they require frequent access to smaller but reasonably priced credit for their agricultural investments, to meet Champa’s medical expenses and other emergency needs, and smoothen their consumption during the periods of lean incomes.

Champa’s husband needs to be insured as he is the only earning member as of now and if something happens to him, Champa will also be deprived of her medical treatment. His daily wage casual employment does not provide him with any security. Health insurance is equally important, as, in addition to reduce their health expenses, it will facilitate their treatments at more competent hospitals. They also need to insure their cow, the only productive asset other than their agricultural land.

 Access to financial services and microfinance

Champa does not have access to any formal financial service or microfinance. This explains why she had to mortgage four bighas of her land to borrow small sums of INR 3,000 to 5,500 on five different occasions. Mortgaging of the land has further limited her capacity to repay her loans. She is now finding it difficult to access loans through informal mechanisms as well, as she does not have any collateral to offer and the lenders who offer costlier loans without collateral are apprehensive of her repayment capacity. She had to therefore cajole her niece to lend her INR 2,000 just before my final visit to her household, as she was not getting the money from any other source and she had to show herself to the doctor.

 Social protection programmes available to the household

Her household has got an Antyodaya ration card to access the PDS subsidised food. Ration cardholders in the village do not seem to be aware of their exact entitlement of subsidized food. This situation allows the PDS shop-keeper to disburse less quantities of foodstuff than those prescribed, and record larger quantities in their ration cards that the ration cardholders either cannot read or do not want to read considering it useless. According to champa, she gets five kg of rice, 10 to 15 kg of wheat flour and two kg of sugar every month on payment of INR 120. The entries on their ration card reveal that they were disbursed 17 kg of wheat flour, 16 kg of rice and 4.5 kg of sugar in July 2008, and 16 kg wheat flour, 13 kg of rice and two kg of sugar in August 2008. According to provisions in TPDS for Gujarat state, an Antyodaya cardholders is entitled to receive 16.7 kg flour (for INR 38), 16 kg rice (for INR 48), and 500 gm sugar per person in the household. Thus, Champa is receiving less than her entitled food at higher than prescribed rates. Even more interesting is the case of cooking oil. None of the villagers including Champa were aware of its provision or reported to have received it but as per their cards, they have “received” four liter of oil in July and one liter in August 2008. Earlier also, according to her ration card, one liter of cooking oil was distributed in the months of July, August, September and October 2007 respectively, which she denied to have received.

 Champa’s household also received subsidy for construction of her house under IAY in the year 2005-06. According to her, they received a total of INR 28,000 in three instalments, out of which an amount of INR 11,000 was allegedly taken away in various forms of commission even when the money was disbursed to her through a bank account.

A provision has been kept in Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY) to disburse the housing subsidy through a bank account so that the money is transferred in full to the account, and accessed in full by the recipient. This is in response to the reports of the recipients not receiving the total amount of subsidies in the cash delivery system. The bank however requires them to withdraw their money in the presence of the sarpanch and one block level government official as bank people do not “recognize” them. Such requirement creates situations similar to the cash delivery systems and the recipients have to part with a portion of their installment under a threat that if they do not do so they would not receive the next installment. Champa says, ‘We don’t understand such things, as they get money in their hands and then pass on some amount to us, mentioning that they will have to give this much to this person, that much to that person etc. When we are in bank, the sarpanch asks us to put thumb impressions on papers and then gives us some money mentioning that the remaining amount is needed to be given to officials who would not do our work without “eating” money. If the money is not given to these sahibs we would not get our next installment. We don’t even know how much is being given to whom. If we come out of the bank without paying, the sarpanch comes to our home, scolds us and threatens that we would not get our next installment if we do the same. We are tribals and illiterate so we don’t understand anything.’ Thus involving local government institutions in the delivery of social protection suffers from the structural deficiency characterizing such institutions. The institutional centrality of one person, sarpanch, within the institution of gram panchayats makes the process of delivery of social protection immensely vulnerable to misuse.

The official records suggest that she has been disbursed a total of INR 35,887 as the subsidy amount but according to her she has received only INR 17,000. There is no way to verify the veracity of her statement, and the sarpanch and the government officials predictably denied her allegations. Her allegations were however anecdotally corroborated in several interviews[2]. In any case, whatever money they received was not sufficient for the complete construction of their house. They borrowed INR 5,000 at an interest rate of 120% per annum and put in their savings worth about INR 5,000 towards constructing the house. With the available money, they were able to construct the foundation and erect the walls. As the structure was open, it collapsed during the rains.

After the collapse of the house they got it photographed by spending INR 300, approached the block office for government prescribed relief, filled up the application form for such relief, and took several rounds of block office and the house of the sarpanch, but to no avail. All this took a heavy toll on Champa’s health affecting her heart and requiring them to mortgage their fields. In addition to considerably reducing their income because of the land mortgage, her disease prevented her husband from migrating, which further worsened their economic condition.

An NGO was assigned the task to construct 44 latrines under TSC in the village, but only the toilet seats were found put in the open without walls or soak pits. One toilet seat is also kept in the field near her house. Further inquiries revealed that the NGO has already been disbursed the total budget and no further construction would take place.

 Additional financial needs generated by social protection programmes

Champa admits that if the subsidized PDS food was not available to the household, her family would have starved for at least one to two months every year. This however creates a demand of INR 120 for her household on the day of distribution every month. Sometimes when they do not have that amount and cannot arrange for it, they have to forego their entitlement of the subsidized food. Champa however tries very hard to arrange for the money on the day of distribution. Earlier she used to ask her neighbors for money but they have started avoiding her now due to her health problems and worsening economic condition of the household.

Access to cheap and adequate credit may have enabled her to construct her house completely. That would have improved her condition of living substantially and would have perhaps benefited her health. In absence of such access to credit, not only the IAY subsidy was rendered totally useless, but the household also had to pay substantial interest on INR 5,000 they borrowed and lost their savings worth INR 5,000. Similarly, they could not derive any benefit from the provisions under the TSC for want of access to small but reasonably priced credit.

 Leveraging on their social capital to meet financial needs

Champa is not worried about the expenditure she needs to incur towards the marriage of her sons in terms of the dowry and feast for the villagers. As she has been contributing chandlo to other households towards marriages and other occasions, she knows that she would get sufficient amount in the form of chandlo to be able to marry her sons off without taking recourse to borrow at a high interest rate. Her sickness has however weakened her social ties and she is not able to manage small amounts of loans without interest from her neighbors now as much as she could do earlier. She could however arrange for a loan of INR 2,000 recently from her niece to meet her medical expenditure.

[1] She does not know how much land she owns; most of the villagers do not know the measurement of their fields, they know it physically. It is like they belong to the land, rather than land belonging to them. They always come up with the quantity of seeds they require to sow the fields. In case of Champa, the land requires 25 kg of maize.

[2] Interestingly, the people who were better off than others and had managed to receive such subsidy denied having been forced to pay a cut on their subsidies. They were perhaps aware of the fact they did not deserve it and so it was fair for them to part with a portion of their ill-gotten money. Men in the other poorer houses were also hesitant in talking about such things, perhaps fearing that they would be victimised later if the concerned officials and the sarpanch came to know of their reporting it to me. Women in all cases were more forthcoming, perhaps because they are not so street smart to foresee such consequences of their revelations and also because they are perhaps more sensitive to the injustice and have not fully accepted it.

 

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Why Should Village Panchayats have Formal Once-in-five-year Elections?

After more than two decades of 73rd amendment of Indian Constitution, panchayats are an essential feature of Indian democratic landscape, and are being engaged in implementing and monitoring development and social protection programs with varying results across different states. Establishing a localized institution of panchayats on the basis of regular elections with universal adult suffrage was a major step towards deepening of democracy in Indian villages. There are, however, widespread concerns that panchayats are not evolving as units of decentralized governance within Indian democracy. Their performance appears to be falling short of being satisfactory when judged with respect to participation of people, especially women and the poor, efficiency of delivery of various development programs, and accountability of panchayat leadership towards their electorate.

Elite capture

It has been generally observed that societies characterized by patron-client relationships are more vulnerable to corruption and elite capture, as the nature of social and economic engagements between elites and non-elites does not allow non-elites to claim their rightful share of benefits and rewards. The panchayat system along with many other state-sponsored measures and ever-increasing integration of the village economies with the larger economies has transformed the patron-client relationships across the country. It has given rise to a new class of elite with newly acquired political and economic power. Although a whole bunch of erstwhile patrons has migrated to this class but it no longer retains the same hold over its clients. This new class of elite is attempting hard to monopolise the benefits of government and other programmes in collusion with the government bureaucracy.

Panchayats in their existing form are individual-centric and sarpanchs are tempted to use their power for their own personal gains and in the interests of the people close to them, for want of effective accountability mechanisms. The arrangement also suits local government functionaries who seek rents, as it is easier to collude with one person and take decisions on the delivery of government programmes in a manner that improves their chances of rent-collection. Such collusion therefore favours granting the benefits of government schemes to the relatively better off households within their broader delivery norms.

Identification of development program beneficiaries

Various studies, including my own, suggest that there are serious exclusion and inclusion errors while identifying beneficiaries for schemes such as pension, PDS, and subsidized housing. Such identification largely depends on decisions of sarpanch and panchayat secretary. Criteria for such identification are never known to villagers who feel that rent-seeking government officials and relatively more affluent people collude with sarpanch to include non-deserving households.

Participation

Panchayat system allows villagers to overtly participate through two important formal instruments; elections that normally take place once every five years and Gram Sabhas that are prescribed to be held twice in each year. Gram Sabhas consist of a large number of people and can be very intimidating for the poor people with low self-esteem. Agenda of the Gram Sabhas are monopolized by the relatively affluent and powerful. The poor, especially those belonging to the socially and economically depressed communities, and the women, are generally observed to be avoiding meetings of Gram Sabhas

Implications of imposed-from-the-top institutionalization

Once-in-five-year-elections create animosity among various groups of people, and deepen and widen almost all existing fault lines in the village constituency. They also make candidates spend money beyond their means to win elections which they attempt to recover in their tenure. Losing candidates also lose out substantial amount of money and some of them spend their entire energy to ensure that winning candidates do not succeed even when they may be doing best for their village communities.

Formal institution of panchayats somehow seems ill-fitting in the informal village societies in India. In any case, dialogue and interaction naturally occur and continue among the villagers on all the issues affecting their lives. In that sense, it appears to be artificial to formalize it through elections mandated to be held once in not less than five years thus constraining the scope of naturally occurring interactions among the people. Democratic structures in Indian villages may therefore be better served by having a character of continuous dialogue and feedback allowing the poor to claim larger political space for themselves and expand their political participation.

It seems logical to have one representative representing a large number of people in a state assembly or national parliament. Such representation cannot be altered very frequently as it would be very costly and will disrupt normal life in their constituencies, but in a village level setting, it is possible to change such representation more frequently depending upon village communities’ formal or informal meetings and resolutions. Lessons may be learnt from historical traditions of village republic in India and elsewhere as well as successful modern community organizations established around activities such as thrift and credit, watershed development, and joint forest management.