What to expect from the third phase of ‘Back to Village’ programme
BY: Arka Chakraborty/Kasturi Guha
The third phase of the public outreach programme ‘Back to Village’ (B2V) will begin from October 2nd and continue till October 12th. The first of its kind initiative was launched by the J&K administration in June last year for “strengthening governance at the grassroots level and enhancing participatory development”.
The ‘Back to Village’ programme aims to involve the people and government officials in a joint effort to deliver the mission of equitable development. The programme is aimed at energizing Panchayats and directing development efforts in rural areas through community participation.
As part of this programme, gazetted officers of the J&K administration will have to reach out to each Panchayat of the Union Territory, where they will interact with the people and obtain feedback from them so as to tailor government efforts in improving the delivery of village-specific services.
The ‘Back to Village’ programme has been conceived with the objective of ensuring that developmental initiatives are built on the feedback and cooperation of the people, thus being more result-oriented with a greater probability of success.
Major goals of the programme
1) Energizing panchayats
2) Collecting feedback on the delivery of government schemes and programmes
3) Capturing the specific economic potential
4) Undertaking an assessment of the needs of villages.
Nepal’s ‘Back to Village’ (1967-1975) was a national campaign aimed at bringing development, limited to the urban centers, to the rural populace which comprises the majority of the total population there. Encouraged by the spirit and success of this programme, the J&K government decided to launch its own ‘Back to Village’ initiative to bring the almost “inaccessible” state bureaucracy to the villagers’ doorsteps, rejuvenate the almost defunct Gram Panchayats and build a bridge between the state administration, the local Panchayati Raj and the rural population in order to navigate towards village-specific, need-based development. Equitable development, in this way, would be reached by giving the local administration and population both agency and responsibility through the community-driven initiative.
The first phase of ‘Back to Village’ programme (B2V-1) was conducted from June 20 to June 27, 2019. The overwhelming success of the programme in terms of local enthusiasm and participation encouraged the Union Territory government to launch a second ‘Back to Village’ initiative (B2V-2) which was conducted from November 25 to November 30, 2019 and which, according to the Government spokesperson Rohit Kansal (Principal Secretary, Power Development and Information Department), was also a ‘huge success.’
Now, the UT government has announced the third phase of the B2V programme (B2V-3), to be held from October 2 to October 12, 2020. An additional pre-B2V Jan Abhiyan is to be held from September 10 to October 1.
A brief rundown of Phases I and II of ‘Back to Village’ programme
The first phase of the ‘Back to Village initiative witnessed a flurry of activities carried out by the administration in consultation with the rural population of Jammu and Kashmir. The activities reportedly undertaken during the first phase were as follows:
(1) More than 4000 gazetted officers (precisely 4189 officers, according to an e-book published by the Finance department) including high-rank officers like the Principal Secretary were assigned a Panchayat halqa which they visited for two days and one night.
(2) The individual visiting officer was directed to speak to the Sarpanch, the Panches and the villagers of the Panchayat area. He was assigned to learn in detail about their grievances and collect feedback on the delivery of government schemes.
(3) The officer also visited schools, primary healthcare centers, Anganwadi facilities and other public service institutions in the area.
(4) Basic living conditions like the availability of food, drinking water conditions and water supply, electricity and sanitation were reviewed.
(5) Specific economic potential was captured and village-specific need assessment was conducted.
(6) Camps were conducted by various departments (ex.: Agriculture, Horticulture) to raise awareness about individual beneficiary oriented government schemes available.
(7) Financial Literacy Camps were organized.
(8) Competitions were held where sports kits, MNREGA job cards and SC/ST certificates were distributed.
(9) After detailed discussions, five main areas of economic potential and five major problems confronting the people in every Gram Panchayat were identified and seven urgent public demands were prioritized.
(10) Two economic schemes benefitting landholding families and unorganized sector workers i.e. PM Kisan Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Maan-dhan were introduced during the programme.
The second phase of ‘B2V’ was more about “assessment of progress in decisions taken by the administration” and “devolution of funds to Panchayats and understand how they are functioning and their grievances and demands”.
The B2V-2 was distinct than B2V-1 as the administration drew its experience of the latter to plan for the former. Although core highlights like gazetted officers visiting a Panchayat halqa remained, there were some significant differences such as:
(1) Rs 1,000 crore were devolved for Panchayats to aid development.
(2) The gazetted officers had the specific objectives of following up on B2V-1, empowering Panchayats and addressing objections on objectives such as doubling farmer income by 2022 and 100% coverage of individual beneficiary oriented schemes (examples: scholarships, pensions and other individual assistance schemes).
Merits of the programme
‘Back to Village’ is an initiative with incredible potential for bridging the communication gap between administration and the common people. As the officials arrive at peoples’ doorsteps to understand and address the grievances of villagers, they are providing a sense of agency to them in determining their own developmental future. This approach can build trust among the people and strengthen their ties with the government.
More to the point, policy planning built upon the bottom-up approach of village-specific needs is a far better approach than one based on a top-down approach. The availability of funds will make the Panchayats effective entities of local governance and therefore the participatory democracy will be strengthened on the grassroots level.
“Grievances have been scripted on paper. None of them have been addressed so far”, writes Abid Rashid Baba, recounting the post B2V situation in his village. The Panchayat halqa, where the author lives, lacks educational infrastructure, proper water supply, electricity, roads, transportation system, ATM facilities, Animal Husbandry, Agriculture and Horticulture departments. According to Baba, the gazetted officer recorded all these grievances during the first phase of B2V programme, but nothing has been done to address these grievances.
This unresponsive approach of the administration and its disappearance from the rural areas after the conclusion of B2V-1 programme was witnessed across hundreds of villages in J&K, with people being disappointed by an almost defunct grievance redressal mechanism. Speaking of which, the people in Jammu and Kashmir complained about the lack of a swift bureaucratic response to their grievances in the form of redressal initiatives and termed the B2V-1 as one of the many broken promises.
Due to the aforementioned reasons, along with the distrust generated by the abrogation of J&K’s special status in August last year, the public participation in the second phase of B2V remained much lower than the first phase.
The B2V-2 programme (November 25-30, 2019), which was supposed to have a follow-up on the steps taken in the B2V-1, did not initiate any steps for the fulfilment of the promises made by the government. Areas like Simbal and Bhalwal in Jammu still await the fulfilment of the promises made by the gazetted officers more than a year ago.
Local politicians have alleged that the UT government has introduced the B2V programme only to create a bureaucratic an alternative for the regular/elected government and thereby marginalizing the political workers operating on the ground.
It becomes clear from the aforementioned facts that the implementation of the last two phases of the ‘Back to Village’ programme, a “potential path-breaker on the paper”, faced a lot of challenges on the ground. However, the administration has one more chance, in the form of the third phase of the B2V, to ensure the effective implementation of the programme.
The third phase of the B2V is expected to yet again begin with the commitment of successful implementation and here are a set of recommendations on what administration needs to do to fulfil that commitment.
(1) Institutionalize Back to Village programme: The visits made by the officials to the rural areas during the last two phases of B2V programme should become a routine exercise of the administration.
(2) The administration should appoint one official for every village who would act as a bridge between the rural population/the local Panchayats and the bureaucracy.
(3) It should be the joint responsibility of the Panchayats and the appointed official to ensure that the resources devolved to the Panchayats for the sake of development are used judiciously and effectively.
(4) The administration should identify the unfulfilled promises made during the last two phases of B2V and ensure their fulfillment in the third phase of the programme. Fast and effective redressal of public grievances is the only way to rebuild public trust in the administration.
(5) The administration should provide the far-flung villages with basic amenities, such as roads, running water, and electricity.
(6) A ‘vision document’ should be prepared, from the data collected during the B2V programme, that would shape the current and future policies of the administration.
The third phase of the ‘Back to Village’ programme is scheduled to begin on October 2, the birthday of the father of the Nation M. K. Gandhi who believed that the future of India lies in its villages. If the programme is based on this famous statement of Gandhi, then surely we can expect some positive outcomes from it.
The fact that the third phase of the pre-B2V Jan Abhiyan, the Unat Gram Abhiyan, is focused on redressing the issues that could not be addressed during the previous two phases of B2V suggests that the administration is demonstrating the ability and willingness to hold itself accountable.
The promises made in the previous phases of B2V have to be fulfilled on a priority basis else the B2V programme would be reduced to a “festival of hollow promises”.