A New Attitude Towards Government

We were all in Vadodara at Hotel Planet. We gathered in front of the gate after light breakfast at 7:30 am. In 10 minutes, we were told that the bus has arrived. And it began, 15 of us ready to embark on a journey which was supposed to change our outlook towards governance and government (trust me, they are distinct, until a week back, I also thought them to be same). Little did we know what lay ahead, but we were brimming over with enthusiasm, completely oblivious of the fact whether we would be able to sustain the enthusiasm for the next few days, since one thing was certain that the next few days were going to be different from our conventional lives.

Let’s go some time back in history….

It was 16th November when I heard from Shubham about Good Governance Yatra. He told me that it aimed at training young minds about various models of government and intricacies involved in policy making. He advised me to register in case it excited me. I believe that such knowledge is important for someone who sees his future as a policy-maker. Looking at current breed of politicians, let me re-emphasize: it is important, but neither necessary nor sufficient. It was 1 am in the night, without further ado, I started the application process and it was 3 am, when I finally clicked on the Submit button. 3 days later, I heard back from Shubham saying that I was selected.

Now fast-forwarding to the eve of the D-day:
12th December, 2014 :

I arrived at Vadodara in the evening after a long and tiresome train journey from Hyderabad. All the yatris were asked to assemble at Hotel Planet, quite close to the railway station. I met with the fellow yatris who had already arrived, I could sense the thin wall of formality which would soon be broken, rather shattered (broken is too weak a word to describe this). Our dinner was hosted by Jigar bhai, in charge of the Gujarat leg of the yatra, where we were briefed about GGY and Vision India Foundation (the NGO organizing the yatra). It was an all-in-all Gujarati meal & then I realized why Narendra Bhai (our honorable PM) asks for Gujarati food wherever he goes. We were given the reading material and asked to be mentally prepared for a hectic and packed 8 days.

Gujarat being on the western part of India & it being winter season, the sun was a bit lazy but we weren’t. We did beat the sun, and the sun woke up to find us ready to start the journey.

Our first project was a visit to Sardar Sarovar Dam followed by a visit to one of the Rehabilitation villages. After a 2 hour ride, the bus stopped in front of a spacious white-coloured building in a sparsely populated area. We could see hills on our both sides, we later came to know that they were the Vindhyas and the Satpura Range, between which flows the NARMADA. The interiors of the place were decorated with various pictures of the Narmada, the dam itself in different phases of its construction, and the adjoining power station. And there stood Sardar, the Iron Man of India beaming with pride at whoever enters the premises, as if he wanted to tell us — Fulfillment of my vision lies at your shoulders, don’t give up. After a brief visit around the hall, we were taken to board room where a senior engineer, in his 60’s, was waiting for us to show us a presentation. The presentation chiefly dwelt on a brief history of the dam, various obstructions in its path, the adverse and useful impacts of the dam. It also talked about the engineering marvel of the dam, and the details like usage of radial gates instead of vertical, which I’ll omit here.

After the theoretical understanding, it was time for some practical observations. So, we left for the dam site. On the way we stopped for some time at the site of the Statue of Unity, where the construction was in full swing. We were told how it was going to boost the tourism industry in Gujarat and come up as a chief center for water recreation. Finally we reached the dam site. We could see a massive wall between Vindhyas on one side and Satpura on the other. Standing on top of the wall, when we looked upstream, there was water everywhere till the sky met the water surface and became one with it. In all the amazement, we were reminded of how many villages might have been submerged under that mighty reservoir. From the reservoir, ran a canal (called the Narmada canal) which carried water to various parts of Gujarat and also 70 km into Rajasthan through its network.There were also 2 power stations, one with capacity 1200 MW, and the other with capacity 250 MW. The 1200 MW power station has reversible turbines, it would produce electricity when water is released downstream, but it can also serve to pump water upstream in case there is excess water downstream. The main intention of Gujarat behind the dam is to provide drinking water and irrigation facilities to otherwise drought-prone region. Gujarat is a power surplus state, hence a major share of the power generated goes to Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

After an eventful first half, we came back to the same old building for lunch. There we had some government officials waiting for us who supervised the resettlement and rehabilitation process. Post lunch, we were shown a presentation which focused on how Government of Gujarat has followed a liberal rehabilitation policy through which the benefits have reached the last person displaced.Now it was time for verification…

We went to the largest and oldest rehabilitation village, named Suka. When we got down from the bus, the children gathered around us like in any other village. Let alone children, even the adults hardly remembered that they had moved from somewhere else. It was only when we interacted with the old people that we could do a comparative analysis.

Each family was given 5000 sq feet of land for residential purposes irrespective of the size of their plot in their native place. Additionally, they were also given 45000 cash to construct their house. In fact the rehabilitation policy of GoG was so liberal that the adult brothers who earlier stayed together were given 5K sq feet land each. With regard to agricultural land, each family was a either 2 acre or equal to the land he previously owned in submerged village, whichever is greater. Each of the houses had electricity connection & the roads were well laid out. We were told that the municipality pays the bills of the streetlights (an allowance for the rehabilitation village, unavailable to other villages). The fields were well irrigated from the water from the Narmada canal, they did not have this facility in their native village. Overall the people were happy, their living standards had gone up, evident from DTH antenna on the top of almost all the houses. in fact we were given chilled water to drink when we asked for it, suggesting that the family even had refrigerator. The villagers told us that a doctor visited the village twice a week, and they can call ambulance in case of delivery or other serious conditions. Certainly, Suka is not a model village, it had its own share of problems like lack of proper schools, teachers, sanitation facilities, but it’s a shame that these problems are common to all the villages in India. Additionally, the government has provided them with so many freebies that they don’t take any initiative on their own, they want the government to do everything. the bureaucrats accompanying us told that the plan was to merge Suka with the host village, but we believe that it won’t be easy since this will mean an end to their special status. Another contentious point that we found out was that the government is still paying 45K to new families being resettled, but in the present time, constructing a house in 45K is close to impossible.

I wondered at the kind of pessimism we carry with ourselves. Each one of us was skeptical after the presentation since our prior experience with government and bureaucrats has knowingly or unknowingly taught us not to trust them. It was a Sunday. The engineers and the bureaucrats still came and answered all our questions. The passion with which they spoke bears testimony to the amount of work they have done. If they had not done a good job or were ashamed of their work, they would not be standing in front us with their heads held high, and quenching all our doubts.They laid a lot of emphasis on the political will for the success of this project. In fact if it were not for the persistence of GoG, the Sardar Sarovar Dam would never have seen the light of the day. In fact the engineer was quick to point out that the proposal to increase the height of the dam was pending since 2006, but

They laid a lot of emphasis on the political will for the success of this project. In fact if it were not for the persistence of GoG, the Sardar Sarovar Dam would never have seen the light of the day. In fact the engineer was quick to point out that the proposal to increase the height of the dam was pending since 2006, but as soon as Narendra Bhai occupied 7 RCR, it was cleared & the work has started with so much vigour that they are 6 months ahead of schedule.

On the 4th day of the Yatra, we visited Punsari village, the first digital village of India. We were received by Himanshu Patel, who is the present Sarpanch of the village and the man behind the transformation of the village. It is here that I realized what a Sarpanch can do for his village. I come from a village in eastern Uttar Pradesh where Sarpanches come and go, but the village remains as it is. Himanshu ji has transformed the face of the village. The biggest takeaway from this visit was that if your intentions are good and you are well informed of government schemes, you can do a lot. We all know how popular is dairy-cooperative in Gujarat. Like any other village, the women in Pansari had to travel miles carrying milk. Himanshu ji thought that a bus run by Gram Panchayat for carrying women to and fro milk-collection centres will solve their plight. But it would have been a great strain on the funds of the Panchayat, hence he got the funds through some NGO for women, and now the bus is running. Similarly he has come with CCTV cameras at regular intervals, which has not only reduced the crime rates, but has also made the government officials including police more regular, as it is now very easy to monitor them. The entire village has WIFI access, and he doesn’t forget to charge Rs 50 for this facility. One practice that runs through all his facilities is that he doesn’t give any of those for free. He charges a token amount, which is essential, otherwise people end up losing its value.

It’s not that there was no resistance, every system has inertia & Punsari was no exception, but with strong will and trust in his actions, which comes only when you are on the right path, Newton obliged and the state changed. People of Pansari have moved from a state of resistance to a state of acceptance, so much so that the youngsters are coming up with ideas for apps to make life simpler. From my personal experience, I had lost faith in government schools but in Punsari, the intake in government schools has increased manifold and dropout is almost zero. Himanshu ji has installed CCTV cameras in classrooms, with screens located at several centres in the village. What this basically means is that a guardian can keep a check on the activities of his child, and the teachers are also at their toes since they know that they are under surveillance. He is planning to tag each house so that you canlocate each house on GPS. To increase the participation of people, he is planning to install machines in various parts of the village where you can vote Yes/No. He plans to use it to gauge public opinion before taking any decision. To support the various initiatives he has taken, he has made sure that the Gram Panchayat comes with other sources of revenue. He gives the Panchayat land on rent for pastures, grazing land. He also charges tax from shops or other businesses located in the Panchayat’s land.

We visited around 15 projects. If I start writing about all of them, I can go on and on, but due to the constraints of time and space, I just wrote about two of them.
Finally, the prized question,
What did I gain out of it ?
If you expect my answer to be something tangible or quantifiable, I am sorry to disappoint you. It has transformed me as a person.
Can’t that change come through other means?
May be, may not be. I attended the Yatra, and I can comment on what happened as a result, but when you ask what would have happened if I hadn’t attended it and done something else, it’s a completely different space with too many conditional statements and too many unknowns.

Final Words

Deep inside me, there lies a person who wants to be part of change that he wants to see. But all I had done till now was criticize the policies from a 3rd person perspective without having a complete picture. I had become so cynical that I started believing that whatever little progress that the country has made or is making is not due to the government, but despite the government.

It is this attitude which GGY has sought to change. It made me realize the intricacies of policy making, and showed me how the policies that I had so far criticized had the pros, which media had intentionally or unintentionally ignored. As I have mentioned earlier that political will plays a very important role. I would like to quote a line from one of our projects: Targeted approach, pressure from the top, and demand from the bottom are responsible for its success. It reminded me of a statement I heard long back: Politics is a dirty game, but rather than sitting back and cribbing, get up, enter politics and prove it otherwise.

Shashank is a software engineer at Microsoft. He was a delegate at Good Governance Yatra 2015 organized by Vision India Foundation.

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