Kooram village, in Tamilnadu's Kancheepuram district, is the quintessential Naipaul-esque India - where sanitation facilities are so poor that open defecation is quite regular. Despite an absolute absence of community or individual toilets, the village passed up a Rs. 2-lakh sanitation project, and now its grama sabha - and a mortified Panchayat president, Anjali Devi Vishwanathan - are running helter-skelter to find the funds needed to get the public defecators off the streets.

Enter the Panchayat Academy. This peer-to-peer exchange programme, pioneered by Elango Rangasamy, president of Kutthambakkam village panchayat, is where Anjali found some relief. Not only did Elango find a funding source, but also the means to create a demand for toilets among his constituents. After a weekend workshop at the Academy, she has decided to follow the example set by a fellow panchayat leader in Thiruvallur district. Using the vibrant self-help group movement in her village, Anjali will advocate the need for hygiene and toilets, and route the loans and funds through the groups to ascertain prompt repayment.

Her experience is one of several successes in the area. In many villages in Kancheepuram as well as in the adjacent district of Thiruvallur, village leaders are finding solutions to their problems at the academy, where the collective experiences and wisdom of many communities is exchanged freely. Established in July 2003 as a people-centred initiative, the academy is a place where each month 40 or so panchayat leaders from around Tamilnadu learn about panchayati raj, the establishment of self-sufficient rural economies, and solutions to their pressing social issues. These leaders are exposed to the technologies developed at the resource centre that will provide them answers to development questions in their own villages.

A typical example unfolds itself during my visit, showing how the leaders engage in collective problem-solving. K Sundaramurthy from Orikkai village in Thiruvallur has a housing problem on his hand. He has found that children are faring poorly in school because their homes provide them little shelter. On a visit to the schools to interact with the teachers, Sundaramurthy chanced upon the solution to the poor academic performance of Orikkai students. "The children live in thatched structures with poor lighting and ventilation. Providing them with the most basic facilities could make a world of difference in their academic performance," he says.

Sundaramurthy's situation is typical - knowing what needs to be done is quite different from being able to do it, since the panchayats cannot meet the demand for all the needy in the villages despite a number of government schemes. The group of 10 leaders gathered at the academy discusses how the limited funds could be optimally used, and at what point could the commercial banks be brought in. And Elango then urges the Panchayat Presidents to pick credible beneficiaries to ensure rotation of funds after the loans are repaid.

"Village panchayats are taking on the role of agencies that lay roads, light up streets, and provide water. Their potential, though, is greater. The 73rd constitutional amendment has vested powers with the village panchayat to undertake development activities in 29 fields including education, nutrition, health and sanitation, and even mediation in times of communal clashes," says Elango.

Clearly, there is much more that the panchayats can do, and these first efforts are only a small beginning. Eight years and counting since the first local body elections, only a handful of the panchayats has woken up to the powers devolved into them. One such is the panchayat of Maakaral village. Here, a village-level committee regularly checks the supply of vegetables and cereals under nutrition programmes, often sending back produce that is below par. After a session at the Academy, Maakaral panchayat president E Govindaraju is now toying with the idea of sourcing local produce. "If the Government would give us the per-child fund allocation, we can get fresher raw materials at an economical rate locally," he adds.

The rest are keen to take back other suggestions, including committees for sanitation, education and nutrition. Easy acceptance of the Academy stems from the fact that it does not function like a conventional classroom. "The panchayat presidents are elected representatives and have their own experiences and perspectives of development for their village. By sharing experiences and by showcasing the successes at Kutthambakkam, the Panchayat leaders can be inspired to bring in rural autonomy," he avers.

In Kutthambakkam, the cost of energy has come down by 65 per cent, thanks to alternatives developed by Elango. And these examples have been emulated successfully other nearby villages.
 •  Interview: Elango Rangasamy
The Academy is also a very different sort of institution from kind of support the state government provides. Government initiatives in training panchayat heads often focus on maintaining accounts and preparing documents so that the panchayat leader can be a competent administrator. This has reduced confrontations between the Panchayat presidents and district Collectors, the pioneering spirit has become a casualty of this bureaucratic approach in the process.

One area of critical importance for the local self-governments is their poor financial health. A Department of Evaluation and Applied Research (DEAR) study, conducted in about 1000 panchayats in 2002, revealed that nearly 40 per cent of them were unable to meet even half their maintenance expenditure. Most of the small panchayats did not have resources to provide basic necessities; 31.5 per cent of village panchayats were unable to meet even 30 per cent of their maintenance expenditure through own resources; and only 20 per cent of them are in a sound financial position. Dues have piled up with the state-owned power supplier Tamilnadu Electricity Board as well as the Tamilnadu Water and Drainage Board which implements combined water supply schemes for clusters of hamlets.

To counter these problems, Elango advocates the use of simple energy-saving compact fluorescent lamps for street lighting; these could work just as well as the conventional sodium vapour lamps and tube lights. Water pumps with 3 horsepower motors also seem adequate, instead of the government-prescribed 5 horsepower ones. In Kutthambakkam, the cost of energy has come down by 65 per cent, thanks to such alternatives. And these examples have been emulated successfully in Aadikathur and Maakaral villages in Thiruvallur, and Rajendrapuram in Pudukottai district.

The Academy also hard-sells to panchayat leaders the Gandhian economics of self-reliant villages: to consume what they produce locally, and to sell after value addition what is in surplus. A number of devices suited to such economics are available at the academy, for visitors to see first-hand how they might help. The groundnut oil extracting machine not only produces oil for local consumption but also shells that are briquetted into fuel cakes for the milk pasteurising unit. The bakery, hand loom, tailoring, soap-making units along with the mill and the dairy unit employs around 200 villagers in Kutthambakkam. Selling them within the village clusters makes the villages independent of expensive branded products that have been produced from rural resources, but hit their shelves after their prices have doubled.

Picture: Machines to process nuts and daals for local consumption have reduced the cost of buying these from outside Kutthambakkam.

Successes on the economic front are certainly laudable, but no rural development effort would be complete without turning the village panchayats into good dispute-resolution channels to address conflicts between communities, as envisioned in the 73rd Amendment. This would be especially valuable since there are still panchayats that have not seen a full-term presidentship reserved for Dalits. While the State government sees this as a law and order problem with an administrative answer, the Academy takes a different approach.

"Confrontation with the upper castes does not necessarily change the pecking order of the traditional caste-based panchayat", says Elango. "Perumal, president of Vadugambadu panchayat in Dindigul district, first squatted on the floor - much to the surprise of his Dalit constituents - because the traditional village leaders were unaccustomed to treating him as an equal. Over time they got used to his presence, and Perumal was given the respect due to him. Today he is a more effective president because he did not force the change," says Elango.

While a start has been made to bring in village self-governance, the panchayat leaders say no public initiative will be complete till the state government meets them half way. A number of subjects (29 in all) identified in the constitutional amendments for transfer to local authorities have simply remained within the control of the state. The demand from panchayat leaders for legislation on these subjects is yet to be considered; in Tamilnadu only a notification - which is not justiciable in the courts - has been issued in place of legislation. The panchayats and grama sabhas are also seeking a role in service delivery in the social sector. Only when the state government is responsive to these aspirations will the Panchayati Raj truly come into its own.

But while that promise remains unfulfilled, at the Panchayat Academy local leaders are teaching themselves and others a whole lot about self-governance.