: Poley Yadaiah is not worth a statistic. The indebted farmer committed suicide in April this year. But officialdom has not noticed. Everyone else has, though, in his village of Neradacheruvu in Mahbubnagar district. Well, almost everyone. The panchayat seems to have taken no action on behalf of his family. And they may get no help.

Andhra Pradesh has a new government. But it also has its old bureaucracy. One that acts just as it did for years. With striking lack of concern on the farmers' suicides. So the proper count of their number and nature is proving chaotic. Many affected households have been recorded wrongly or not at all. But if that was to be expected of the state machinery, whatever happened to the panchayats?

"Janmabhoomi happened," says young K. Jangaiah. He is sarpanch of Shabuddlapur in Nalgonda district. "Janmabhoomi" was the flagship project of the Naidu government. One seen as a whole new "model of development." It aimed, among many other things, "to involve people in the implementation of development programmes."

In theory, at least. "In practice," says Chandra Mohan Reddy in Mahbubnagar district, "a huge parallel structure emerged. One that simply bypassed people and crippled panchayati raj in this state." Mr. Reddy was sarpanch of Midgil in this district for about 13 years. "The gram sabha, gram panchayat, none of these had any meaning. The show was run by bureaucrats." Andhra Pradesh could well be the biggest violator of the 73rd Amendment of the Indian Constitution. If the panchayats have failed in the ongoing crisis, there is good reason for it. They have had no real power for years now.

"The parallel setup led to a sharp centralisation of power," says Mr. Reddy. "New committees came up at the village level that were not elected by the people as a whole. Only by small groups with vested interests. And who could be managed from above."

Committees sprouted in great numbers. Each village had them. These included an education or vidya committee. And, of course, one for watersheds. Also, a ryuthu mitra (farmers' friends) group. "Forest committees sprang up where no forests existed," says Mr. Jangaiah. Then there were also the "Water Users Associations." And Library Committees. Even one for Continuing Education. The Anganwadis were run by "mothers" committees.

"Not a single one of these was answerable to the panchayat," says Mr. Jangaiah. "They were run by small cabals, each with a chairman who could control them. But the funds went to them. Not to the elected panchayats who lost all decision-making powers."

In name, these too, were "elected." But by a tiny base. Yet the large funds they got ensured that village elites took over quickly. "My gram panchayat had a budget of just Rs.13,000," says Mr. Jangaiah. The funds poured into the committees by the Government and its foreign donors ran to millions of rupees in many cases. This profusion of bodies drew a positive nod from the World Bank and other backers. This was in Bank jargon, "facilitating stakeholder consultations." Once it bombed, some quietly distanced themselves from the programme.

Picture: K. Jangaiah (centre), sarpanch of Shabuddlapur. (Courtesy: The Hindu; picture by P. Sainath)

Battles for control could be intense. Like in Chaudanpally in Nalgonda. Here, "elections" to the "mothers committee" were postponed four times as rival groups clashed. The total electorate for this poll was all of 55.

In theory, legitimacy flowed from gram sabha to gram panchayat. And from there to the mandal and zilla parishad. Not in Andhra, say the sarpanchas. In all villages, people speak of how that process was gutted. Here, a "nodal officer" at the mandal level wielded much power. A bureaucrat, he was appointed by and answered to the Collector. Who, in turn, reported to the Chief Minister. Constitutionally, elected bodies were simply shoved aside. The panchayats were starved of funds. The "committees" of the parallel structure were flush with them.

"The gram sabha meeting was controlled by the nodal officer," says Mr. Jangaiah. "Not by us. They decided and told us when the gram sabha would be held. And what its agenda would be. We were never consulted. The nodal officer ran the show. The sarpanch sat as a nominal chairman. A mere figurehead. "Their will prevailed over public opinion."

The impact of the parallel structure was devastating. "Local democracy died," says Chandramohan Reddy in Midgil. "This system helped the flowering of contractor raj. A percentage raj. In which each vested interest got its cut. Right up to the MLA and MP. Democratic pressure from below could be ignored. The post of chairman of the vidya committee could be as hotly contested - with a micro-electorate - as that of the sarpanch! Why? Because of the money involved."

Many of Andhra's new contractors blossomed in this soil. More so in villages where education committees received big sums for buildings. Quite a few of those who contested the polls this year had a village vidya committee background. They had the funds to do so. Most, clearly, were with the ruling Telugu Desam Party.

"These committees are not accountable to them. With the panchayat, they can defeat the sarpanch in the next poll. Those rights were taken away from them." And it all happened in the name of "good governance."
"When there is no panchayat," says Mr. Reddy, "there can be no effective collection of rents and rates. No proper keeping of records. No correct monitoring of work. Here, the panchayats could not pay their own salaries. They had no sanitary workers as they could not pay even daily wages."

"So when we have a crisis, they can do very little. The sarpanch was a link with the outside world. That was broken. The gram sabha and gram panchayat were simply stifled. Janmabhoomi was a bureaucrat-driven show. It went through the village like mobile durbar, dishing out favours and patronage."

"People need panchayats," says Suravaram Krishna, in Shabuddlapur. "These committees are not accountable to them. With the panchayat, they can defeat the sarpanch in the next poll. Those rights were taken away from them." And it all happened in the name of "good governance."

The loss of local democracy still has a profound impact on rural Andhra. Neither sarpanch nor ward members have been active in the farm crisis. They have not even been involved in counting the suicides though they are better suited to do so than those now in charge. The demoralisation of the panchayats is all but complete. The state, as Mr. Reddy puts it, needs "panchayati raj." Not a "percentage raj." (Courtesy: The Hindu)