The constitution of India was amended in 1993 to pave the way for decentralized governance in the stewardship of people’s representatives elected to Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs, henceforth). The amendment expected state governments to initiate several important steps1 towards empowermenwwt of the local bodies, including devolution of adequate functions and finances; deployment of competent functionaries and creation of suitable spaces for representatives of local governments to participate in vital processes of development planning and administration. However, the performance of several states of India in strengthening self-governance processes and institutions has been limited. Bihar is one such state that hasn’t been able to devolve any meaningful roles, powers or finances for the agencies of local self-governance, even seventeen years after the historic amendment to the constitution came into effect.
It was against this backdrop that an effort was made by a collective of organizations, including PRAXIS, CENCORED and UNICEF, to enable elected local governments in Vaishali district of Bihar to produce an integrated district plan, in partnership with multiple stakeholders. The process of District Planning, as envisaged by the Planning Commission of India, offers a significant window of opportunity to local governments to influence the entire range of government interventions in a district, though in reality, plans are often prepared and administered by various line departments of the state government, particularly in states like Bihar where devolution of powers to local bodies has been extremely limited. It was felt that even a limited success in tilting the balance of power towards local governments in formulation and administration of district level planning processes could lead to empowerment of the democratic institutions.
The contrast between Bihar and most other states of India in terms of the status of empowerment of local self-governance institutions is glaring. For instance, while Kerala provides for devolution of over 1,950 Crore rupees in favour of elected local governments in a year, Bihar hasn’t committed any assured share for its PRIs out of its revenue proceeds or plan outlay till date. The only sources of money for the local governments of Bihar are the grants received from the Central Finance Commission, besides a promissory share of three percent in the net tax realization at the local level (though rules to govern taxation processes haven’t yet been formulated) and funds received under two flagship schemes of the government of India, i.e. MGNREGA and BRGF. Unfortunately, the method of execution of these schemes leaves little control in the hands of the elected representatives!
Bringing about a Collective Stake in the Planning Process
In view of the demands of the large scale district planning exercise, which called for creation of adequate local capacities for plans to emerge from as many as 290 Gram Panchayats, 79 Urban Wards, 16 Panchayat Samitis and the Zilla Parishad; involvement of key stakeholders from elected governments as well as various administrative offices was felt to be a crucial pre-requisite. An inception workshop was held in the beginning of the process, in recognition of the critical significance of the involvement of elected local governments in the planning process. The workshop brought together members of the Zilla Parishad and representatives of prominent urban local bodies of the district, who committed their support to the District Planning process, though marked with occasional expressions of skepticism stemming from past experiences, recalling how most district-level plans in the past used to be formulated by line departments or the officialdom, bypassing any involvement of elected representatives. They also nominated a steering body of people’s representatives to oversee the process under the Chairmanship of the District Magistrate.
Subsequently, the DM played an important role in convening a workshop of all the important district level officers, including heads of various line departments and all the Sub-Divisional Officers and Block Development Officers posted in the district, for a discussion on the significance of the planning process. The workshop brought about a rare opportunity for the district level officers to collectively analyze the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and constraints faced by the district in various crucial sectors and to formulate a roadmap for undertaking the participatory planning exercise. It also brought about an air of sanctity regarding the planning process entrusted to elected local governments. Subsequently, when the planning process was rolled out across various local bodies of the district, it enjoyed the support of a good range of stakeholders. The support received from various local bodies was due also to an intensive round of orientation workshops involving key functionaries of gram panchayats and urban local bodies in Vaishali.
Institutional Arrangements for the Planning Process
One of the most crucial arrangements contributing to the planning process in Vaishali was the establishment of a District Planning and Monitoring Cell (DPMC), aimed at providing secretarial support to the District Planning Committee. The Cell played an important role in liaising with key stakeholders in the district, facilitating vital communications on time and in organizing important events. Endowed with a small team of professionals and a good balance of essential competencies, which included skills as diverse as conducting training, managing databases and maintaining close contact with key government officials, the team did well to keep the process on track.
At the local level, steering committees were formed at the level of each ward to support the elected representatives in the planning process. This was a pioneering arrangement, not envisaged even in the legislation on local self-governance in Bihar (i.e. Bihar Panchayati Raj Act 2006). Each set of plan suggestions emerging from the level of wards was duly signed off by at least twenty local residents constituting the ward level steering committee. While this helped in making the process democratic at the local level, formal involvement of at least twenty people in each ward also made fulfillment of the quorum (twentieth part of the total number of voters in a panchayat, amounting roughly to about 210 voters) for a legally valid gram sabha much easier!
Capacity Building Processes
Before embarking upon the unprecedented planning exercise, a pool of 32 people was carefully selected and deployed across the district for extending support to the large scale planning process. They were provided an intensive orientation to the significance, objectives and design of the decentralized planning exercise in a residential workshop, which was followed by pilot fieldwork in one of the panchayats. In particular, they were expected to extend support to a few critical activities of the planning process, including a pre-planning meeting of key stakeholders of the village, a local level visioning exercise for articulating desired transformations over a five year period, a mapping exercise to identify key intervention opportunities in the village and a meeting of panchayat leaders to prepare for gram sabhas. They were also expected to extend support, if required, towards conduct of gram sabha meetings in a democratic and inclusive manner.
Some of the trained facilitators were assigned the responsibility of conducting large-scale trainings for functionaries of gram panchayats and urban local bodies in a residential setting. Representatives of every single institution of local self-governance in the district were invited to these workshops, which ran for over two months across 32 batches. In addition to the Mukhiyas (elected Heads of village panchayats), the deputy Mukhiyas (who, in many cases, represent the opposition at the panchayat level), the Panchayat Secretaries (government functionary deployed at panchayat level) and the Rozgar Sevaks (facilitators related to a flagship employment guarantee scheme) of all the panchayats were also invited to the residential trainings, in order that sufficient capacities and interests are generated at the village level for decentralized planning to be a continuous process. The workshops brought about a relatively rare occasion for the local level leaders to come together, deliberate on burning issues related to local governance, narrate their experiences and enhance their capacities to undertake planning in an inclusive and participatory manner.
During the planning process, visioning sessions were facilitated at the level of district, blocks and gram panchayats, involving elected people’s representatives, key government functionaries and other important local stakeholders. The participants of these workshops were requested to articulate key transformations aspired by them, based on their analysis of local issues. The Block Development Officers of respective blocks organized the visioning workshops, which included leaders and members of Panchayat Samitis, mukhiyas, functionaries of gram panchayats or urban local bodies falling within a block and government functionaries deputed at the block level.
Planning processes were initiated in the local communities immediately after the visioning workshops. On an average, the process consumed about two weeks in each panchayat. Once the needs pertaining to different sectors were identified from various wards of a local body, the elected members of the gram panchayats came together to collate the same and prepare for presentation before a gram sabha. Barring occasional instances of conflict and resistance, which were due mostly to divergent political affiliations of the panchayat leaders and participants of the gram sabhas, the meetings went off peacefully in most places.
Salient Outcomes of the Decentralized Planning Process
The intensive processes of planning brought about several significant accomplishments. Most significantly, it gave the agencies of local self-governance a real opportunity of determining the most critical development needs of people for addressing through relevant interventions. Also, a good number of elected leaders from socially marginalized communities established themselves as capable leaders. Several elected representatives, who actively participated in the planning process, asserted their leadership during the process and took commendable initiatives to organize planning processes at the local level. Several Mukhiyas, after returning from training workshops themselves, took the initiative to organize orientation sessions for fellow members of their panchayat related to the processes of planning.
Involvement and capacity enhancement of multiple stakeholders in the decentralized planning process helped in overcoming a number of barriers. In some Panchayats, the Secretary played a pro-active role in organizing village level processes, which was a significant support to the local Mukhiyas. Similarly, the simultaneous involvement of elected leaders of Panchayat Samitis and functionaries of Block Development Office ensured a good turnout in the visioning workshops held at the level of intermediate panchayats. At the district level, the active involvement of the District Magistrate and members of District Planning Committee ensured smooth communication of important directives, timely conduct of review meetings and maintenance of a sense of priority around the planning exercise, which was one of the most significant factors in successful completion of the village level planning processes. The District Magistrate even issued a circular to ensure that no parallel plans, regardless of sector, department or scheme, should be allowed to escape the purview of the integrated district planning process, making it mandatory for all development plans within the district to be endorsed by gram sabhas during discussions on the integrated plan!
Critical Success Factors for Integrated District Planning
For district planning processes to be undertaken meaningfully and effectively, a number of enabling conditions need to be created. These include, amongst others, completion of the critical act of ‘Activity Mapping’ across various departments and government interventions to clearly set up the domain of responsibilities of PRIs. States need to ensure adequate financial empowerment of local governments, to enable the latter to also administer and monitor the plans formulated by them. Timely preparation of ‘resource envelops’ indicating the permissible financial size of plans, disaggregated for various levels, sectors and schemes, should be an essential prerequisite for initiating integrated decentralized planning processes.
Agencies facilitating integrated district plans must necessarily have a capacity building perspective for strengthening institutions of local self-governance, and must invest greater efforts in bolstering democratic processes. Design of training modules must include inputs around issues of equity, accountability and democratic governance.
Also, any integrated district planning exercise must ensure prior concurrence amongst key stakeholders, regarding the need to preempt any parallel planning processes. Convergence-facilitation units need to be set up within the structures of District Planning Committees, including representatives of various line departments, to extend help in finalization of interventions on the basis of integrated plans.
Every effort needs to be made to respect the sanctity of the micro-plans prepared by Gram Panchayats by ensuring timely release of funds for implementation and establishment of monitoring mechanisms at the level of standing committees of local governments and vigilance committees at the level of Gram Sabhas. Monitoring indicators should be spelt out at the stage of planning itself, with clear delineation of roles and accountabilities. At the district level, Monitoring Cells need to be set up within District Planning Committees to track the progress of district planning processes and to extend facilitation support to diffuse emerging problems, if any. Ensuring availability of competent technical support institutions at the district level for assisting District Planning Committees could substantially enhance the quality of large scale planning exercises.
Experiences from Vaishali point at a number of essential arrangements and policy initiatives required for enhancement of the quality and relevance of district planning processes. Salient learnings from the process relate to the following:
a. Essential arrangements and reforms feasible within existing policy framework
• The need for activation of District Planning Committees as per its mandate – through clearer operational guidelines, capacity building of members, provision of secretarial support (including support in generation and processing of data) and clearer directives enabling integration of plans at the level of DPCs;
• The need for enhancement of the capacity of District Planning Office to play the critical role of coordination and facilitation of convergence related to integrated district planning processes (District Collectors may play this role in the interim);
• The critical need for enhancement of the ownership, capacities and development perspectives of functionaries of local governments – through intense orientation related to inclusive planning and monitoring of delivery of essential services;
• Criticality of high level of awareness across multiple stakeholders about the scope and sanctity of integrated district plans;
• The need for ensuring clarity at the level of each planning body regarding resource envelops surrounding different plan-sectors;
• The possibility of generating (and updating) District Human Development Reports through the outcomes of situation analyses forming part of decentralized planning processes;
• The high relevance of provisions like Backward Regions Grant Fund in facilitation of integrated district planning – particularly in capacity building of vital stakeholders;
• The relevance of the theory of optimal ignorance (i.e. the need for processing only as much data as really necessary or relevant for planning purposes);
• The need for timely initiation of planning processes and a reasonable time span (so as to conclude in time, ideally by end of a calendar-year, to inform state plans);
• The greater likelihood of inclusion of socially and economically disadvantaged communities, involvement of multiple stakeholders, emergence of stronger local leadership and identification of real development needs through decentralized planning approaches.
b. Essential policy reforms for effective institutionalization of district planning
• The need for clear mention of the critical requirement of Integrated District Plans in the Bihar Panchayat Raj Act 2006, necessitating allocation of resources on the basis of decentralized plans produced under the stewardship of District Planning Committees. This would uphold the sanctity of a democratic planning process;
• The criticality of spelling out the nature and role of ward level processes and activation of standing committees – towards deepening of democratic processes and strengthening of gram sabhas;
• The need for establishment of Panchayat secretariats and strengthening of systems of accounting, documentation and monitoring of delivery of essential services;
• The needs for comprehensive ‘Activity Mapping’ (to spell out the domain of responsibilities of Panchayati Raj institutions) and devolution of adequate finances;
• The need for clearer provisions in the designs of national flagship programmes to ensure active involvement of Panchayati Raj institutions and District Planning Committees in formulation of plans;
• The need for clear mention (in the Bihar Panchayat Raj Act 2006) of the role and accountabilities of line departments, key district level officials and technical functionaries in the planning processes anchored by Panchayati Raj institutions, particularly in determination of technical feasibility of plan proposals at various levels and in facilitation of convergence across key agencies;
• The need of clear directives necessitating de-segregation of gender sub-plan and SC sub-plan in the proposals of all planning bodies – for enabling allocation of dedicated resources favouring disadvantaged groups.
Endnotes and Additional Thinking
• Contained in Article 243 of the Constitution of India
(The views expressed in the write-up are personal and do not re?ect the official policy or position of the organization.)