Khekiye K. Sema
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]R. A.M. Gokhale, Secretary, Department of Rural Development (RD), was one hundred and one percent committed to establish Village Development Board (VDB) as a grassroots planning and implementation machinery in the State at all cost. Despite the fact that Mr. Vamuzo, a senior influential Minister in charge of the Department at that time, was equally convinced that this was the answer for rural upliftment, having it operational on the ground had not been that simple a proposition even for him. Within the uppermost policy making bureaucratic hierarchy there was a critical misconception and apprehension that such transfer of power to the people could dangerously lead to communism being ushered into Nagaland surreptitiously. Mr. Decentralisation was therefore adamantly refused Inner Line Permit. Mr. Gokhale had to finally outsource ‘arm twisting’ influence of the GOI because of the insurmountable internal roadblocks that was reluctant to facilitate its’ introduction. In this regard Mrs. Borthakur, then Chairperson of the Planning Commission, GOI, New Delhi, who was profoundly impressed with the proposed grassroots planning and implementation methodology of the VDB, was instrumental in forcing the hands of the State Govt. and by 1980 VDB was finally launched officially. It took a great deal of courage on the part of Mr. Gokhale to swim against the formidable tide within our own frontier to achieve this dream.
Though Mr. Gokhale was my Controlling Officer, he was more a mentor and a friend. The palpable hierarchical superiority complex commonly noticeable in the bureaucratic upstairs was not his area of focus or concern. Quality work output was. This was like fresh air for me. My respect for him grew rapidly seeing his sincere commitment towards empowering our rural folks. For Mr. Gokhale, VDB was his breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even after a hard day’s slog he would not let up. He would often ask me over to his residence and continue the never ending one to one discussions and debates that would take us way into impromptu dinner. This was a very frequent occurrence. Living in his neighbourhood would have been considered extremely hazardous by any standard had I myself not taken to VDB matters as an enthusiastic crusader. It was a brand new meaningful adventure in the making and I was proud to be a part of it. His wife, Madam Savitri Gokhale, not only did serve us dinner but was a very critical sharp listener often playing the devil’s advocate enlivening our discussion with interjections, questions and suggestions that we had otherwise missed out or were not in complete agreement. It was really heartening to see both the husband and wife getting involved with grassroots planning issues so passionately.
Generating awareness and upgrading the skill and understanding of the VDB Secretaries and Village Councils Chairmen (VCC) was ‘top of the agenda’ activity of the Department. Like the initiation of an apprentice, Mr. Gokhale groomed me patiently. He ensured that I accompanied him in the first few VDB Secretary meetings in the Districts. In these meetings he led the training programmes initially and asked me to pay close attention. Gradually he handed over the reins to me and observed my performance. He would later round up the process by addressing the issue(s) that I had forgotten or overlooked. In course of time he had me unleashed as an independent full time trainer after I had attained a reasonable level of competence and confidence.
At the stage of an Under Secretary, we were not entitled attached government vehicle. Mr. Gokhale sorted out this problem by allowing me the use of his additional attached Jeep from the RD Directorate when required to tour the field, which was almost a regular 5-10 days outing in a month. The elementary structure of the Village Development Board (VDB) was already in place. However back in 1980-81, VDB in its infancy had a great deal of teething problems at the field level. Despite Government notification empowering all recognized villages within Nagaland to establish the VDB, we still had many Villages who had not formed the VDB because of misgivings in some cases while others because of internal wrangling within the Village Councils. All Districts were comprehensively covered several times followed by Sub Divisions down to Circle headquarters during my three years tenure in this department. Apart from the focused subject of VDBs it was a blessing to have had the opportunity to interact with all the Tribes without exception. Every trip was an eye opener as I picked up smaller useful knowledge of each tribes’ customs and traditions along the way. VDB brought out fluctuating variation of appreciation or reaction from the rural stakeholders. While all other Tribes including the Konyaks, with hereditary chieftain hierarchy, embraced VDB with an open arm, the Sumis expressed serious doubts that the introduction of VDB would upset the traditional equilibrium. At the training session in Akuluto, the GBs of all the Villages of this range were in attendance along with the VDB Secretaries. It was here that my maternal Uncle Kawoto, (a very respected retired DB) then Head GB of Limuthsami Village spearheaded the charge. After patiently listening to how the VDBs were expected to conduct its business in the Village, he promptly stood up and in short, this was what he had to say: “ Iti (nephew), what you say sounds good enough in theory. However in practice everything will be different. The chieftainship in the Sumi community has been a strong reliable system within which cohesive village discipline has been forged over the centuries. It is a proven system. By introducing the VDBs the Government is destabilising this hierarchy. The VDB Secretaries holds the purse strings. The public now flock to him for favours and the GBs are gradually becoming nonentities in the background. This shift of power base will eventually lead to chaos and self-destruction. It would be in the interest of the Sumi community that VDB is withdrawn”. That was a strong observation being expressed with complete conviction. His view received an overwhelming endorsement from most of the GBs present. I had to tread very carefully and sensitively here. I did the best I could to clear their scepticism and let them know that the VDB Secretary was just what the designation implied…a secretary who was responsible only to maintain the records and accounts of the village development activities. He had no authority to make independent decisions. VDBs not only work under the tutelage of the Village Council (in which all GBs are ex-officio members) but that all village plans were to be formulated through public general body meetings which was mandatory. Without the Village Council’s endorsement the village plan proffered by the VDB alone would not be accepted by the Govt. For all practical purpose the GBs were therefore still in-charge. It was up to them to uphold their end of the responsibility honourably and all would be well. They grudgingly conceded to this explanation. After all I was the boss at the end of the day. They however, did not completely abandon their initial doubts that the VDB Secretaries would behave according to the laid down procedures in practice. This episode sharply accentuated the importance of enforcing transparency as an apparent imperative for the system to truly succeed.
Each field coverage would be followed by an exhaustive tour report indicating the positive responses along with the negative pitfalls that attracted my attention. Hours of critical appraisal with Mr. Gokhale would follow. With the passage of time it was beginning to dawn on me that training of VDB Secretaries and the V C Chairmen was just not producing the desired impact. The need for operational transparency at the village level was still not satisfactorily being addressed. The compulsory monthly meeting with the general public as envisaged in the Rules was not being carried out by the majority of the VDB Secretaries. Wherever the VCC were influential and domineering, the VDB Secretaries craftily work with them in tandem and withheld vital information from the public who still knew nothing about the quantum of their Village annual Grant-in-Aid being received. While travelling it was my usual habit to pick up villagers heading the same way and chat with them as we go. When asked how their VDB was functioning or how much GiA was being received, “I really don’t know. You will have to ask them” was a response I heard 99% of the time. That was most revealing. In many cases, the village annual plans would arbitrarily be prioritised by the VDB Secretary with the tacit collaboration of the VCC. When that happened, self vested inclinations would overshadow the public interest. The doubts and fears expressed by the Sumis were being translated into reality along the way. I suggested a shift of gear to take the training down to the Village level for a greater mass awareness impact. Coupled with this was the fact that all the DCs and the ADCs as Chairmen of the VDB, were themselves not familiar with the functioning of the VDBs. Despite VDB Model Rules being circulated to them all it was not being paid requisite attention. The indifference of the DCs spilled over to their subordinate officers in the field as well. They had absolutely no officially designated role to play in this crucial development process where all hands on deck was a necessity. I strongly advocated that all the DCs and field officers should be clubbed in the training process and be deployed as the second line of defence in the field development verification. The Block Development Officers (BDO) were however very touchy and overly protective about their turf being compromised by the administrative officers’ involvement. Mr. Gokhale was aware of this but made an effort to address this issue with the Commissioner, Nagaland. However, a regulated coordination between the RD Department and the civil administration could not be worked out concretely on grounds of bureaucratic technicalities of turf overlap. Only the BDOs felt relieved with this outcome. This scenario remains largely unaltered to the present day. As for taking our campaign to the village level, Mr. Gokhale felt that the present focus should continue despite the perception of shortcomings being expressed. His instinctive belief in the honour and honesty of our rural people was pegged up high. However much I may argue against it being overvalued he always won the argument. In this case he was the boss at the end of the day no matter what my reservations.
One significant aspect of the VDB Model Rules was that it ascribed a place of pride for the rural women not only in terms of a statutory membership in the VDB but also in terms of 25% share of Village Grant-in-Aid (GiA) funds being compulsorily earmarked for them to address the needs of women folks specifically. Women empowerment is an active subject of current debate. In as far as I personally am concerned I would say, and why not? What tends to disappoint me however, is the seeming perception among the affluent urban women folks to believe that gaining a political space in the Assembly through reservation is the only answer to solving their empowerment issue while totally ignoring the core sector… the rural women majority where their strength lie. Today, the rural women are still not able to effectively claim their rightful 25% share duly protected by laws of operation. They have no one to bank upon to help them claim what rightfully belongs to them. Let us hypothetically take the case of Kohima Village for instance: Their village grant in aid @ Rs.1000/- per household will be significantly high against which 25% women’s share would be equally sizable to tackle women welfare oriented programmes. Are they receiving this? Perhaps or perhaps not. But who is bothered to check this out? Let me take time out and share my experience in Asukhomi village where I had conducted a VDB awareness campaign with the whole village population in attendance. This village had a woman member of the VDB. She was very busy preparing refreshment for the meeting. After completing her chore she stood at the back entrance door and meekly requested for time to raise a question. I gladly gave her time to do so. You know what she said? “Sir, I am the woman member of the VDB in this village. It is a regular practice that I am asked to make tea for the members in every VDB meetings. Was I made a member of VDB to make tea for other members during meetings or is there any other role that I am expected to play?” It was a very relevant question. It was also courageous of her to speak out her mind in this public forum with predominant male members. When I asked her whether she knew that 25% of VDB GiA was meant for women she said she had vaguely heard about it but had so far not received. When I asked the VDB Secretary to explain why, he came up with this excuse. Said he, “ Sir, the Village is paying taxes to the underground factions and we also have to take care of the hospitality of VIPs when they come to the village. If 25% is given to the women we would not have enough fund to take up any meaningful development in the village. So we have not been giving them their share.” An honest response as such, since I had already heard the same chorus from all the other villages I had been to. The underground taxation continues to have a crippling impact on development even at the rural base and the Govt. was a helpless spectator then as is now. It is a pity that this hypocritical “sovereignty” of the present kind being perpetuated by all the underground factions is costing our people dear. Along with the Govt. not a single Organization has had the guts to speak out or spearhead a movement to streamline this bludgeoning atrocity being perpetuated against the common populace across the board. Anyway I firstly asked the woman representative of the VDB never to make tea again for the other members. She should sit in the meeting like the other members and participate. Secondly I explained to her as much as to all the women present in that meeting that 25% was a legitimate right of the women folks. She was encouraged to coordinate with all the women in the village and collectively insist that their share be given to them and thereafter plan out activities that they feel is their common priority need. The VDB and V C members were told in no uncertain terms that no matter what the constraints, they were not authorised to deprive the rights of the women folks. I concluded my encouragement by jokingly saying “ even if women allow men folks to touch anything else at least don’t allow them to touch this fund”. Jokes aside, I would urge urban women empowerment activists to consider the following point of view sensitively: Even where the Law protects their rights, they are unable to claim it. Since this wide spread predicament is mostly limited to the rural women sector it may not necessarily tickle their urban minds. But mark my words, as long as attention to smaller details of women rights violation, which add up to bigger violations, continues to be ignored, the possibility of a wholesome liberated picture emerging will remain a remote dream. It is a practical impossibility to take ten steps forward without taking the first step. Naga Mothers Association and Women Empowerment Activists… think about this. Perhaps the time is rife to harness the strength of the rural women by addressing their disadvantage and create a momentum.
Forgive my slight digression from the VDB main road. I will get back to it again in the next week’s column.
The writer is a retired IAS Officer.
Forest Colony, Kohima