Wednesday, Mar 19, 2003
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By George Mathew
IT IS indeed shocking that the present Government and the policy-makers are not seized of the gravity of the situation created by the extraordinary growth of India's population. Even after India has become home to 16.7 per cent of the world's population with just 2.4 per cent of world's land area (between 1991 and 2001, the increase was 18.1 crores, equivalent to the total population of Canada, France and Germany), one cannot see a conscious effort on the Government's part to tackle the problem facing the country. Instead, the attention is being focussed on trivialities with the sole aim of winning the next election.
The Government and its policy-makers have no clue as to how to act to avert a major disaster waiting to happen. The problem is not because of a dearth of ideas but the extreme reluctance of the governments to take action to implement these ideas, making use of the available resources. Even when action is taken in the name of family welfare and population stabilisation, it is either half-hearted or devoid of any understanding of ground realities.
The world's two most populous countries adopted two diametrically opposite approaches for checking population growth. China went the authoritarian way, imposing the one-child norm and achieved the targets. But India opted for the two-child norm through democratic means, which is much more difficult and complicated, but has failed, as of now.
Family welfare cannot be implemented through orders from above in a democratic system. As the family is an integral part of the local community, can anyone help better than local self-government institutions? In this direction, the first and most critical intervention were the 73rd and the 74th Constitutional Amendments, making the panchayats "institutions of self government'' and giving them subjects such as family welfare, women and child development, health and sanitation, including hospitals, primary health centres and dispensaries. As multi-sectoral action plan is a must for population stabilisation, education, especially women's education, primary health and poverty eradication have been brought under the panchayats.
Ever since the amendments were made, the critical role of the local government institutions for population stabilisation has been underlined in almost all the policy documents of the Government. But have the political leaders or the officials realised the significance of these changes even after 10 years? The answer is "no.''
From the 8th Five-Year Plan onwards, thinking and documentation focussed on achieving the goals of family welfare only by decentralised planning and implementation. The Plan document stated that since the socio-economic and demographic characteristics vary from area to area, panchayats are the ideal units for fixing the family planning target. Therefore, analysis, planning and administration of population stabilisation programmes must be from the panchayats. In 1994, the M. S. Swaminathan expert group categorically said the present vertically-structured family welfare programmes must be replaced by decentralised democratic planning through panchayats and municipalities because they provide a new window of opportunity for promoting decentralised action. But no action was taken.
In 2000, the National Population Policy (NPP-2000) recognised the strategic role of panchayats and municipalities in decentralised health planning and implementation. The policy document stated: "since 33 per cent of elected panchayat seats are reserved for women, representative committees of the panchayats (headed by an elected woman panchayat member) should be formed to promote a gender-sensitive, multi-sectoral agenda for population stabilisation, that will think, plan and act locally, and support nationally. These committees may identify area-specific unmet needs for reproductive health services, and prepare need-based, demand-driven, socio-demographic plans at the village level, aimed at identifying and providing responsive, people-centred and integrated, basic reproductive and child health care. Panchayats demonstrating exemplary performance in the compulsory registration of births, deaths, marriages, and pregnancies, universalising the small family norm, increasing safe deliveries, bringing about reductions in infant and maternal mortality, and promoting compulsory education up to age 14, will be nationally recognised and honoured''.
Coming to the latest policy document, the 10th Plan document has also reiterated the importance of achieving population stabilisation by involving panchayats in planning, monitoring and mid-course correction of the programme at the local level. After the policy document was accepted, the Government should have taken steps to implement it with vigour and determination. But the sad state of affairs is that all these plans remain on paper even in 2003.
The present situation boils down to two concerns: first, strengthening the local government institutions, investing in capacity-building of elected members, functionaries and infrastructure. Second, investing in educating, awareness-building process and programmes, especially in the areas related to population stabilisation.
For realising these concerns, first and foremost the local government institutions must have functions, functionaries, funds and freedom. The impression that from the Central to the State Governments, everyone who matters is vying with one another to weaken the panchayats and municipalities in a subtle, and often not-so-subtle way, must go. Second, the future strategy needs to be based on the mobilisation of the masses for creating "little republics'' in each village.
It is time to launch an aggressive campaign for generating awareness on the common people's space in the governance system, particularly women and the deprived classes. The campaign must focus on decentralised governance through the panchayats to tackle the core issues of rural development, with particular emphasis on health and family welfare, along with income generation and poverty alleviation by eliminating leakages and wastage, conserving resources and through asset-creating activities. The role of the gram sabha in propagating family welfare measures must be another area of concern.
The campaign should not be directed at the general public (people in the villages) only. Policy-makers, MLAs, MPs, leaders of political parties, bureaucrats as well as opinion-makers, the media and intellectuals should be brought into it. The teachers and students in village schools, women's organisations and other NGOs could be the vehicles for the campaign.
The Government can create policies and programme guidelines but other players have to be identified in planning and implementation. We now have 595 districts. The best way is to involve corporate houses, foundations, companies and public trusts and NGOs to take up a district each. With tax incentives, the business houses can use their professionals to strengthen the panchayats.
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