Apart from looking after a household of five, Swapna Bera, 40, spends a part of her day inspecting the water pressure in various households of Digambarpur, a gram panchayat located in the interiors of the Sundarbans. As a member of a committee that oversees water supply, she speaks to the residents, and jots down any complaints that they may have.
Bera is one of several members of active self-help groups operating in the gram panchayat which won first prize under the Gram Panchayat Vikas Yojana. Digampur was awarded the prize for development and planning by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj earlier this month, owing to the revolutionary changes it has undergone over the past few years. Its residents receive “direct-to-home” drinking water supply and are actively involved in waste management. The village has concrete roads and has been declared open defecation-free. Just a handful of political party flags and half-a-dozen wall graffitis can be seen.
Meticulously inspecting her neighbour’s water metre, Bera says, “This is what I do every day.” She asks the family if they are facing any problems with the pressure. Satisfied with their answer, she moves on to the next house. “I have 400-odd houses to visit,” she says.
According to Bera, the change didn’t happen overnight. “Initially, it was difficult. People were not ready to pay Rs 50 per month for water to their homes or Rs 10 for collection of garbage from their doorstep. It took us months. We held meetings and ultimately, they understood. Now, 400 households use the water and more applications are pouring in every day. We supply 200 litres of water three times a day, which adds up to 6,000 litres a month,” she says.
In the gram panchayat building, Sampa Bairagi (38) and a dozen other women sit in a room and pore over SHG files. Bairagi is the secretary of Digambarpur Sarada Sangh Prathamik Bahumukhi Samabay Samity Ltd (a co-operative), which runs and markets projects varying from mushroom cultivation and making clay idols to production of organic manure and chicken feed, among others.
This is the new normal in Digambarpur, picked as the best from a total of 2.5 lakh gram panchayats across the country by the ministry.
“It’s like living in a city. Earlier, we had carried water from tubewells which produced poor quality supply during the summer. The direct water supply has been a boon for us women. Many of us have even bought shower fittings. We also have panchayat men picking up the garbage directly from our homes for just Rs 10 a month. Earlier, we used to just throw it outside,” said Tushi Samanta, a local resident.
The area lacks much of the political furore seen in other parts of the state due to the upcoming panchayat elections. While the villagers plan to vote, for them, development takes priority.
“We will all vote, but here we do not have time to think about politics. Our concern is power cuts during this summer and we have got to know that a new power sub-station will be erected in the area,” said Samanta.
In Digambarpur, around 34,077 people occupy an area of 49.5 sq km. The village has an 89.5 per cent literacy rate. Of the 6,214 families that live here, 4,649 are involved in SHGs and co-operatives.
The panchayat has two buildings, one erected recently, aside from an SHG hub which is under construction. One of the buildings also houses a milk procurement centre of the Nibedita Mahilla Dugdho Samabay Samity (Nivedita Women Milk Co-operative), run by 75 women.
Asked how all this happened, Rabindranath Bera panchayat pradhan (TMC), tells the The Indian Express over phone from Jabalpur, “The credit goes to the villagers and the team of gram panchayat members and employees who spent time and energy on development. Around three years ago, we formed various teams, conducted surveys and mapped the area including social mapping. We identified the needs and roadblocks. Then we trained groups of villagers, mostly women, on issues such as sanitation, health and cleanliness. Then, for months, there were awareness campaigns, following which the projects were initiated.” He received the award and a cheque of Rs 20 lakh from the Ministry of Panchayati Raj on Thursday.
The “direct-to-home” drinking water project was planned in October 2016. Using its own funds and with help from NGOs, the panchayat set up an overhead water tank with a capacity of 2 lakh litres. The tank, a deep tubewell and a pump set were set up on a 7,200 sq ft plot donated by a villager, Amalesh Samanta (60). Amalesh now works for the upkeep of the equipment and draws a monthly salary of Rs 3,500 from the panchayat.
“It is for everyone’s benefit. I even have a job now,” says Samanta. The panchayat has also formed committees which look after tubewells in their respective areas.
Digambarpur’s pride is its waste management project. The gram panchayat supplies two buckets — one for solid waste and the other for liquid waste — to each household in the village, apart from schools and health centres. A waste management plant generates organic fertilisers including vermicompost. The panchayat charges each household Rs 10 per month, while markets pay Rs 250 per month, high secondary schools pay Rs 200 and primary schools pay Rs 50 for waste management.
The strides in development are widely attributed to participation by villagers, especially the women.
“The panchayat pradhan who we all know as Kashi (his nickname) was my student too. So there was good coordination. Our chief minister has also allocated lot of funds, Rs 500 crore, for Sunderbans development. But it is the people’s participation which changed the gram panchayat to its present form. It was the women of who took centrestage in creating awareness for works and projects. I cannot comment on what is happening elsewhere, but here, rural polls and violence are not an issue. The only issue is development and how much more we can all do,” said Samir Kumar Jana (70), local Trinamool Congress MLA and a retired Sanksrit teacher.
Of the 19 gram panchayat seats in the village, the TMC won 12 in the last polls. This year, the CPM is contesting three seats, the BJP two and Congress one. A number of independent candidates have also thrown their hat in the ring.
“There was a time when our pradhan would take his motorbike and ride through the area from 3.30 am to check for open defecation. Now, we have toilets for all. We generally come to the panchayat office at around 7 am and start working until 8 pm. It is not about political parties, everyone has benefited,” said Manoj Kumar, Bishoi Sanchalak.
However, the district BJP unit called the decision to award a prize to Digambarpur gram panchayat a “mistake”.
“Though it is true that the panchayat polls are having no effect on the village, it is also true that either the state government has wrong statistics or that the Centre somehow made a mistake in declaring this GP as the best,” said Nandalal Barui, district BJP leader.
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