Tales from the Panchayats
By T.R. Raghunandan, 28 Jun 2016

The last few weeks has been spent yo-yoing from interactions with policy makers and academia, to visiting local governments and interacting with elected representatives. The latter has been infinitely more interesting, needless to say. Watching democratic decentralisation in practice never tires me. Never is there a sense of Déjà vu, every turn is unexpected and throws new light on something one thought one knew well.

As we careened through the crowded roads north of Thiruvananthapuram town – Kerala drivers are speed fiends – I was filled with keen anticipation. I had always wanted to visit Manickal Grama Panchayat, having heard so much about its innovative activities. Earlier in the day, I had met the Finance Minister of the State along with a foreign delegation that I was accompanying. Professor Thomas Isaac, an academic turned activist turned politician, had, in the course of his interaction, estimated that about one third of Kerala’s Grama Panchayats were outstanding performers. Certainly, Manickal ranked amongst the best.

At the Panchayat office, Sujatha, the Panchayat President, welcomed us. The body had only recently been elected and it comprised of 21 members, of whom 13 were women. Just prior to this election to the local governments, Kerala State had legislated to increase the seats reserved for women to fifty percent, from the earlier 33 percent. Accordingly, 11 seats in the Panchayat were reserved for women. Two women members were elected to unreserved seats, something that is now a growing phenomenon across India.

As we went on a short tour of the office, I noticed why this Panchayat was different. Indian offices loathe signage, but Manickal was different. Every activity of the Panchayat was described in clear signs. There was a Front Office where citizens could submit applications to the office. Staff sat in airy cubicles; there was hardly a file – so characteristic of Indian offices – in sight.

We settled down to our discussions with the Panchayat elected representatives and officials. Shiji, the senior clerk in the Panchayat described to us what we had come here to learn – how the Panchayat obtained an international certification for its internal processes; an ISO certification.

Obtaining the ISO certification was prompted entirely by the elected Panchayat. No senior officers were consulted or considered important to the decision. Since Kerala allows Panchayats a relatively untied fund that it may use for local projects, a consultant was engaged to guide the Panchayat through the process of meeting prescribed standards, at a price below the government indicated upper limit.

The first improvement undertaken in the Panchayat was to revamp the document management system. Through improvements in the records storage facility, the Panchayat achieved its target of recovering historical data within specified time limits; As Riji Joseph, the Assistant Secretary of the Panchayat informed us, a birth record of 1953 – the year in which the Panchayat was formed - could be retrieved in 2 minutes after these changes.  The next change was to ensure that all workflows for various services were routed through a Front Office. Improved Front Office services included the receiving of all applications, complaints and cash at the front office alone. Receipts for acknowledgement were issued for all such communications by the front office, containing the date on which the service would be delivered. It was also the responsibility of the front office to scan all documents submitted to it using a high speed scanner and instantly sending it to the section responsible, using the ‘Soochika’ software specially designed for Panchayats by the Information Kerala Mission. Fine transactions between sections were also handled by Soochika, which explained the absence of cumbersome files and the typical clutter that goes with it.

For each of the services delivered by the Panchayat, a service process manual was introduced. This enabled the Panchayat to meet the assurances given through its citizens charter, of providing services of the right quality within the assured period of time. The service manual has since been further detailed, based upon the Kerala Right to Services Act. In order to ensure that quality assurances does not drop, the staff of the Panchayat are organized into a ‘Quality Circle’, which keeps a watchful eye to ensure that service standards do not drop.

But all this is the easy part.

Service delivery is not merely the following of a prescribed process, but to be responsive to the nuanced needs of people. Sometimes, ensuring that citizens come first, might mean riding out to battle. More of that, in my next blog.

Image: (from the left) Jayan, vice- President of Manickal Grama Panchayat, Sujatha, President and Riji, Assistant Secretary, explaining the activities of the Panchayat.