Why this dalit leader’s achievements are significant for panchayat reform

Vijay Bahadur

Although several efforts have been made for reforming panchayats, including reservations for weaker sections, nevertheless several problems persist. It continues to be rare for dalits and other weaker sections to play an important role in general, unreserved panchayats. Also a system of commissions and corruption is increasingly seen to be widely prevalent in most panchayats.

In this context the experiences of a panchayat leader Vijay Bahadur, who is from Banda district of Uttar Pradesh, is quite interesting and significant. He was perhaps the first dalit in his region to win the election of Pradhan in a general unreserved seat, that too in a village dominated by the higher castes. What is more, he followed up this initial success with a very successful tenure as Pradhan in which a lot of development work was done without any corruption taking place or any commissions being paid. What is more, the candidates he supported in later elections, including his wife and brother, continued to win, although by then the benefit of seat reservation had also become available to them, and he continued to play an important supportive role to ensure that important development work, including housing units for a large number of poor families, could be taken up without corruption and commissions. How did he achieve this?

Going back to his younger days in Hadhamafi Panchayat,Vijay Bahadur recalls that initially hardly anybody gave him a fair chance of winning the panchayat election against a powerful high caste candidate as this village was dominated by this high caste and the dalit community whom he represented was in a minority and consisted mostly of poor households. However when Vijay Bahadur lived up to his name in showing great courage to oppose a criminal who had been troubling a lot of people in this village, a significant section of the higher caste population also agreed to support him as they needed someone to stand up to the criminal.

In order to escape the wrath of the criminal, Vijay campaigned in the village but started spending more time in nearby Atarra town where several dalit student activists for whom he had played a leadership role earlier were willing to protect him and his family members. In this way he was able to win the election without becoming a victim of the criminal.

After winning he made it clear that he will not be taking any commission from any villager while implementing development works and meeting the needs of various villagers in getting their official work done in various ways. Some officials were angry when they did not get the expected commission from this village. So they came and asked villagers how much do you pay to your new Pradhan. The villagers told them that he takes nothing at all. On hearing this the officials also stopped asking for their commission.

This helped to set up a good tradition in the village.

Later when his family members were elected Vijay Bahadur extended his support to continue the same healthy functioning of panchayat and one of the biggest housing programs involving about 164 new houses constructed for the genuinely poor families could be taken up here without any bribes being paid.

An even bigger program of constructing toilets could also be completed very honestly.

Even as an elderly person now Vijay Bahadur has continued to be active in opposing corruption in other panchayats. Despite the very strong  reputation he has and the respect he commands, however recently officials have not taken the due action in many serious cases of corruption he has uncovered, such as budgets being claimed for roads that were never constructed and old roads being shown as new roads. When he persisted with his efforts, he himself was harassed in various ways.

It is unfortunate that someone who can be so helpful in improving panchayats on the basis of his rich and valuable experiences has been not just neglected but also harassed. One hopes that his complaints will get due attention and the panchayat officials will also use his rich experiences in their training programs. Meanwhile, undeterred by all the injustice and harassment, Vijay Bahadur continues to be actively involved in several mobilization and development efforts.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine, When the Two Streams Met and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.


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