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Strengthen the Grassroots

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Conscious Incrementalism

By Sanjeev Chopra

The first issue of Conscious Incrementalism (CI) will focus on India@75: Making the Grassroots Functional. It is also in sync with the meta- narrative on conscious incrementalism that I am going to expound through the columns of this newspaper, which itself is a wonderful example of incremental growth: from a weekly to a daily to a newspaper whose web edition transcends the boundaries of Garhwal. This too did not happen in a day, because I have seen the paper grow and evolve over the last two decades and, today, it occupies a premier position not only amongst the conscious readers of Dehradun, Mussoorie, Haridwar and Rishikesh, but well beyond these recognisable geographies.

India@75 means so many different things to different people. From a national perspective, we can look at India@75 in terms of India as a five trillion-dollar economy, we can look at it in terms of our military and diplomatic clout, in terms of our quest in outer space, in terms of our ability to handle the global pandemic, and so on and so forth. I would look at India@75 from two lenses – what does it mean to be an Indian who has to interact with grassroots level institutions – from the ICDS centres to the schools to hospitals, police stations and the panchayats, and the second from the macro perspective – how strong are our institutions – our Parliament, our UPSC and the Election Commission, our Judiciary, our NITI Aayog, as well as the institutions of higher learning – the IIMs, IITs, Medical and Law colleges.

This time, I will focus on grassroots institutions and the need to strengthen them – first with funds, then with functionaries, and last but not the least with procedural flexibility and trust in their competence, their ability and their honesty. For, unless we are convinced that those who run our grassroots institutions are committed to their jobs, and seek their views on how these can be run better, we will only be rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic!

I trace it to an elemental lack of trust – and the system of top down insructionalism. Unless we trust the officers in the field, and they in turn trust those who work for them, we are perpetuating a system in which most people in the hierarchy would just wait for directions from above. Did we actually need the High Courts to tell us that district hospitals need to fix their medical logistics? From the health department to the agriculture department, we have qualified professionals at the block level – yet one is appalled to note how disempowered they feel – because of the lack of Trust, and the lack of freedom. India is too diverse to be micro-managed, and when we try doing it, the results are there for us to see.

India@75 should not be replicating the command and control format, but should trust the person in the field, especially those who head the institutions at the grassroots – the SHO, the BDO, the Revenue officer, the Block Medical Officer and the school headmaster. They are the ones whose interactions with the public will define how an average citizen feels about the state. The media too should start focusing on the grassroots, highlight their accomplishments and focus on the suggestions that they have for creating an India where citizens will actually get to see if there is Ease of Living on a day to day basis!

CI believes that strong grassroots institutions are the true foundations of a strong and stable society. Information Technology gives us the ability to connect the grassroots with Raisina Hill – the question is whether it should be top down or bottom-up, and I am hopeful that my averment in favour of grassroots will gain currency with my readers!

(Sanjeev Chopra is a historian, public policy analyst and the Festival Director of Valley of Words, an International Literature and Arts festival based out of
Dehradun. He was a member of the IAS, and
superannuated as the Director of the LBS National
Academy of Administration).