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'My trump card is Sonia Gandhi'

Mani Shankar Aiyar.
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January 29, 2007
Irrepressible and Mani Shankar Aiyar go together. The Union minister for panchayati raj, sport and youth affairs and north-eastern region talks to Sreelatha Menon about the empire he runs.

Entrusted with panchayati raj, which is struggling to become a reality, do you feel somewhat useless in the Cabinet?

I don't feel useless. I don't think the task is useless. We have already taken a huge step forward by creating 2.5 lakh institutions of governance and electing 35 lakh people. When you consider that all previous attempts have floundered, we can pat ourselves on our backs on having made panchayati raj ineluctable, irremovable and irreversible.

But they have hardly transferred any powers. What is there is in the law...

Before we start assessing weaknesses, we must look at the strengths. About 1.2 million women have been elected in local bodies. Thus, there are more elected women in India than the rest of the world. Even Ambedkar had expressed doubts in panchayati raj as he saw villages as cesspools of prejudices. Yet when we look at the role of SC/STs [Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes] and women in particular in panchayati raj institutions, I feel the degree of political and social empowerment of depressed classes would impress even Ambedkar. The remaining problem now is how to convert this into administrative and economic empowerment.

There are issues like lack of awareness, absence of powers...

I am very proud of the fact that we have a national road map agreed upon by all states for moving towards administrative and economic empowerment. Memorandums of understanding have been signed with 17 states and Union territories...

When we are making so much progress there is no need to despair in the ministry. Besides, I am not dependent on other people's recognition. I am convinced that altering the entire system of governance is a far more enduring contribution to nation-building than the glamour of foreign office or headlines in the pink press. Even as petroleum minister, I found the treatment the ministry received in the media was trivial.

Do you feel the government gives importance to the work you are doing?

My greatest assets are the Planning Commission and the Deputy Chairman of the Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia. They are with us on these issues. The problem today is of the machinery for delivery of development. So he would like to see the role of bureaucracy at all levels in the district and sub district level to yield place to elected representatives. He is also aiming at making the Eleventh Five-Year Plan truly revolutionary by making district plans prepared according to constitutional provisions.

But where is that happening?

Even if we succeed in a few states, so long as the Planning Commission persists in demanding them we will get there. The prime minister has gone out of his way to appear on our platforms to signal panchayati raj matters.

But my trump card is Sonia Gandhi. She is decisively in favour of changes in the governance structure to ensure grassroot development through grassroot democracy. Then why should I break my heart that some papers do not have a word on panchayati raj while covering World Cup soccer for three weeks though an Indian team is not participating?

National values are not going to be arbitered by the media.

You have been quiet on special economic zones though your counterpart in the rural development ministry has been proactively raising his voice against them.

I found in the conclave of chief ministers in Nainital that the leader of my party is so wholly seized of my concerns that I am relieved of the responsibility of having to express or pursue them. I think we will arrive at an appropriate balance between economic development and the requirements of social equity...

You can see the dialectic is manifesting itself in the group of ministers. So I am content to await the outcome of the GoM's deliberations.

Punjab is an example of good agricultural land being given away for SEZs.

Sonia Gandhi said at the conclave that the chief ministers might consider not giving away farmland. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh did say in reply that the state had only good agricultural land!

Most policy decisions seem to be taken under pressure from partners like the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam. The United Progressive Alliance is perpetually at the mercy of its partners whether it is the reservations issue or SEZs. What kind of identity does it have? What can it possibly do?

The DMK is an important component of the coalition and a coalition culture demands that due deference be paid to strongly held views of partners. But I think many of the convictions of the DMK are shared across the board by most members of the coalition.

The Panchayats, Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, which is meant to give tribal communities powers to form panchayats in their traditional mould, is not being implemented at all. The ministry can hardly do anything about it.

I share your concern over absence of conforming legislation in states with respect to the PESA. And the uneven and inadequate implementation of PESA provisions. It is precisely for this reason that we have set up a committee to prepare detailed reports not only on PESA provisions but more generally on problems of forest dwellers. I am expecting reports in March and hoping that its findings will enable us to take decisive steps towards Fifth Schedule areas.

Can you enforce any of these reports?

Any advance is better than none.

What about sports ?

Please let us not talk about it.

Why not? You are not interested in sports, which is already so neglected? Is it not part of our education? There are no playgrounds here while we are having big events.

I agree. Sports is not about spending crores on mega events like the Commonwealth Games. It is about having adequate playgrounds for children to play in. I am almost on the edge of taking a note to Cabinet for a panchayat yuva khel abhiyan to organise sports at the doorstep of 72 crore of the 77 crore young men and women. It will ensure that there are playgrounds and sporting equipment. This will be done through 250,000 youth clubs of the Nehru Yuva Kendra and the Sports Authority of India.

Can you deny that you are at loggerheads with many of your Cabinet colleagues? Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh is one such person.

I have never once crossed swords with the minister for rural development and there is no turf war between me and Raghuvansh Prasad Singh. Given the cordial relations we have, I am bewildered by stories like this. I challenge any of you to produce evidence of any clash.

But the common terrain shared by you must be creating some tensions?

It is not a common terrain at all. The ministry of rural development is only concerned with schemes run by that ministry. Panchayati raj is a level of governance. Its ambit includes rural development but stretches beyond schemes into areas like health, education, sports.

Rural development is a grant-giving ministry. My ministry is an institution-building ministry. Except that we were recently asked to administer the BRGF [Backward Regions Grant Fund] I have little interest in Central schemes but it is my duty to ensure centrality of panchayats in all 29 subjects in the 11th Schedule or where in NREGA [National Rural Employment Gurantee Act] the law itself states that panchayati raj institutions shall be the principal authority for planning and implementation of NREGP [National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme] projects.

The UPA government is committed to the centrality of panchayati raj institutions in all Bharat Nirman projects. So to think that we fight over turf is to misinterpret the nature of panchayati raj.

Is Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan being run by me? It is the job of the human resources ministry to run the scheme. Mine is to ensure that panchayat is given due centrality.

Photograph: Ranjan Basu/Saab Press

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