1> After my attachment to Tehsil, the sub-deputy collector’s office comprising several revenue circles, usually 3-4 which is a time honoured institution created as a part of the charge of the District Magistrate and Collector by Warren Hastings in Bengal presidency in 1972-73, for collection of land revenue and maintenance of land records, record of rights of ryots- cultivators in a village, the exposure to development blocks and Panchayati Raj Institution – Nehru’s brainchild wih S.K.Dey as its architect was like a journey to a new-world.
In Assam, where I was posted, two-tier panchayati raj, that is at the block and sub-division levels was in vogue under the State Panchayati Raj Act and not three-tier at village, sub-division and district levels as in states like Maharashtra. Only limited subjects mostly related to social welfare relief work in the wake of calamities, agriculture and village industries, or having a voice in the running of primary schools or primary health centres were allowed to the panchayats. BDO was the Secretary of the bock panchayats and being a gazetted officer exercised financial powers which the block panchayat president did not enjoy. The result was the perpetual quarrel between the two which as a Sub-divisional officer ( SDO ), I had to intervene. The local MLA’s did not favour a larger role for the panchayat’s as this would reduce their leverage. At the Makkuma Panchayat level, the panchayat representatives complained of lack of financial and administrative power, poor and apathetic response of officials to people’s grievances of meagre budget given to panchayats, excessive official interference and most importantly insulation of revenue administration, the SDC’s office from panchayati raj.
Some of these points were valid and were later rectified under the 73rd amendment to the Constitution which gave Panchayati Raj institutions constitutional Status, provided for a district plan to be prepared by the Zila Panchayat and transfer of 29 subjects to the PRI; and to implement the amendment, each state is required to enact a ‘ state Panchayeti Act in conformity with the letter and spirit of the 73rd amendment. However, the office of the BDO and his staff such as Ag Extension officer and village level workers (Gram sevaks and sevikas) and others covering all aspects of rural life and economy were of immense help to administration in efforts to transfer technology, implement rural roads and other social and physical infrastructural works, distribution of relief in times of calamities, family welfare and ‘immunisation’ programs. Conduct of census and election, poverty alleviation and schemes for reusing the productivity of small and marginal farmers and promoting dairy cooperatives and development of women and children.
Before, Nehru , only regulatory wing of the state was present in the field, namely, SDC (Tehsildaar) and Patwari/ kanungo and the Daroga of the Police Station and there was no ‘field development administration’ at the grass roots level capable of taking a comprehensive view on rural development and to function as multifarious ‘agents of change ‘in the rural society. This gap was filled by Nehru and SK Dey, who organised the community development project, put in place the BDO and the extension staff which stands today as an empowered body to take up greater challenges of development and as testimony of Nehru’s foresight and commitment to rural development.
2> The Panchayat Raj was a part of ‘ The Plan’ that is, activities, projects taken up with funds from the 5 year Plans broken into Annual Plans and reflected in the State Plan budget and utilized as per central guidelines. Thus as SDO, I was a part of many such plans, schemes, small and large in all sectors, and responsible for providing ‘administrative cover ‘to construction of National Highway, extension of piped and safe water supply to townships, improvement of urban habitations. To us there was magic in the words ‘ Five year Plans’ and joy in direct participation in fulfilling Nehru’s grand vision of building modern India through development planning. The new dams, power stations, steel plants which Nehru called ‘ New Temples of India’, still stand as embodiment of his vision of democratising regulatory and development administration.
3> The National Science Policy 1956 of Nehru gave a huge push to CSIR and a chain of Regional Research laboratories came up with the object of delivering ‘ Scientific and Technological’ solutions to the technological challenges faced by the local economy and the production functions in different sectors. To modernize agriculture, ICAR stations were set with a mandate to develop location and crop specific technology answers to the problems farmers were facing by carrying out extensive field trials and testing’s. Thus decentralisation of Science and Technology system and spread of network of technical educational institutions was central to Nehru’s vision of expanding and democratising the knowledge systems. I had the good opportunity to see the work of the Regional Research Laboratory at Jorhat in Assam, which in the 60’s developed an ‘interaction’ mechanism with all stakeholders, such as the small, medium and micro enterprises including Khadi and Village industries to understand their specific technology gaps and needs in order to find solutions through R & D work. This was a remarkable effort as it created a participatory process of technology development designed to meet the location specific demands for technology services.
4> In administration of Tribal areas and Tribal development, Nehru’s ‘footprint’ was most pronounced in the North East; because in the 5th Schedule area of central and East India, he left it largely to the Chief Ministers who chaired the Tribal Advisory Committee in respective states and the Governors enjoyed the special responsibility for tribal areas in the 5th schedule states. These tribal areas are also endorsed with practically all of India’s mineral resources and sources of rivers and hydropower – irrigation development. As a result, project related displacement as for instance caused by the construction of ‘ Hirakud Dam’ in Odisha affected the tribes most. The Panchayats were not functional in tribal Areas till much later when the PESA, that is, extension of Panchayat Raj Act to Tribal Areas was enacted much later. Unrest in tribal areas was gathering over the years and found expression in spread of Left Wing extremism. There is some truth n the adage that ‘ where you see Sal forests, there are tribals as they depend on ‘ Sal Seeds’, large reserves of Coal below the Sal trees and Naxalites all over such forest-tribal lands’.
In the North – East however Nehru was deeply involved because of two strong security reasons. First, the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950 called for a different approach to NEFA and Second the Naga insurgency that began soon after India attained freedom. I had an opportunity to work in the then Mizo District of Assam in 1967-68, First as a Special officer at Aizawl in charge of “Protected and Progressive Villages” which came up along the Road network after regrouping of villages was carried by the Army as a Counter insurgency measure to deny the Mizo insurgents the benefit of shelter and support in remote villages and later as SDO of newly created sub-division covering the area inhabited by ‘Pawi-Lakher’, now called Mara at Saiha (a District in Mizoram ), close to Myanmar. When I analyzed the causes of 1966 Mizo insurgency, the cause most cited by the Mizo’s was the failure of the Mizo Autonomous District Council set up under the 6th Schedule to meet the aspirations of the Mizo people. This feeling of disenchantment with Nehruvian policy of granting autonomy within the State of Assam was shared in the Khasi, Garo hills Districts which now comprise Meghalaya State and in the two hill districts – Karbi Anglong and NC Hills, now Dima Hasao in Assam. In NEFA, though listed in the 6th Schedule, the Autonomous District Councils were not constituted and so in Nagaland due to Naga insurgency. This mismatch led to Hill State Movement in Assam and the eventual reorganisation of Assam in 1971 that created Meghalaya State and the union territories of Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. Nehru was aware of this sentiment and agreed to meet the demand put forward by a section of moderate Naga leaders for a separate State as a compromise; and thus the State of Nagaland was created in 1963 that gave a positive signal to Hill State Movement in Assam. The rapid spread of money economy and culture associated with acquisition of riches and material comforts in Tribal areas have rendered most of the assumptions of the ‘ Panchsheel ‘ for tribal areas dated as thanks to ‘ information revolution’, the Tribes in North-East as elsewhere are really looking for ‘leapfrogging’ in development and have no patience for a development strategy based on what Nehru called “ hastening slowly”. However, one must give due credit to Nehru for his foresight in granting ‘ autonomy’ which could be seen, with hindsight as an unconsciously laid down but first sure step to state hood that NE hill tribes got eventually. Above all, the District Councils provided good training to leaders like Purno Sangma who became a Speaker of Lok Sabha and a Presidential candidate too.
5> The other area where Nehru’s legacy is seen significantly is his recognition of rights of States in deciding what should states official language and the medium of instruction in schools and higher educational institution. His deft handling of this issue was seen in Assam and NE where the multi-lingual and multi ethnic composition of the region’s population eventually ensured a permanent position for English as the medium of higher education in the North- East region.
6> Among the strongest of Nehru’s legacy has been ‘ Secularism’ and on this Nehru made no compromises and created institutions for development of religious minorities and kept the state out of any overtly religious activity creating thereby a sense of security and belonging to the Nation among all sections of the people. This is because of Nehru’s abiding faith in the idea of a modern state driven by interests of all taxpayers meaning citizens and founded on the Rule of law and policies and institutions based on equality and freedom for all, and welfare and ‘capability enhancement’ of all regardless of all differences as its National goal.
He articulated that only such a ‘ Modern State’ could ensure political unity and civilsational integrity of India which remain Nehru’s greatest legacy. And the much derided ‘ Hindu growth rate of 3 – 3.5% was according to many western development economists of repute, not really low if one considered the inherited decrepit colonial economy that registered a little above 1 % growth since World War I and the huge lag in infrastructure and technological backwardness. The base of higher scientific and engineering education that Nehru left behind enabled India to join IT revolution quickly and to emerge as a leader in the Software exports and IT enabled services and his unstinted support to development of Atomic energy and missile technology enabled India to develop capability in these two strategic areas that is recognized internationally and even by our adversaries.
The most significant contribution of Panditji to the nation and the growth of Democracy that has struck deep roots in India as evident in the circumstances that led to the termination of the state of Emergency in 1977 is his firm, total and steadfast support to the introduction of the universal adult franchise. It is not known to many that the Constituent Assembly which gave us the constitution was elected on the basis of a very limited franchise of a little above 33% of the population in 1946 and the opinion for continuation of limited franchise was so strong that it was Pandit Nehru’s fierce opposition to the same that carried the provision for the universal adult suffrage. This was the single most important factor that empowered the poor and the disadvantaged to raise not only their voice but also acquire power as seen right from the 1960’s and thereby expanded and deepened democracy in India as a form of government. History will always bear this out as the most enduring legacy of Panditji.