Thursday, July 5, 2012

‘Encroachments in villages won’t be tolerated’ - Surjit Singh Rakhra, Rural Development and Panchayat Minister, Punjab

Surjit Singh Rakhra wants to be remembered as Rural Development and Panchayat Minister who made earnest efforts to bridge the rural-urban divide. In an interview with Jangveer Singh, he talked of the need for region-specific schemes.

What are your first impressions on taking over as Rural Development and Panchayat Minister?
My first thoughts were to take steps to end factional fighting in panchayats, which spokes the development process. I am aware of the migration from villages to urban areas and the lack of facilities in villages due to which even government servants are reluctant to serve there. Unemployment in rural areas remains a bane.

How do you propose to change this state of affairs?
We are fine-tuning the ‘e-panchayat’ initiative under which the functioning of panchayats will become transparent. I want to make people proud of their villages by ensuring they have their own portal where apart from information on the village, expenditure of development funds will also be recorded. This will remove bad blood among different factions on the money spent on development works. Simultaneously, the PURA (Provisioning of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas) is being implemented under which villages with a population of 25,000 - 40,000 will be provided urban facilities. Skill development centres will also be developed in rural areas under this scheme.

What else is being done to make the department functioning more efficient?
Training is being given by chartered accountants to sarpanches, panches and officials to help them prepare accounts as per the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) guidelines. Rules are being recast to improve the qualification of panchayat secretaries. Video-conferencing facilities are being set up at our office in Mohali for direct and periodic interaction with officials in the field. The concept of ‘panchayat sammelans’ has been given shape. This will enable direct interaction with sarpanches at the district level. We are highlighting success stories to promote the concept of model panchayats.

What is your immediate priority?
Besides focusing on reforms, I want to end open defecation in three years. The state will spend Rs 285 crore in three years to cover 5.5 lakh families who do not have a toilet. The scheme will be open to everyone who does not have a toilet in his or her home.

There have been complaints about the design of rural toilets. There are issues of seepage and waterlogging. Will these be addressed?
The design is sound. Problems have occurred where beneficiaries have made changes or are using excess water. The toilet seats are angled in such a manner that they require minimum water for cleaning. We have also brought in Sulabh under which besides construction of toilets, an awareness drive will be undertaken to ensure that these are used regularly. The company has been awarded a contract for constructing 15,000 toilets in the first phase.

The scheme for the houseless has not been implemented properly. What steps are you taking in this regard?
We are awaiting the latest socio-economic survey. The 2001 survey had identified only 4.40 lakh families living below poverty line (BPL). We expect the cost per house to be increased from the present Rs 45,000.

Any move to better the lot of village ponds?
There are ponds in 25,000 acres, that comes to roughly two acres per village. A plan has been made to rejuvenate 800 ponds this year. We are looking at a UNICEF technology that divides the pond into four parts with the first part being the inlet. Duckweed and fish will be used to clean the other parts.

Encroachment of village land and the manner in which ‘shamlat’ land is used has been a matter of controversy. What remedy do you suggest?

There will be zero tolerance towards encroachments. The department is in the process of getting cross cases filed wherever panchayat land has been encroached upon. We will get orders for eviction and reclaim such land. We have decided on a 24-hour helpline that will receive and track such complaints.

What is the status of livelihood improvement schemes?
We have 40 such schemes in 11 districts covering 1.84 lakh hectares. They include integrated watershed managements projects, mainly in the Kandi area, besides schemes encouraging drip irrigation, livestock development and provision of drinking water and roads in the backward regions of the state.

What challenges to you expect in the way of realising your goals?
Funds remain a challenge. We will try to ensure matching grants wherever needed. The state cannot avail of several schemes due to BPL limitations. Punjab needs area-specific schemes to accelerate the rate of development. We also want to be given special status. We have peculiar problems with industry being non-existent in border districts, some areas waterlogged and still others in Kandi thirsting for water.

Copyright : The Tribune Trust, 2007

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