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Empowering grassroots governance

This water tank in Saru (Hinjilicut block) was completed in 2009 at the request of the villagers themselves. It is used as a fish farm for small business development, not to mention its usefulness as a water storage facility for washing and other activities. Many of the people here belong to India’s ‘Scheduled Tribes’. The women of Saru joined together in this voluntary self-help group to help each other generate income and press for development projects such as the water tank. (P. Sen/UNV)This water tank in Saru (Hinjilicut block) was completed in 2009 at the request of the villagers themselves. It is used as a fish farm for small business development, not to mention its usefulness as a water storage facility for washing and other activities. Many of the people here belong to India’s ‘Scheduled Tribes’. The women of Saru joined together in this voluntary self-help group to help each other generate income and press for development projects such as the water tank. (P. Sen/UNV)Minaram Patnaik is a national UNV volunteer District Support Officer assigned to the UNV/UNDP Capacity Development for District Planning project in Ganjam, Orissa State, India. (P. Sen/UNV)Minaram Patnaik is a national UNV volunteer District Support Officer assigned to the UNV/UNDP Capacity Development for District Planning project in Ganjam, Orissa State, India. (P. Sen/UNV)
29 June 2010

Ganjam, Orissa State, India: In the village of Kamagada, young men and women toil in the sun on a water system that will help beat erosion and fertilize the land. As buffalos wallow in the evening twilight, the women’s group in Saru proudly show off their recently-completed fishery.

These and similar projects in rural Orissa help empower the poor to take more ownership over achieving the Millennium Development Goals. National UNV volunteers like Minaram Patnaik see that such projects happen according to the wishes of the communities who propose them, and work with the authorities to ensure they are implemented as effectively as possible. (Click here to see the photo story)

In the role of a District Support Officer, Minaram and 55 other UNV volunteers work on the UNDP/UNV Capacity Development for District Planning project. It aims to bridge the gaps between beneficiaries and India’s several tiers of Government.

In heavily-populated India, Minaram explains, there are several levels of governance, beginning with the ‘Gram Panchayat’, an elected village council. Ideas from ordinary people then filter up from the Panchayats to the authorities via administrative ‘Blocks’ and ‘Districts’. Various proposals are discussed by the District Planning Committee and resources then filter down from the District Offices.

Despite the grassroots bottom-up approach, there’s huge potential for misunderstandings along the way. In a nutshell, Minaram Patnaik’s role is to make sure the voices of the people are heard throughout the process. As a native of Orissa himself, he already has a good understanding of the issues and helps bridge the gaps between the communities and the authorities.

One buzzword, the UNV volunteer continues, is ‘convergence’. With so many development projects and schemes going on, such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) which promises unskilled people 100 days of paid work, there’s lots of opportunities to save time, effort and resources by bringing projects together.  It requires people with a general overview at all levels to see the synergies, and that’s where he comes in.

“There’s a number of departments with their own development schemes,” says Minaram, “and they’re not always talking to each other. The Health Department may do one thing, while the Women and Child Development Department may do another… so I help interlink them at the Block and District levels.” Minaram also works very closely with his UNICEF counterpart in Ganjam, exemplifying the UN’s ‘Delivering as One’ initiative.

Watershed management projects like the one in Kamagada tend to be one-off activities, so it’s not always easy to link them to continuous schemes like NREGS. “But the labour component of such watershed schemes can be funded by NREGS,” says Minaram. “If you have, say, 40 lakh rupees ($86,000) for watershed schemes, you can pay 20 lakhs from NREGS, leaving 20 lakhs free for other things.”

“The more schemes join together,” Minaram comments, “the more efficiency there will be, and the benefit will be multiplied.”

“With a limited workforce at the district headquarters,” explains Sarat Kumar Parida, Deputy Director of Planning in Ganjam district, “we were handicapped. Now we have advice, skills and aptitudes from our UN colleagues like Minaram.”

Mr. Parida continues: “Most significantly, the UNV volunteers are able to identify specific underlying problems and bring them to our attention. And wherever Minaram goes among the communities, he shows his ears are open.”

Another problem, says Minaram, is that not everyone at the village level takes part in the planning process, particularly women, the disabled and the marginalized ‘Scheduled Tribes and Castes’.

“As a UNV volunteer,” he remarks, “I step in to help ensure that it is more participatory, and then see to it that ideas are taken seriously at the Gram Panchayat level.” He observes the contributions from each village, and also facilitates when required at general village meetings (known as 'Palli Sabhas').

“I’ve been involved with volunteering since my college days,” Minaram concludes. “I became interested in UNV while working as a monitoring and evaluation specialist for an NGO. This way I can be so much more involved at the community level. Dealing with all the different schemes I get a visible sense of what’s happening, and can see I’m really doing something.”

UNV is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)