India’s first ‘corporate’ panchayat rattles political parties

Kerala
Typography

A stall selling vegetables and groceries at subsidized rates to people at Kizhkambalam, a tiny  village on the eastern outskirts of Kochi, during Onam season in 2013 was demolished and prohibitory orders under Section 144 was imposed by the Congress-ruled panchayat on the ground that it was set up by a corporate group without its permission. 

    

The people threw out the Congress in the next local body polls in November 2015 and elected to power Twenty20, the corporate social responsibility (CSR) arm of Kitex Group,a textile major with over 7500 employees and an annual turnover of around Rs.1,000 crores.

Within two years of assuming power, Twenty20 has rewarded the people by establishing India’s first food security market, which sells vegetables, groceries, food items and other essential goods at 50-70 per cent discount.

Subsidy varies according to the financial status of the people. The panchayat has categorized the people into four sections based on economic indicators through a family survey covering the entire population of 36,000 people. The most vulnerable section, grouped under ‘Red category’, is given essential commodities free.

Besides, the panchayat provides protein rich food to pregnant women and feeding mothers and children below the age of 6. About 1500 families, who gave land for development of roads, are also given items free of cost.

The food security market inaugurated by Union minister Nitin Gadkari is one of many projects being implemented by the country’s first ‘corporate panchayat’ to develop Kizhakkambalam as India’s best local body by 2020. Bowled over by the achievements, Gadkari has sanctioned Rs.42 crores for the development of roads in and around the village.

Twenty20 chief coordinator Sabu M George said their attempt was to make Kizhakkambalam a model village by ensuring self-reliance and sustainable livelihood to people. The thrust areas identified for the purpose include food and nutrition security, education, healthcare, mother and child care, housing and sanitation, roads and infrastructure, drinking water, farming and ground water conservation.

Sabu knew it would not be possible for the panchayat to implement projects of this scale with its limited manpower and resources. Therefore, a three-tier system including professionals has been set up to help the panchayat to identify and the execute projects. Twenty20 has employed around 30 MSW graduates to act as connecting bridge between the people and the body.

Apart from the funds available from the government and about Rs.5 crores the panchayat raises annually from various sources, including taxes, Kitex provides 6-8 percent of its profit by way of CSR as against 2 percent mandated by the government under the Companies Act. Kitex group had spent Rs.28 crores for the development of Kizhakkambalam before Twenty20 capturing power of the panchayat by winning 17 of the 19 seats in the election in October 2015. It has earmarked Rs.300 crores for further development, which Sabu hopes will make the panchayat the best local body in the country in 2020.

Twenty20 has laid a strong foundation by launching various schemes in the thrust areas it has identified to achieve the coveted status. The ongoing projects include the ‘Ente Veedu’ scheme, under which 2,000 houses for the poor are being built or renovated.

Panchayat president K V Jacob said they were mainly focusing on agriculture and livestock for ensuring sustainable livelihood to the people. Under this, the panchayat has already started implementing two schemes. In the agricultural front, Twenty20 is encouraging the farmers to produce more by supplying seeds, fertilizer and farming tools, including mechanized equipment. The scheme to promote livestock aims at developing Kizhakkambalam as an ‘Aadu gramam’ (goat village). Under this, people in the lower strata of the society are given five goats, cage besides Rs.5,000 to rear them. The panchayat aims to distribute 5,000 goats by 2020.

The transformation of Kizhakkambalam from a politically-ruled panchayat to a corporate one has brought smiles in the face of the people. Shiny Shajan, a 38-year-old housewife, says she is alive today because of the financial assistance given to her by the Twenty20 to replace her heart valve.  “I have been undergoing treatment for a heart ailment for the last 22 years. We lost hope when doctors advised valve replacement as the only solution for my condition. My family could not afford the huge expense. But Twenty20 came to our rescue by meeting the entire expense. It has given me a new lease of life,” says Shiny.

There are many like Shiny, who owe changes in their lives to Twenty20. Saraswati has no words to describe the peace she has got in her life after her husband quit alcohol following the closure of the retail liquor outlet in her neighbourhood and the subsequent de-addiction programme to which he was subjected to by the Twenty20.

The journey to power has not been smooth for Twenty20. Political parties opposed the charity activities under the CSR saying they were aimed at shielding the pollution Kitex group units caused in the village. They raised the corporatization of politics bogey when it decided to enter the electoral fray.

After Twenty20 won the election, the defeated parties tried to run it down by foisting several cases on it. Sabu said they won ultimately because they had the support of the people. A research paper on the initiative by Aswin Vinodan 90 percent of the people in the village was favourably inclined to Twenty20. The study said that Twenty20 has been able to win the support of the people as they had lost their trust in political parties. As many as 94 percent respondents said that the Congress and the CPM that ruled the panchayat successively had failed to meet the aspirations of the people.

Their faults have led to the origin of Twenty20. The people are unlikely to allow the politicians to meddle in the affairs if Twenty20 does not deviate from the current track.

 

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