I have a background in Electronics and Communication Engineering. After graduating from college in 2008, I joined Infosys Technologies Limited as a Systems Engineer. Even though I liked the work culture and people in the corporation, I could sense my aversion towards the work. The job was appreciable, comfortable and well paid but somehow my excitement continued to move southward. Within a year of my stint with Infosys, I realized that I couldn’t continue doing something I don’t like and therefore started to look for other options. At this time, I stumbled upon the ICICI Fellows Program. The program looked promising with its objective of placing 20 young professionals, selected from across the country, with non-government organizations to work on various grassroots projects in rural India. I was immediately attracted towards the program but was uncertain about the future prospects and a little scared to venture into an unknown territory. However, after much deliberation and consultation I applied for the program and got selected as well.
As part of the ICICI Fellows Program, I was placed with an organization named Samarthan – Center for development support. As the name suggests, Samarthan works for strengthening the Panchayati Raj Institution and improving the local self governance in villages. I was assigned to lead a project for promoting accountability and transparency in implementation of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) in Panna district of Madhya Pradesh. The project provided great insights into the state of the Panchayati Raj systems in India, issues in local self governance and the bottlenecks and leakages in implementation of various poverty alleviation schemes.
Later on, I also got the opportunity to be part of the team with the task of preparing the five year perspective plan for BRGF scheme for Panna district. We went to several village panchayats and urban bodies to aid them with SWOT analysis and planning process. It was then that I came to know about the lack of capacity and ambition among the grassroots workers and lack of vision at the higher level in the district. These projects gave me a thorough understanding of the governance systems in the state and the issues related to public service delivery. But the story was incomplete as I only saw one side of the wall. I could see the problems and issues in governance from outside the system, but couldn’t trace them to their roots inside the system.
A few months before the completion of ICICI Fellows Program, I was still undecided on my future course. It was then that I came to know about the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellowship program. Suddenly, the links began to join and things started falling into place. I immediately applied for the program as it appeared to be the logical next step towards my goal of understanding the problems within the government systems.
After being selected for the program, I got placed in Anuppur district of Madhya Pradesh. Fortunately, my joining the district coincided with the recruitment of Gram Rojgar Sahayaks at each Panchayat. After interacting with a few of them during my field visits, I soon realized that these highly qualified and energetic youths, in contrast to the over-burdened and incompetent village secretaries, can be very useful in systematic planning and implementation of various development schemes. However, they were unaware of their roles and responsibilities and were not being utilized properly by the Gram Panchayats. Sensing the opportunity, I designed a three day training program for these 200 Rojgar Sahayaks to welcome them into the system and help them understand the bottlenecks in the current system and expectations from them. The training not only helped them understand and appreciate their job but also introduced me to an army of qualified grassroots workers who will be instrumental in improving the public service delivery in future.
In due course, I was also involved in the district planning of IAP and BRGF schemes and some other projects related to livelihood and health sector. All these projects have helped me to understand and work towards the root causes of poor planning and implementation at the district level. I came to know about issues related to institutional architecture, functionaries, fund release and monitoring systems, public service delivery mechanism, etc. PMRDF has changed the way I used to look at the problem of poor governance from outside the system and I have come to appreciate the way the systems at the district work in spite of bottlenecks at every level. That said there is a lot to be done at the ground and I expect the remaining part of the fellowship will help me achieve more in this direction.
Neeraj Ahuja is based at Anuppur of Madhya Pradesh. Neeraj is a B.E in Electronics and Communications and has worked for 3 years in sectors like Information Technology, Local Self Governance, District Planning and MNREGS before joining PMRDF.