Saturday, March 20, 2010

Green Kerala Express

The President of the Karumalloor Grama Panchayat is facing the arc lights for the first time but he remains unfazed as he confidently fields queries from a jury on the development initiatives undertaken by the panchayat and explains how 250 acres of barren land was transformed into 750 acres of fertile agricultural land in a matter of years. The jury is suitably satisfied by the video presentation, the data provided to them and the village’s response to their queries and they award the Panchayat 46 marks out of 60.

Welcome to GREEN KERALA EXPRESS – touted as India's first and biggest social reality game show (possibly the world’s too), which aims to find the best Panchayat in Haritha Keralam. The contest is based on the performance of each local body in implementing programmes relating to sustainable agriculture, conservation of water resources, food and social security, Kudumbasree, National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), health, education, energy, housing, women’s empowerment and participation in grama sabhas in the state of Kerala. The first phase covers Grama Panchayats and the second phase will focus on Urban Local Bodies (Corporations & Municipalities together).

Doordarshan has done yeoman service in covering rural India for several years, starting with its Krishi Darshan and other socio-cultural programmes which are incidentally still watched in rural India (though the lure of daily soaps have probably torn away people from such programmes). Now, in an inspired piece of programming, the Thiruvananthapuram Kendra (DD Malayalam) is telecasting this 100+ episode show where villages compete with each other for a Kaun Banega Crorepati (yes, the winning village gets 1 crore!!!), highlighting their grassroots-level, sustainable developmental projects.

Kerala has 999 village panchayats, 53 municipalities and five municipal corporations. Two months back, DD had invited entries from local bodies. Around 200 local bodies sent their proposals, with 10-minute documentaries. Each entry was subjected to scrutiny by a couple of Technical Committees, based on the performance of the panchayat as understood from the filled-in questionnaire and other materials and input.

The jury shortlisted 150 out of 999 panchayats and a Production team was assigned the responsibility to visit the villages and make a short film based on the information submitted to them. The selection is to be narrowed down to 15 panchayat projects at the end of this first screening stage, and to three by the end of second for the final show. Of the total prize money of Rs 3 crore, the winning village would walk away with the 1 crore prize, funded by the state government.

In each episode, the film made by the panchayat is screened in front of the jury along with a short profile of the village followed by the video prepared by the production team. Then, a panchayat representative — with a group of villagers — comes into the studio, talks about the project, and fields queries from a jury comprising experts from various fields. Post-this, the jury awards them a score and the SMS voting for the village is announced.

The brains behind this fascinating game show are two humble bureaucrats - Doordarshan Assistant Director Sajan Gopalan and C-DIT Deputy Director K Mohan Kumar, who conceived it as a travelogue-type reality show which focuses on rural Kerala. The show has been produced by the Centre for Development of Imaging Technology (C-DIT) for the Local Self Government Department (LSGD), Government of Kerala. The Doordarshan Kendra, Thiruvananthapuram, Suchitwa Mission and Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA) are its co-producers.

The programme, which would be a unique documentation of grassroot-level positive initiatives, should inspire other local bodies to deliver better results... To add entertainment elements, there would be a little bit of drama and celebrities as members of the jury. Although the show would not have all the trappings of popular reality shows, audience would get a chance to SMS for their favourate panchayat and its project
says Sajan.

There were initial apprehensions on the quality of a DD sponsored programme but thankfully, the first few episodes (started on March 1st) of this daily half hour interactive show have proved sceptics wrong. The sets carry a green hue and the anchors are cheerful youngsters who give it a professional look. We have seen enough tantrums being thrown by judges in game shows but thankfully down south, the decorum has not yet been shattered and the producers have not resorted to unnecessary melodrama or audio-video jugglery which characterize most such shows.

Instead, presenting in such a format has ensured that it is an engaging exercise in intellect, without alienating a majority of viewers. The programme also has a fantastic title track, composed by Dr Sreevalsan J Menon. To add to the show’s green flavour, the programme anchor tours the panchayat only in a cycle, as he goes about talking to various villagers. Keeping in tune with the latest trends, the winner panchayat and project will be judged partly on SMSes sent by audience. DD has also roped in film stars to pitch in their support for the programme, trying to reach out to a wider audience.

The judge panel consists of two permanent jury members (Vineetha Menon, head of the department of anthropology, Kannur University and K.P. Kannan, former director of Centre for Development Studies), two technical jury members (such as environmentalists R.V.G. Menon and M.K. Prasad, agriculture expert R. Heli ) and a celebrity judge.

The choice of Padmapriya as a celebrity judge is an interesting choice (her lack of Malayalam knowledge could have been a hindrance in such a show but then she is a Ph.D student in Panchayati Raj Development!) and it presents to the contestants a chance to interact with an intelligent woman, who has taken up acting as a profession and not the usual bimbos who turn up in many shows. The primary focus of most of the interactions have pertained to agriculture, health, education and employment, specifically on the fufillment of NREGS objectives.

While most villages have done their homework, there are exceptions too who cut a sorry figure too - like Kalady village whose data provided was incomplete and incorrect and the representatives were hard pressed to answer questions put to them (including the incredible claim of providing only 8 man days under NREGS but being the highest disbursal of NREGS funds in Ernakulam!!!); the President was quick to blame paucity of time and the clerk for providing the data. The presence of an intelligent jury ensures that villages are asked questions properly and the mediocre ones are weeded out, as exhibited during the sessions.

It is interesting to note that in most Panchayats, the funds alloted to them (atleast on paper) have not been fully utilized, so is the issue of insufficient funds a valid reason? The fact that in many places changes have happened due to active intervention of the Panchayat (financially and culturally-like not alloting numbers to houses who do not co-operate as in Karumalloor or reclaiming occupied land near the Kalpathy river to protect it by Akathethara panchayat) gives an insight into the power devolution in rural areas; unlike in urban spaces where people do not even know their neighbours. Greater decentralization has helped the local self governments to take decisions on their own.

There have been a few interesting stories that have emerged in the episodes so far:

Adattu, in Thrissur, a village that ditched pesticides for organic farming

Cheriyanad, in Alappuzha, the country’s first litigation-controlled and legally-literate grama panchayat

Nilambur (under the leadership of writer Aryadan Shoukath), in Malappuram, attempts to become the country's first dowry-free village

Elappully, in Palakkad, a model dairy village with significant work in the field of dairy development and restoration of water bodies in the area (and it is my village too which is leading with 51 marks!!!)

Eloor, in Ernakulam, replaced all its incandescent bulbs with fluorescent models with the Panchayat enlisting the help of students in this plan

With most TV channels running out of ideas and resorting to cliched and stupid game shows (like swayamvar tests) and umpteen music shows, it exposes the bankruptcy of ideas that most major channels have. Bringing all these panchayats together and trying to analyse their models of sustainable developments is not an easy job but the endeavour is definitely praiseworthy. Judging a panchayat in less than 15 minutes may be a bit short but keeping the television audience in mind, anything more could turn-off potential viewers.

A lot of constructive work done in many remote parts do not get attention and this show gives an opportunity to witness such work. I do not know what the show’s TRPs are but I sincerely believe that if this show succeeds, it is a success for all those who believe in the power of television to sell infotainment creatively. Incidentally, inspired by this concept, DD is considering plans to conduct a show on these lines on a pan-India level.

Urban India is well and truly divorced from its rural cousin and this show presents an opportunity to take a peek into this world. Of course, the semi-rural/urban nature of Kerala and the decentralization of powers have ensured that this alienation has not reached the extreme end as in most parts of the country. We think that in the midst of an IT revolution, our dependency on agriculture is taking us backwards and the way ahead is to stop this trend. But when you examples of places as shown in the programme where villages have taken to agriculture in a large way and produced fantastic results, you can clearly see the urban-rural divide.  

P.S. This show is being screened thrice a day in DD-Malayalam, at 5pm, 8.30 pm and 11.00 pm from Monday to Friday. After daily scratching our heads on what to watch on television prime time, we have finally something to look forward to. Additionally, I guess, it also provides an avenue for us to get in touch with our roots, despite being away from it. Watching DD-Malayalam for the past few days has actually been an eye-opener-serious programming (a bit drab at times) actually exists!!! 

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