Rangaswamy Shanmugam, of Odanthurai Panchayat, is a visionary President.  He’s also no longer its President, having served the maximum term in office between 2001 and 2009, following his father’s five-year holding of the same position.  Shanmugam’s wife Mrs.Lingammal is now officially president of Odanthurai Panchayat, though her husband’s leadership has laid an indelible stamp upon its governance.

“When Shanmugam suggests something, we know it’s for our benefit,” says M. Radharkrishnan, a Panchayat member and saw mill worker.  We’re told more than three thousand plans have been executed in the Panchayat under the family’s leadership, and not a single one has been opposed. Shanmugam’s approach combines entrepreneurial spirit with sound financial management to meet the governance needs of the area. The Panchayat’s hallmark commitment to transparency has resulted in public accounts being painted on the outside walls of their office buildings.  From housing projects to Rs. 178 to obtain a death certificate for a deceased man, all public money expenditures are listed for residents to see. These expenditures include some very unconventional projects with what he calls non-conventional energy – including the Panchayat’s purchase of a 350kW windmill.

Odanthurai is an eleven-village Panchayat, 40km from Coimbatore, in Karamadai block of Tamil Nadu.  Eight thousand people live on its 1119 square kilometres, but the figure is rapidly increasing: in 1996 Odanthurai was home to only 1500.  The Panchayat has good roads, good schools and good housing, and even the tribal population are migrating to its housing projects. Yet these people don’t bring private wealth.

Eighty per cent are landless labourers, and 22% within that are Irulas, a local Scheduled Tribe.  The need to adapt the Panchayat’s public facilities to both cope with and support these rising numbers of people has been a challenge that Shanmugam’s innovations have had to address.

With each new housing project came higher electricity bills for the Panchayat, as clusters of mud and stick huts changed to brick and cement buildings with new water systems and electricity connections.  It was after one such developmental drive in 1999 that Shanmugam commissioned a financial analysis of his government’s expenditures, and found that fifty to sixty per cent of their money was being spent on the public electricity bills.  The yearly bill ate all of their tax revenue from the Panchayat’s businesses (Rs. 6.75 lakh), and some of the grant they received from the state government.  As on date, around 9% of the state developmental budget of Tamil Nadu is devolved to Panchayats that come under the department of Rural Development and Panchayat Raj.  These funds are intended for development projects such as roads, housing, or water and sanitation.  Public electricity, including 575 streetlights, 15 water distribution pumping motors and one borewell motor, was the single largest expenditure in Odanthurai for which no grants were received.  Shanmugam decided to find a better arrangement.

Every state in India has a Renewable Energy Development Agency, a state-level body of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE). As part of their mandate to raise awareness and knowledge of renewable energy, they organise training programmes and trade fairs, with varying frequency.  In Tamil Nadu, this agency would notify panchayats when fairs were held, and Shanmugam would get on a bus and go to see what was happening. In the conference halls he’d tour from table to table, quizzing renewable

Panchayat’s public electricity requirements, which Shanmugam estimates will be 4.5 lakh units by 2013.  It will also generate 2.75 lakh units in addition, which the board will purchase from the Panchayat at Rs. 2.90 each. Odanthurai will then not only have no electricity bills to pay, but also an income close to Rs. 8 lakh per year.

“[Shanmugam] has a very sharp commercial brain,” observes Vinoth Rangaswamy, who runs an internet community portal (Mettupalayam.in) ,a friend and nearby resident.  “He’s aware that, if a small section of every scheme can be used for commercial purposes, some money can be made which can go towards the next scheme.”

Shanmugam’s already thinking of the next plan: invest to make the Panchayat’s domestic electricity load independent of the electricity board, too.  “It’s not good to depend on someone else for electricity,” he considers.  “It’s much better that we make our own.”

His eyes are on waste water treatment at the moment as there have been some initial exchange of information that has happened with a german company Huber. Like the windmill, this project also requires substantial capital and has other stakeholders like the local municipality and other nearby panchayaths, and hence will require the co-ordination and co-operation of all the concerned parties to implement the waster water scheme.

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