Introduction of the Panchayat Raj system through the 73rd Constitutional Amendment is the most authoritative step towards energizing grass-root democracy in the history of independent India. The Bill offers substantial space for responsive and participatory governance. It reaches out to women, OBCs, SCs and STs with enabling provisions to assimilate them into the mainstream political dynamics.
Being connected to grass-root people, the Panchayats and the elected representatives have the feel of ground realities, sufferings of people and local conditions. The effectiveness of providing services through local bodies cannot be over-emphasized as they know their real requirements, and are familiar with every nook and corner of the village and, above all, they are answerable to the people. The involvement of Panchayats ensures greater transparency in working and fund utilization than when execution is carried out by state agencies. However, since Panchayati Raj is a State subject, it is for the States to take steps to devolve necessary powers to the Panchayats.
But the Panchayat Act appears threatening to the privileged class that has all along enjoyed decision making powers at the cost of excluding every other weaker section. The laudable initiative for decentralization of governance has met resistance from the elite political interests, authority hungry bureaucracy and the highly powerful corporate lobby whose interests are well served by the continuation of a colonial centralized structure of governance.
A similar fate is met by the PESA Act, 1996 (Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996) that extends the PR Bill to the Fifth Schedule areas of the nine states so that the tribal community can also enjoy self governance according to their traditional culture and lifestyle through the Gram Sabhas. Yet, Panchayats are the only way to strengthen grass-root democracy and pull the weaker sections away from marginalization.
Needless to say, the devolution of powers and functions to Panchayati Raj Institutions is a step in the right direction and over time these Institutions are expected to emerge as strong Centers of local governance responsive to the needs of the local community. What is needed today is the display of political will and a willingness to make the PRIs both effective and accountable. Another urgent need is an extensive exercise in the capacity building of elected PRI representatives.
Here is the status of the functioning of the Panchayat Raj System in India:
Broadened and Representative Leadership: India now has constitutionally mandated 232,332 village Panchayats, 6,000 intermediate Panchayats and 534 Zilla Panchayats. The three tiers of these elected bodies consist of as many as 27,75,858 village Panchayat members, 1,44,491 members of the intermediate Panchayat and 15,067 members of the district Panchayat.
Women Empowerment: Women head about 175 District Panchayats, more than 2,000 Block Panchayats and about 85,000 Gram Panchayats. The southern states are doing better in promoting women leadership compared to the northern states. Along with the Southern States West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh also have more than 33 per cent women heads. It clearly suggests election of some women candidates from general seats too.
Rotation of Reserved Constituencies: Reservation of constituencies by rotation for different groups has led to taking very short term view by the elected representatives as they have no prospect of re-election.
Parliamentary review Committee on local self-governance: A decade after the 73rd and 74th constitutional Amendments, a Parliamentary Committee was constituted to review their impact and progress. This committee consisted of 30 members from Lok Sabha and 13 members from Rajya Sabha. It bluntly but rightly pointed out that this period has witnessed a willful violation of Constitution in terms of devolution of rights to Panchayats and that the Ministry of Rural Development had failed to assert itself effectively.
Adjuncts of the state governments: In spite of the fact that Panchayat are democratically elected bodies and are as much a constitutional body as Parliament or state assemblies, they function at the mercy of state governments and are usually treated as mere adjuncts of a state’s politico-administrative machinery with little autonomy.
Inadequate Financial Powers: Although State Finance Commissions (SFCs) have been constituted that give their recommendations, but the ruling elites don’t want to take them seriously. As a result, Panchayats remain dependent on grants from the state and the centre. Unfortunately, fiscal devolution is increasingly dependent on political pressures, market forces driven by contractors and, plain and simple corruption. They also have inadequate control on natural, physical and human resources within their jurisdiction. It renders them ineffective and people see the Panchayats mere as another procedural arm of the government.
Additionally, when Panchayat heads have to approach Block office for funds or for technical approval, their authority is already undermined. Moreover, it also breeds corruption which is singled out as the most important cause for the ineffective functioning of these institutions.
Parallel Development Initiatives Undermine Panchayats: All parallel developmental schemes, under whatever initiative, undermine the authority and role of the Panchayats. For instance, Members of Parliament get Rs 2 crore each year for development of their constituencies. The centrally sponsored schemes (CSS) also undermine the PRIs. The share of centrally sponsored schemes (CSS) in the plan budget of central ministries has increased to 70 per cent as against 30 per cent in the early 80s.
State government schemes, promoting special interest groups with vertical hierarchy and parallel authority, also have similar adverse impact on the PRIs. NDA government’s attempt to strengthen District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) as the principal organ at the district level for handling huge funds is another ill-informed initiative that went against role of the PRIs. Therefore, law makers both at the Center and States must sit down and think carefully about how to strengthen the PRIs and curtail all parallel schemes.
Procedural Complexities and Lack of Capacity: The governance procedures of the Panchayats are extremely complex and are often imitation of the state government’s rules and procedures. Likewise the adopted accounting procedures are also often very complex for the rural masses, given their limited knowledge and experience of governance. A study in Rajasthan found that 40 per cent of the elected representatives were illiterates and 90 per cent of reserved category Panchayat heads were elected for the first time. Thus they badly needed capacity building training to perform the role of Panchayat representatives.
Poor Implementation of PESA: State governments have failed to provide enabling legislation for the PESA provisions to function effectively and allow the tribal community govern themselves without outside interference. There are three most important issues of the tribal communities: (a) management of the minor water bodies, (b) mandatory consultation before land acquisition or before resettlement or rehabilitation of the affected people and the right to take appropriate action to restore any alienated land of the community, and (c) ownership of minor forest produce (MFP) which is an important livelihood support for them.
Governments have failed to come up with clear legal definition of the “minor water bodies” that leaves ample scope for ambiguity and varied interpretation by the bureaucracy. On the land grab and rehabilitation issue, governments have failed to lay down clear cut rules, which negate what the PESA offers them. Similar is the fate of issues related to MFP and the tribals continue to be harassed by the forest officials.
You may also like to know how the tribal areas of the Sixth Schedule Areas are being governed; these areas have better autonomy and local self governance: Governance in the Sixth Schedule Areas