PUCL Bulletin, April 2003

Panchayat Raj:
Ten years of local self-government

-- By George Mathew

Also see, Women leadership in panchayats

When ten years ago on December 22 and 23, 1992, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha passed the two amendments to the Constitution (73rd and 74th) making panchayats and municipalities "Institutions of self-government", it was hailed as "historic" and the beginning of a silent revolution. By all accounts it was a radical piece of legislation in form and content. Where does it stand now?
To begin with, this initial ten-year period has not been altogether disappointing. Given the severe social and political constraints - social in equality, the caste system, patriarchy, feudal setting, illiteracy, uneven development - within which it had to function, there are several aspects we can be proud of.

Today, elections to local self-government institutions every five years have become the norm although in the initial years almost all the States irrespective, of the party in power, had defied the constitutional provision with all the power at their command. As civil society organisations took the initiative to flight this by filing public interest litigation, the Judiciary at different levels intervened effectively.

The fact that constitutional bodies such as State Election Commissions (SECs) and State Finance Commissions are now firmly in place is in itself a great achievement. The SECs have taken up the panchayat elections seriously giving a lot of credibility to the grass-root level democratic process. In Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Maharashtra, and Gujarat, SECs have done a step further. They have issued directives in conformity with the Supreme Court order of May 3, 2002, relating to the Right to Information of electors regarding criminal antecedents, assets and liabilities of the candidates.

The last ten years have also witnessed a steady progress towards a more inclusive decision making process from the village to the district level, women have got the maximum mileage. Today more than 10 lakh women are elected to these bodies every five years and more than three times that number are contesting elections. This is no mean achievement in a hierarchical and male dominated society like ours.

The common refrain that it is the men folk in the families who control the women elected members may be partly true but studies show that the situation is rapidly changing. One-third of all the panchayats and municipalities at various levels have women presidents. As the years go by, the number of women getting elected from general constituencies is also increasing. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are equally securing their due share.

As local self-government bodies have come into existence throughout the country their functioning has come under scrutiny. A congenial climate for taking governance to the doorsteps of the people is slowly being created. A major achievement of this process is that patronage is slowly shifting from traditional castes and families to political parties and ideologies. Many States, taking advantage of the prevailing situation, have gone for innovative experiments in local governance, planning and rural development. The people's plan campaign in Kerala is a case in point.

However, the balance sheet at the end of ten years is rather bleak. It is an irony of sorts that the very hands which municipalities are now trying to render them dysfunctional, if not kill them. As a result, in many parts of the country the silent revolution has turned into a 'bloody' revolution.

Neither MPs nor MLAs are giving panchayats and municipalities their due. In fact, MPs and MLAs are trying to appropriate the local self-government institutions' legitimate space. The MPs Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) and MLAs funds running into thousands of crores are a betrayal of the local bodies. After creating panchayats to prepare plans and to implements the schemes for economic development and social justice, why should MPs and MLAs get crores of rupees from the exchequer for local area development? Surely, this is aimed at marginalizing and debilitating these constitutional bodies?

Another glaring case is the eagerness on the part of MPs, MLAs, and the bureaucracy to spend outside the panchayats' budgets all Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS) and to keep the DRDAs alive and kicking. The Task Force on Panchayat Raj Institutions of the Planning Commission (December 2001) has observed that the State Governments as well as Central Ministries have not taken any concrete step to integrate PRIs in their strategy of planning of the implementation of CSS and the programmes are "invariably implemented through vertical bureaucratic formations". The unholy nexus between politician, bureaucrat, and contractor is eating a major part of the cake. (The plan outlay for Annual Plan 2000-01 for subjects in the 11th Schedule under the CSS has been Rs.31,575.87 Crores.)

Rather than strengthening the panchayats they are pointing a finger at them saying: all is corrupt in this system. But the politician-bureaucrat clique forgets the fact that they have themselves created the role model. How can we create islands of honesty and integrity in the vast ocean of corruption and duplicity? The chorus about the incompetence and inefficiency of the panchayats is trumpeted all the time. But what has been done to improve their efficiency? Practically nothing. Is it because of lack of funds? No. Not only do we have enough resources, but the multilateral and bilateral agencies too are ready to invest in the human capital development. But the Central and State Governments are least interested. The way the Ministry of Rural Development handles panchayati raj is nothing short of scandalous. When there is a critical need for a full division in the Ministry to monitor and guide the 2.5 lakhs gram panchayats, 6,000 Panchayat Samitis and 600 Zila Panchayats, there is no officer of the secretary's rank for panchayati raj, leave alone a Joint Secretary. The Joint Secretaries hold additional charge.

The Prime Minster recently said that Article 243 must be further amended to make it sharp and effective in the light of the recommendations of the Justice Venkatachaliah Commission to review the constitution. But no one who matters has taken it seriously. No State Government is taking the State Finance Commission (SFC) recommendations with the importance they deserve. The State Election Commissions, which are independent constitutional bodies, are working under severe limitations. The State Governments try to twist their arms whether it is with regard to delimitation, declaring the election dates or other related issues. The District Planning Committees are either not in place or constituted in name only. There is no panchayat cadre in the States, nor any plan to develop one. Interdepartmental struggles are going on without any clarity about the relationship of officers and staff of the line departments to the elected local bodies.

One wonders whether MPs and MLAs really understood the full meaning and structural implications
for the polity when they approved the two Constitution amendments. Now that they realise their full potential to give power to the people, attempt is made to thwart the process of panchayats blossoming into "institutions of self-government' and the de facto third tier of governance. Ten years is a short journey. The Panchayats have not worked wonders but a small beginning has been made.

This despite the efforts of the MPs and MLAs who have worked overtime to undermine them. If we leave things to politicians and bureaucrats, panchayati raj in the real sense of the term will remain a pipe-dream. Only a people's revolution can change the depressing scenario



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