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PUCL Bulletin, July 2003

Panchayati Raj institutions in Manipur
-- By N. Vijaylakshmi Brara


I

At the outset may I clarify that I am not one of the supporters of the Bandh culture in Manipur, called either by underground or the over ground. But, when I saw news heading 'Partial response to the bandh called by the Panchayat bodies', I did feel a bit sad. Again, not that I am supporting their form of protest but what about the issues behind the bandh?

What does the term democracy mean to us? What were the Panchayat bodies demanding? Were their demands unjustified, or even extra Constitutional? Is it that their struggle is only theirs and it has nothing to do with us? These are some of the questions, I will be discussing in the following paragraphs.

Adam Michnik, in the article "Grey is Beautiful", said, "Democracy is not identical with freedom. Democracy is freedom written into the rule of law… It is not infallible, because in its debates all are equal. That is why it lends itself to manipulation, and may be helpless against corruption… Yet only democracy, having the capacity to question itself, also has the capacity to correct its own mistakes. The subject of democracy is people, not ideas."
Therefore, democracy involves public debate. And the debate, to have tangible results has to have a power base. These power bases are formed in a democratic set-up in the form of statutory bodies with a broad consensus that it is the people who decide as to what their needs are and with the help of the established institutions seek to fulfill them.

We have to understand that one of the most important and effective institution of our democratic system is the Panchayati Raj Institution. It is the persona of the real grass root democracy, which many of the regions in the world have not yet even visualized. According to K. Subha, in her book, The Karnataka Panchayat Elections, 1995, "Panchayati raj institutions are the most important channels for popular participation in the development process. As they deal with the day-to-day affairs of the rural masses, they have close links with people". Therefore we have to realize as to what do we want from our panchayats. Do we want them to be just decorative statutory bodies or to be effective vibrant institutions ushering in development at the village level. Well, here comes the catch, the village, the rural, the periphery. Perhaps, the bandh was partial because it did not concern us, the town people. We, the Imphalites need to broaden our visions. We have to realize that till our rural areas do not receive benefits of development, Manipur as a whole will never develop.

Secondly the bandh was partial perhaps because our people have yet to understand the panchayati raj as an institution. I have hardly come across any seminar or any public debate relating to the panchayats except for a few official meetings organized by the political parties for their own members. There has been research and discussions on the voluntary social groupings at the people's level but the only statutory body, which can actually represent a common man and is capable of giving a voice to its grievances at the governmental level, is left alone in its fight for demanding which has been already guaranteed to them by our Constitution. To quote K. Subha again, "If the objective of local representative governments is to play a more effective role in the political process of society, constant efforts will have to be made to strengthen them in the direction of decentralization of powers and functions.

This will afford greater opportunities for people's involvement in the management of local affairs." Panchayati raj institutions should be seen as a school of political education for the common man. It should be seen as a movement towards self-governance in its true sense. It is only at this level that the voice of each citizen can be heard. Gram Sabhas, the meetings called by each gram panchayat are the platform where every adult member of the area can raise his/her concerns. I do not understand, why instead of using this forum, we create or go to other pressure groups to express our grievances. We should use these opportunities, as these are our rights as citizens of our country. But, perhaps the fault lies with the history.
Probably, the way an alien form of governance was forced on us after India's independence has a lot to do with it. The main land ethos of party politics and even the panchayats were not very close in their characteristics to our traditional institutions of governance. Therefore they have not been able to go into the psyche of our political thought processes. But we need to bring them into our psyche. As things stand today, they are now essential to our democratic functioning, as important or probably more important than our legislative assembly.


The issues
So what were the demands of the panchayat members? They are demanding devolution of power and funds for economic development and social justice. Inclusion of pradhans in the constitution of Zilla parishads, constitution of panchayat samiti to make the rural system three-tier, hike in honorarium of the elected members, (a gram pradhan gets an honorarium of meager Rs.400/-) and construction of panchayat hostels. All these demands are not extra constitutional but have been given to them under the 73rd Amendment of the Indian Constitution.

The Government of Manipur has legal responsibility to give to the panchayats what is statutorily its right. And we the citizens, who believe in the power to the people and grass root democracy, should feel the moral responsibility to help them get it. In fact people who are responsible for restraining to give these powers to the panchayats should be held for contempt of the Indian Constitution. And as for those who say that "it is decentralization of corruption rather than decentralization of power", should understand the quotation about the concept of democracy written above, where it says that this system may be helpless against corruption, yet it is the only system which has the capacity to question itself, and also the capacity to correct its own mistakes. And I would like to tell them that, sahib, pahale zaraa apne garibaan mein jhaank kar dekheeye. (Mister, please first look inside your own self).


II

The Two Mantras
The discussion is still on democracy.
The story goes like this. Once upon a time election to the Zilla Parishad took place in a place called Manipur. Consequently, out of the Zilla Parishad one leader was chosen who is called an Adhayaksha in the Panchayat jargon. Everything was going on fine and then suddenly the story took an interesting turn. Many of the Parishad members realized that their adhyaksha is not good and they wanted to change him. They called for a meeting to oust him. Here comes the 'action'. Some of the parishad members received live Bullets! It was the turn of the Adhayaksha himself to receive some Bullets! Now, this is something new.

Not a warning letter, nor a threatening call, but Bullets to stay away! So, interestingly symbolic! In spite of all these the meeting was held, and no confidence motion against the Adhyaksha was passed. In the same meeting without any further loss of time and in some kind of hurry a new Adhyaksha was chosen, who had the support of the majority at that point of time. As if the Bullet drama was not enough, a hand grenade was also thrown in one of the MLA's house, where some of the Zilla Parishad members were camped. The end of the story has not yet been written. But, I wonder as to who will write the end of this story and many stories like this. And how long such stories will be written.

We are talking of a democratic set-up here. The Panchayats or any other forms of local self-government, in our understanding, form the edifice of our democracy. But if we have an exchange of Adhayakshas along with the exchange of Bullets, democracy has already been shaken from its roots. At this point I am remembering another Hindi proverb, if I may be allowed to use it. (The first one I used in my previous article). It goes like this: Jiski laathi uski Bhains, (The person who owns the stick, owns the Buffalo). This proverb illustrates a state structure, which is at the level of statelessness or complete anarchy where might is right. So, if this proverb holds true for our state, then surely our formal democratic institutions hold no promises and are a waste of resources.

But then, we also should not forget that it is only in a democracy that the faults can be rectified. Therefore, the system of democracy needs our confidence. It needs our faith. We should see democracy as a value to be imbibed and not as a formal system of governance. And we have to very clearly understand that the democratic value does not come through the barrel of a gun but through peoples' voices and peoples' participation. There is yet another thing which our democracy needs. It needs the two Mantras: Accountability and Stability.
Lets take up the stability Mantra first:
The 73rd Amendment of the Indian Constitution was aimed at achieving two democratic ideals: the decentralization of the power blocks and empowerment at the grass-root level. By this Amendment, the local bodies at the grass-root have acquired the trappings of the state authority. Therefore the attending pulls and pressures of power politics also seep into these institutions.

The Indian political system has been plagued with the problems of defections leading to instability at the Center as well as in the States. The Panchayat bodies are not immune from this infection. The frequent defections institutionalized by the Aya Rams and Gaya Rams had in fact made a mockery of the Indian democracy. The 52nd Amendment of the Indian Constitution incorporating the 10th Schedule to the Indian Constitution, brought about the Anti-defection laws by restraining unbridled defections has given us some respite. Yet the evil of defection has not been completely eradicated. But as usual ingenious ways are being devised by the politicians to overcome the rigours of the anti defection laws.
While Anti-defection laws in the form of 10th Schedule to the Constitution of India has contained the evil of defection to a great extent, there is no such provision under the Panchayat Acts to deal with such a problem in the Panchayat institutions.

At the level of the local self-governing bodies in our state there is a need of a different kind of approach to the problem of defection. To defect to another party we need to have a political party base. Fortunately or unfortunately the elections to the local bodies are not fought on the party lines in Manipur. Therefore it is easy to defect. I do not know whether I should be saying this, but affiliation to political parties do help in the stabilizing the elected government bodies.

The political party, to a certain extent, provides a system of internal checks and balance for the candidate who has fought from its platform. During my fieldwork observations I hardly came across any panchayat leader who openly said that they belonged to a political party, except the comrades of the communist parties. But we all know that they have some kind of informal backing. Will it not be better if the backing is done more formally, so that the candidate who is going to represent the people frames up his commitments and ideologies? This will also help in ushering in the era of modern democracy, since then we will not be electing on the basis of family ties or tribal loyalties but on the basis of ideologies to which we agree or disagree.

Let us go into some specificity. In our structure of the Zilla Parishad, the election of the Zilla Adhyaksha does not take place through direct ballot, but the parishad members themselves elect their leader. More often than not, these adhyakshas are ousted by passing no confidence motions within short span of time. Therefore, rather than concentrating on the development works assigned to them, they spend most of their time gathering the parishad members and keeping them in their fold imitating the "camp" culture of the legislatures. They are under the constant fear of being deserted. These no confidence motions have made this middle level of governance (Zilla Parishads) extremely unstable. One has to just see the amount of litigations in the court regarding these no-confidence motions to understand the gravity of the matter.

But then, the Courts take their own time, so the Bullets enter the scene for 'quick solutions'. Have we ever realized as to where will it lead to? We should not forget that bullets are not a scarce commodity and it can be owned by anybody who can buy it.

Then what will happen to our whole debate on 'democracy'?
Here I have a small and humble suggestion. What if we bring a small constitutional amendment here? If the Adhyaksha of the Zilla Parishad also gets elected directly through the people with his tenure being specified, just as the pradhans of the gram panchayat, I believe it will bring some level of stability to this level of governance. He will then be directly accountable to the people rather than being left to the whims of the other members.
This brings us to the second Mantra: Accountability.

Let me put a very simple question. In a democracy who are the elected bodies accountable to? The people, of course. And who is the villain in this story - corruption. Ways and means should be drawn to make all kinds of financial transactions transparent. But where lies the seed of corruption. I know some cases because of my long association in the field, where money at the gram panchayat elections was spent to the tune of 2 to 3 Lakh of rupees! It can be safely presumed that the voters were bought. But why spend so much money just to be a gram pradhan? It is a simple equation. To siphon off whatever little money which seeps down to that level and to use this seat as a rope to climb above in the political hierarchy. Since so much money is spent at the time of elections, such altruistic motives as concern for people and the development can be brushed aside. Because the people for the development of whom the elections have been fought have already been bought. So, do we have a no win situation?
We have to be careful here. We do not want people to actually believe that it is more decentralization of corruption rather than decentralization of power. First and foremost a law should be evolved and strictly enforced where by there is a ceiling on the amount to be spent on the elections at any level.

Secondly, I may have mentioned in my earlier articles too, but it needs to be reemphasized that the Gram Sabhas (general body meetings of the people called by the Panchayats) have to be really activated. All the money, whatever little it may be, which comes for the development schemes, should be placed before this forum. All the money consequently spent should be accounted and a copy of it should be made available to all the members of the Gram Sabha as in the case of Tripura. We should not undermine the sensibility of the people. It is true that they are bought, but there is a reason behind it. The voters know that once they elect the candidates, they are forgotten. The solution lies in the intensive participation of the people. Our elected representatives at all levels have to involve people, specially our panchayat leaders, since they are closest to them and are constantly in touch with the people.


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