PUCL Bulletin, March 2003

Panchayati Raj institutions and human rights
By George Mathew

(Excerpts from a long article - Chief Editor.)
Although the Indian independence movement, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, had villages and their self-governing system at the center, when the Constitution of independent India was written they did not get a place in its main body; only a reference in the Directive Principles of state policy. Therefore the states did not take both the urban and rural local bodies seriously.
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As a result of campaigns by civil society organisations, intellectuals and progressive political leaders, the parliament passed on December 22 and 23, 1992 two amendments to the Constitution - 73rd Constitution Amendment for rural local bodies (panchayats) and 74th Constitution for Amendment for urban local bodies (municipalities) making them 'institutions of self-government'. Within a year all the states passed their own acts in conformity to the amended constitutional provisions.

As a result of these constitutional steps taken by the union and state government, India has moved towards what has been described as 'multi-level federalism', and more significantly, it has widened the democratic base of the Indian polity. Before the amendments, the Indian democracy structure through elected representatives was restricted to the Indian polity. Before the amendments, the Indian democratic structure through elected representatives was restricted to the two houses of parliament, 25 state assemblies and two assemblies of union territories (Delhi and Pondicherry). And they had just 4,963 elected members.

Now there are nearly 600 district panchayats, about 6,000 block panchayats, at the intermediate level and 2,50,000 gram panchayats in rural India where 72.2 percent of India's population lives. Urban India, with 27.8 percent of India's population, has 96 city corporations, 1700 town municipalities and 1,900 Nagar panchayats.
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In the traditional Varna system a fifth category is the untouchable or outcaste. Mahatma Gandhi gave them the name 'Harijans' which means 'children of god'. But after independence members of the group prefer to call themselves dalits, meaning oppressed. Constitutionally they have special rights and today they are known as scheduled castes. In fact after the decentralisation through the constitutional amendment they were at the receiving end more than anyone else.

The father of the Indian Constitution B.R. Ambedkar, himself a member of an untouchable caste, had stated that the villages were the ruination of India because a village in India is a den of ignorance, communalism, and corruption. What he said 50 years ago is still valid in much of India even after the new panchayat system has been introduced. After the elections, reports from states showed that the human rights of the dalits were violated in more than one sense even after strengthening of the local bodies.

The democratic process at the village level in many cases has not given the strength and power to the participants of that process, namely, the deprived castes. A study conducted after the 1993 elections in Madhya Pradesh on the beating up of a dalit panchayat member by the police at a meeting where the chief executive of the district was present revealed that the chief executive officer (CEO) visited the villages after a case was filed on the event with the Human Rights Commission. It was stated that he asked people not to appear as witness in favour of the dalit member.

The people were frightened to comment on the issue, as they were afraid of being harassed by the authorities.

The local bodies elections were a nightmarish experience for the dalits. Elections could not be held in four gram panchayats reserved for dalits in some districts of Tamil Nadu - because not a single nomination paper could be filed in the face of threats from upper-caste people in these villages. In many areas, dalit candidates are still living in terror, because they defied the dominant caste of their villages by filing their nomination papers for different posts in the village councils. Dalit voters were prevented from voting in many panchayats. A number of houses and colonies were attacked to intimidate them.

It should be noted that empowering dalits and marginalised groups through ensuring their participation in the decentralised mechanism was one of the stated objectives of the central act. However, the ground reality reflects some negative trends too. It was observed that high caste Hindu groups resorted to various measures to dilute or sabotage the attempts to empower marginalised groups especially dalits. There are instances where high caste groups challenge the reservation for scheduled caste/scheduled tribes in the court of law, and when this attempt fails they announce a boycott of elections. There are also numerous cases of violence against dalits to prevent them from contesting elections or to influence them to favour other interest groups. If these efforts also fail and elections do take place, they look for candidates who can be coaxed to carry out the whims and fancies of the dominant castes. On the other hand if somebody out of favour of the dominant caste manages to get elected, they do not cooperate with the person concerned.

Even after coming to positions of power, dalit elected representatives are restricted in effective exercise of their leadership. This is more in the case of women dalit members who have to face double oppression. Instances are not uncommon where the women dalit sarpanches sit on the floor during the course of the panchayat meetings while the male upper caste members sit on the chairs. Problems also arise when the gram sachiv (panchayat secretary) happens to be from the upper caste. On the positive side it was observed that the presence of a dalit sarpanch or dalit ward member has greatly contributed to the participation of greater numbers of the dalit community in gram sabha meetings. Disillusionment arises when the dalit sarpanchs are forced to give priority to activities favouring the upper caste members.
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The scheduled tribes or adivasis (original inhabitants) include around 400 aboriginal communities, mainly inhabiting remote and forested areas of India. They constitute 7.5 per cent of India's population. The 73rd Constitution Amendment's importance was that it aimed at achieving grass roots democracy guaranteeing adequate representation to the marginalised groups like the scheduled castes, the scheduled tribes and women. However, the 73rd amendment was not automatically applicable to the scheduled areas (geographical area where the adivasis are concentrated) because of their unique characteristics and special needs. An amendment act was subsequently enacted in December 1996 titled, 'The Provisions of the Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996. The scheduled areas and the tribal areas are specified in accordance with the provisions in article 244 and fifth and sixth schedules of the Indian Constitution.

The Extension Act is one of the potent legislative measures of recent times, which recognises the tribal peoples' mode of living, aspirations, their culture and traditions. However, studies to assess the implementation of the Extension Act and to examine as to what extent the 1996 Act was able to establish grass roots democracy in scheduled areas in accordance with the ethos of the tribal people reveal that nothing notable has taken place in these areas and that the condition of the tribals remain more or less what it was before.

It is a sad commentary on the political will of the state leadership that several states, e.g., Rajasthan did not amend their Acts according to the 1996 Amendment Act even after the stipulated time. A brief survey of the State Acts shows that the states have tried to fulfill the constitutional mandate half-heartedly and not in its letter and spirit. Some State Acts do not deal sufficiently with important provisions of the Extension Act like ownership of minor forest produce, prevention of alienation of land, control over natural resource, etc. This shows widespread apathy on the part of the state government towards the tribal areas and their resistance to give so much power to the tribals. On the other hand violations of tribal rights take place at regular intervals.

In December 2001 in the state of Madhya Pradesh, tribals who were relying on fishing for their livelihood in a reservoir as their sole means of subsistence were up in arms against the state government as they feared that steps were being taken to deny them the right to market their produce. In Gujarat, more blatant violations have taken place recently when the government denied reservation to tribals just 48 hours before the village council elections were announced.

Scheduled tribe men and women who get elected to office are not allowed to function in the decentralised institutions of self-government. Just like the scheduled caste, the tribals also are not treated with dignity by the panchayat bureaucracy. Elected tribal women members face violence and rape if they dare to challenge the authority of the officials or the powerful.

A tribal woman sarpanch was stripped naked while unfurling the national flag on August 15, 1998 (independence day) in a district of Rajasthan. In another case a tribal woman sarpanch in Madhya Pradesh was stripped naked in a gram sabha meeting because she was not consulting the leader of the dominant caste. Such violations of human rights are everyday occurrence in the tribal areas of India, in spite of powerful legislations for decentralised governance.
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When India was under colonial rule it was only the restricted male members who could vote and contest elections while women were totally absent from the political scene. For instance, the Bombay Village Panchayat Act 1920 categorically stipulated that no person could become an elected member who was a female and that the election was to be held in each village by the adult male residents at a meeting presided over by the assistant or deputy collector. Even after independence the Indian Constitution did not mention or specifically provide reservation for women's' representation in the parliament or state assemblies. It took nearly 40 years for women to find political representation in the formal political institutions. As stated earlier, this was made possible through the 73rd Constitution Amendment Act, which had the landmark provision of reserving not less than one-third of the total number of seats in the local bodies for women.

It provided the much-needed opportunity for women to actively participate in the decision-making processes of their locality through the political right that was conferred on them through the Central Act. In this new era of panchayati raj, there are now more than one million women representatives elected to the three tiers of panchayats who give more meaning for democratic representation as they become spokespersons of the local community.

Women's political empowerment in the last nine years through the Constitution amendments has exploded several myths, like the belief that they are passive and disinterested in political institutions; only to the well-to-do, upper strata women will come through reservation; only the kin of powerful politicians will enter panchayats through political connectivity to keep the seats for them; and lastly and most importantly, women are only proxy - 'name-sake' - members and they do not participate in the panchayats. Without discounting the existence in panchayats of some women who do fit into this patriarchally oriented framework, one can say that these myths have now been buried. Today the buzzword is that 'women can do it'.

It is widely recognised that decentralisation of power to the local bodies and women's proactive participation on a large scale (in the state of Karnataka women's representation in the local bodies has reached 43 per cent and the time is not too far when women may capture 50 percent of seats) in the management of the local affairs in the villages has enhanced their status and rights. In many states there is greater awareness about gender equality and women's rights through the work of women's organisations and especially where human rights initiatives have taken it as a challenge to protect the interests of women in society.

It has also been proved that wherever women hold positions in local bodies there is greater efficiency and transparency in the running of public affairs. Gangamma Jayker, president of a gram panchayat in Malgudi district in the state of Karnataka, is a product of reservations in the panchayati raj system. She belongs to the scheduled caste category and had the privilege of completing her primary schooling. She was very keen on promoting education and has been running literacy classes for women in the village. On hearing of the government program for girls' education, she got the details of the scheme, and followed the procedures to get a school opened in her village.

The state governments and civil society organisations are today recognising the outstanding women leaders in the panchayats by instituting yearly awards.
However, there are serious backlashes too from the male dominated patriarchal Indian society. Elected women have become the victims of exploitation, violence, and harassment. There are stories from all over the country of violations of their rights despite constitutional provisions. The case of a woman council of a city corporation in the state of Tamil Nadu is a case in point.

The people of Villapuram had no permanent water supply facility and were totally dependent on water that was brought by the corporation tankers. Moreover, this water was sold to the people for a fee that was levied by the local henchmen. Attempts to provide water pipes from a water source to Villapuram were scuttled as the mafia saw the above arrangement more profitable for them. Leelavathy had campaigned during the elections for the sole mission of bringing drinking water to her constituency. With her unstinted pressure on the local bureaucracy, this was almost a reality. But three days after a trial run, armed man murdered her in broad daylight. Leelavathy came to be known as a symbol of the people's struggle for water.

Initially, women were hesitant to enter this whole new political arena, political parties and vested interest groups took advantage of the situation and proxy rule too prevailed. Thus the power remained in the hands of the traditionally powerful groups. A new class of 'sarpanch patis' also emerged where the husband of the woman sarpanch managed the affairs of the panchayat, while the woman acted only as a rubber stamp. A study in the state of Karnataka has shown that many women elected to the local bodies/panchayats are surrogates for husbands and fathers who could not contest because of reservation. Some were put in place by the wealthy and powerful, for their malleability - a kind of puppet to serve the vested interests while appearing to be an elected representative.
A major concern of human rights activists is the prevalence of the two-child norm as a criterion for contesting elections, especially in the states of Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Himachal Pradesh, where this rule has come into force. It should be noted here that early child bearing is the norm in rural India, which means that the fertility rate is also high. This restricts many women from coming into the political fray.

Even after being given the space in a democratic process, women belonging to traditionally marginalised groups were at the receiving end of upper caste atrocities. After more than a year of the elections to the panchayats in Madhya Pradesh, there were reports from four districts -- Raigarh, Chhatarpur, Raisen, and east Nimar -- of a lady sarpanch being stripped naked, another lady sarpanch being gang raped, an 'upa-sarpanch' (deputy president) being tortured and a dalit panchayat member being beaten up.
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The decentralisation process that has gathered momentum in India in the last one decade or so has deep implications for human rights situation in India. This is particularly so for the villages in rural India. The democratic process has brought people closer in the villages, and they could now take part in the local election every five years and assert their right to vote. The elections in India are a big education process. The rights of the excluded people had been violated over the years owing to lack of democratic system of governance at the community level where they could participate effectively. The system of local self-government as manifested in the panchayati raj institutions has taken a leap forward in guaranteeing a life of dignity and respect to the citizen at the local village level. Ideals of social justice based on gender equality and liberty are best pursued at the local level.

In a formal sense, all the states have confirmed to the constitutional requirement of ensuring the participation in the PRIs to the hitherto excluded groups (women, dalits, and adivasis) through the system of reservation. The problems of the poor have been sought to be addressed by transferring some of the poverty alleviation and development programmes to the panchayats due to the constitutional obligation. By and large women have found representation in the panchayats through the one-third reservations of seats. The dalits and adivasis have been represented to the extent of their share in the population.
Evidently, formal representation need not necessarily be an indication of participation. Since the new phase of decentralisation, there is evidence that some of the worst forms of exclusion that plagued the rural society in India are no longer practised in a number of states. Elected members sit together and discuss issues in formal and informal meetings. A symbolic participation of all in the village, including the dalits and adivasis and women does take place at least as a constitutional requirement. This is due to the slow but sure changes in the larger political landscape in India.

Social transformation through a democratic process is not peaceful in India. Therefore on the other side after India has taken bold steps to strengthen decentralisation and local governance system the human rights violations at all levels have gone up. The main reason is that all those who were enjoying the powers and privileges so far are trying to subvert the constitutional mandate overtly or covertly.

This has to be seen from another angle too. In a traditional society any change that has structural implications involves conflict. The conflict of interests is so powerful that it leads to violence, bloodshed and loss of life. Ever since India got independence this has been happening but it did not take on a prolonged bloody character because of the developing democratic system in the country.
Since 1993, in the new generation of panchayats, at least two rounds of elections have been held except in a couple of states. It is ironical that elections in India become an occasion for serious human rights violations. During the election period, the rich try lo dominate the poor by buying their votes or keeping the poor as 'vote banks'. In many cases the upper castes stop the lower castes from exercising their democratic rights if they come to know that the poor and disadvantaged will exercise their votes independently. In the process violent incidents take place and many lose their lives. Although it happens even during elections to the states and parliament the violence is more in the local elections as the polling percentage is higher at this level.

Violence has increased at the village levels as political power is the most important instrument that exists at the local level and everyone wants to wield it. Therefore, tensions that have existed earlier mount when those who aspire for power come up against those who resist giving it up. Muscle, money, and caste power are worse at the local level during elections. An analysis of this violence shows that whenever political consciousness is low and development is relatively backward the people in those areas are more prone to violence.
It may be stated here that there are no consistent and systematic attempts with a political will to combat casteism. The implementation of the legal provisions has been minimal and utterly insufficient and often the violators go unpunished. The members of the Indian parliament belonging to the scheduled castes publicly acknowledged the government of India's unwillingness to enforce legal sanctions against casteism and the continued abuse of lower caste people. They said, "It is a shameful tragedy and irony of fate for the hapless Indians belonging to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes that inhuman and barbaric treatment is meted out to them by their own countrymen. Sometimes their women are paraded naked in streets and their children butchered like animals, their hearths and homes are burnt at whim destroying their meagre source of livelihood. The state and its machinery play at best, a helpless mute witness or indifferent analyst or still worse active collaborator."

State scheduled caste/scheduled tribes commissions have been set up following the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989, but the victims are afraid to report caste atrocities for fear of retribution, despite the protection and monetary compensation that the commissions promise.

Panchayats have, all the same, opened possibilities for bringing to surface most of the things previously swept under the carpet. No more it is hidden or secret. Although gram sabha and gram panchayat are hotbeds of manipulative politics, they provide a democratic forum to grapple with social and political issues in the open. Such a forum is now available, for the first time, with the constitutional backing.

Here the role of political parties is crucial. The earlier concept of consensus (in effect, consent to whatever the powerful was saying or doing) is giving way to people aligning on party lines questioning every action that is less than transparent. If one political party becomes protector of the oppressed for whatever reason, another party becomes the guardian of the oppressor. In the local situation, state politics or national level ideology is of little consequence. As of now, open participation of political parties in the panchayat elections is the best way to challenge the age-old autocracy of caste or family.

The mass media, communication technology and spatial mobility have broken the isolation of villages. Incidents even in remote village panchayats are thrown up promptly at the state and national level. The new panchayat system, with all its current weaknesses, has helped to weave the village into the broader social fabric.

The silver lining on the otherwise dark horizon is positive intervention of judiciary upholding the human rights of the downtrodden at the local level. Although. Indian judiciary is notoriously slow, the public interest litigation has been a successful tool to give meaning and content to the local bodies legislations. There was an instance where a woman belonging to a dalit community who was elected as the head of the panchayat had to face retribution by the defeated candidates belonging to the upper caste. The first information report (FIR) lodged with the police station by the dalit woman president stated that the miscreants looted her house and abused her using derogatory language. A case was filed in the court.
The high court refused to quash the FIR and observed that "the caste system in India, based on the feudal occupational division of labour in the past, is today totally outmoded and is a great hindrance to the nation's progress... no doubt, the word 'chamar' is a word denoting a certain caste, but the said word is also used in a derogatory sense for persons who are regarded as inferior by the so-called upper caste, and, therefore, it should not be used by the members of the so-called upper castes or OBCs (other backward castes) as it hurts the feelings of the dalits.

Several elections more to the local bodies are a necessary condition to create a culture of genuine democracy and political participation. There is no doubt that the local governments based on vibrant democracy at the local government level with the support of civil society organisation will protect the human rights of the people at all levels. But in a traditional society like India this will take time through the democratic process.


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