(The Gist of Kurukshetra) PANCHAYATI RAJ : ACHIEVEMENTS, GAPS
PANCHAYATI RAJ : ACHIEVEMENTS, GAPS AND CHALLENGES
The nation is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the new generation of
Panchayats and Municipalities. When on April 24, 1993 Panchayats and on 1 June
1993 the Municipalities were endowed “with such powers and authority as may be
necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self-government”, it was
the beginning of a silent revolution. Moreover, it was historic. The dream of
Mahatma Gandhi and all those who advocated “power to the people” came true after
43 years of India becoming the Republic.
Eight years later, on 27 April 2001, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee
wrote to the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh: ”You would recall that with the
passage of the Constitution (73ml Amendment) Act 1992 incorporated as Part IX of
the Constitution, constitutional status has been provided to the Panchayati Raj
Institutions (PRls). Consequent on the Amendment, Panchayats has been visualized
as the third tier of the governance in the federal polity”.
The degree of political empowerment that has resulted through the historic
constitutional amendments in 1992-93 has been by and large, unprecedented.
Within the institutionalized Panchayati Raj reforms in India, the core
foundation lies in more than 2.5 iakh villages and their governance at the local
level. Right from the Balwantrai Mehta Committee’s recommendations (1957) that
gave birth to the contemporary Panchayati Raj, its progressive evolution has
been characterized by its share of successes carrying its imprints all through
the nation. It has in more ways than one, fostered democratic participation.
Collectively, it is seen that the roots of democracy has deepened as a result
of Panchayati Raj Institutions making its way through villages across the
country and their holistic impact has led to the formation of representational
dynamics at the local level.
Given the serve social and political constraints – social inequality, caste
system, patriarchy, feudal setting, illiteracy, uneven developments – within
which it had to functions, the New Panchayati Raj has Opened 3 new chapter in
Today, the elections to the local self-government institutions every five
years have become a 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 the civil society organizations took the
initiative to fight the anti-constitutional approach of some states by filing
public interest litigations (PILs), the judiciary at different levels
effectively intervened. Constitutional bodies like the State Election Commission
(SECS) have taken up the panchayat elections seriously giving a lot of
credibility to the grassroots level democratic process. Taking the cue from 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 State Election Commissioners have issued orders in conformity
with the Supreme Court Order.
This unique experiment in turn has generated a kind of social mobilization
and silent revolution on an unprecedented scale. As local self-governments 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
There are numerous elaborate mechanisms at Central and State levels to ensure
accountability and efficient utilisation of public funds. There are time tested
institutional mechanisms for audit. So also vigilance committees sponsored by
the government and supported by civil society organisations. At another level,
India has the unique distinction of creating a constitutional forum for direct
democracy – the Gram Sabha - with special powers for overseeing the local
development and expenditure. The concept of ‘social audit’ has emerged from
these innovative steps.
Today, while state government and the ruling party/parties decide to postpone
panchayat elections on one pretext or other, one is reminded of the judgment by
the five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Y.K. Sabharwal (2006).
The judgment stated that the Municipalities and Panchayats were the pillars of
grassroots democracy and election commissions in the States, “not yield to
situations that may be created by vested to postpone the elections”.
Twenty-five years is a good time to assess the achievements, lost
Opportunities as well as the challenges ahead. The two and a half decadal
journey of the Panchayati raj is a mixed bag of success and setbacks. The
question is: as Prime Minister Vajpayee said in his letter in 2003, has
Panchayats become the third tier of the governance in the federal polity? The
local government system, which was inaugurated with great enthusiasm, is facing
enormous problems and powerful enemies.
This is time for all concerned to take up seriously to study and conduct
research to find out whether we have an empowered local government in reality
with 29 subjects devolved to Panchayats and 18 subjects to Municipalities? How
many Panchayats have Panchayat Bhavans with modern facilities? Is the capacity
building of the elected panchayat representatives 3 continuous process? Are the
SIRDs fully equipped to train thousands of local government representatives in
the States? In fact, every district must have a taining centre for elected local
government representatives. This must be seen as an investment. It will create
I would like to underline here the fact that if we slacken our efforts to
keep the institutions of local self government at the center stage, as well as
on top of the agenda of the policy makers and practitioners, the best chance we
got through the 73rd and 74th Amendments will be in peril. We need a new deal
for the panchayats and municipalities in India. This new deal will ensure ways
and means to make Panchayats and Municipalities (i.e., district and below) the
first tier of government in the country. This new deal will give freedom to
implement the policies and programmes to eradicate poverty in this country at
the earliest; not later than 10 years so that by 2025 poverty line will become
totally irrelevant for India.
If we have a new deal, then that will open a new chapter for the 32 lakhs
(3.2 million) men and women who are getting elected every five years to the
panchayats and municipalities.
There are two areas the Union Government and the State Governments must focus
on: First. The District planning. District level planning is an important issue.
Most of the District Panchayats have not taken it seriously with the necessary
data, facilities, technical officials and other where with all. Only in very few
States, the Planning begins from neighbourhood groups, reaching the districts
and the State Planning Board, in a scientific way. Therefore, what we find in
the villages is trust deficit.
Second, the Gram Sabha. Are the Gram Sabhas merely recommending/advisory
bodies to the Panchayat? Isn’t their decision, binding upon the Panchayats? In a
democracy people are sovereign. Therefore, the best democratic system is direct
democracy. The Gram Sabha which is a constitutional body is the direct democracy
in India. According to Article 243-A of the Constitution of India, “A Gram Sabha
may exercise such powers and perform such functions at the village level as the
Legislature of a State may, by law, provide”. The Gram Sabha has in practical
terms the functioning Assembly of the People. And its functions and powers
should be determined by the State Acts. But today, Gram Sabha is the most
maginalised institution of local governments.
It may be recalled that Gram Sabha is, perhaps, the best social audit unit in
our new democratic institutions. As the public spirited citizens and their
collectivity is the key to social audit, members of the Gram Sabha, all sections
of the representative bodies -Gram Panchayat, Panchayat Samiti and Zilla
Parishad through their representatives could raise issues of social concern and
public interest and demand explanation. Retired persons from different
organisations, teachers or others with impeccable integrity could constitute a
social audit forum or a social audit committee.
The Constitution leaves the matter entirely to the State Legislatures (Art
243A). It is widely recognised that the Gram Sabha should be at the centre-stage
in the Panchayat system of our country. The Gram Sabhas are decision making
bodies in the nature of recommendations and advices and therefore, the
Panchayats cannot ignore Gram Sabhas and overrule their decisions.
To conclude, the Union Government and all the State Governments must launch a
national campaign to conscientise the people, the officials, the civil society,
political leaders as to how the “institutions of self-government” could be
brought to the centre-stage. Ultimately, we have to work for creating a ’culture
of local government’ in our social and political system.