Ten years of local self-government
-- By George Mathew
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
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 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'
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