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Mainstream, VOL LX No 12, New Delhi, March 12, 2022

Gandhi and Panchayati Raj System in Present Context: Conundrum and Possibilities - Report of a National Webinar | Siby K. Joseph

Friday 11 March 2022

by Siby K. Joseph

Sevagram Ashram Pratishthan, Wardha, Maharashtra in association with Gandhian Collective India and Faculty of Gandhian Studies, Gujarat Vidyapith, Ahmedabad had organized a National Webinar on the theme Gandhi and Panchayati Raj System in Present Context: Conundrum and Possibilities on February 13, 2022. Dr. Siby K. Joseph, Director, Sri Jamnalal Bajaj Memorial Library and Research Centre, Sevagram Ashram Pratishthan, Wardha gave a brief introduction about the Webinar and the key resource persons who participated in the webinar. He stated that this Webinar is a part of the Yearlong Webinar Series “Time Demands Gandhi” which was formally inaugurated in the month of July 2021 by Dr. Sudarshan Iyengar former Vice-Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith in which Chandal Pal, National President of Sarva Seva Sangh presided over it. Sevagram Ashram Pratishthan, Wardha, thought that the best way to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of India’s Independence is to spread the message of Mahatma Gandhi through a yearlong webinar series. From the month of August onwards two webinars are being organized every month. This webinar 13 in the series is trying to contextualize Gandhian ideas in the present Panchayati Raj System and explore the problems and possibilities in realizing the Gandhian vision of Gram Swaraj.

Prof.Yatindra Singh Sisodia,Director at Madhya Pradesh Institute of Social Science Research (An ICSSR Institute), Ujjain delivered the keynote address. He is the author /editor of twenty books including ’Electoral Dynamics in States of India’, ‘Strategies for Human Development and People’s Participation: Challenges and Prospects in Rural India’, ‘How India Votes: A State by State Look’ ‘Two Decades of Panchayat Raj in India: Experiences, Issues, Challenges and Opportunities, and published extensively in refereed journals and reputed edited volumes. He is the Editor of Madhya Pradesh Journal of Social Sciences and Madhya Pradesh Samajik Vigyan Anushandhan Journal. He was conferred with Professor G. Ram Reddy Social Scientist Award (2017) for his substantial contribution to research in the area of Panchayati raj and grassroots democracy.

Prof. Yatindra Singh Sisodia in his keynote address succinctly analyzed the evolution and development of the Panchayati Raj System in the framework of Gandhian vision and explored conundrums and possibilities in the present context. In his Keynote Address, he stated that Gandhi was perhaps one of those ideologists whose ideology has a universal acceptance and application. At the same time, if we look at modern Indian history, Gandhi was an undisputed leader of Indian society and culture. Gandhi’s main focus was on rural development, village self-rule, and gram panchayat. His ideas are becoming increasingly important and relevant to us even after 75 years of independence. Gandhi’s vision of village self-rule is centered on good governance, transparent and responsible democracy. He wanted to make the elected representatives as service providers of people, not as their masters. He wanted people to join politics and the political system and actively engage in the decision-making process. The political authority should be under the control of the people. That is why he said, “Real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused.”

Democracy and exploitation can’t go hand in hand. If we want to create a non-exploitative society then we would have to strengthen our democracy. Centralization of power naturally pushes towards exploitation and injustice even in a democratic system. Real democracy in our villages would naturally flourish only in the form of decentralization. It is pertinent to note that the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution of India were not a result of any social movement. The government realized that they are not capable of solving all the ground-level problems and issues through a centralized mechanism. That paved the way for the 73 rd and the 74 th amendments to the Constitution. According to Gandhi, our cities are not India. He said, “India lives in her seven and a half lakhs of villages.” He was convinced that “If the villages perish, India will perish too. It will be no more India. Her own mission in the world will get lost."Three burning issues in rural areas are poverty, unemployment, and inequality. These issues could be addressed only through a bottom-up approach.
The 73 rd and the 74 th amendments to the Constitution of India is one of the greatest steps of the 20 th century and it is a milestone in the history of local self-governance. These steps are very important which would ultimately pave the way of realizing Gandhi’s dream of village self-governance. If we want to strengthen India then we would have to strengthen local self-governance at the village level. The provision of Gram Sabha in the Panchyati Raj system to a great extent helped in ensuring equality and abolishing sexual differences in the decision-making process. Gandhi wanted to abolish all forms of social inequalities and ensure direct participation of backward, marginalized, and poor people in the local self-government.

The Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) - PESA Act is a revolutionary step in achieving the goal of local self-government. Through the institution Gram Sabha, Adivasi people are trying to protect their" Jal, Jangle, and Jamin." They are enjoying their traditional rights through the PESA Act of 1996. As a result of 73 rd amendment, the women leaders came forward in the democratic system and took direct participation. They are having 1/2 participation in the local self-government. The main obstacles in the participation of women in the local self-government are a patriarchal society, proxy leadership by a male family member, and character assassination of women leaders. Women would have to come forward and make collective resistance, mobilization, and counterclaim. Gandhi’s ideas would help them in attaining self-confidence and self-determination. In order to make them empowered they would have to develop controlling power, communication skills, and decision-making power. In addition, they should remain fearless and ambitious. Local bureaucracy, middlemen, contractors, and political leadership are not ready to cooperate with leaders who are from rural backgrounds. The non-cooperative attitude of these people stands as a big hindrance in ensuring democracy at the grassroots level.
Devolution of power is the need of the hour. They should get the power of 3Fs viz. funds, function, and functionaries. Some states have come forward to ensure vibrant engagement of people in village assembly but some are lacking behind. Bottom-up planning is very near to Gandhi’s idea. In this planning process, the village will decide their issues themselves. They will decide on the key issues including village education, employment, use of resources, agriculture, irrigation, and self-reliance. Gram Panchayat Development Plan (GPDP) has a Gandhian tenor. The central and state government should revisit the 73 rd Amendment and they should orient new representatives after getting elected.

 Prof. Sisiodia concluded his address by emphasizing the need for accelerating the process of revitalizing our villages based on Gandhi’s vision of gram swaraj. He stated that the experience of grassroots governance of close to three decades clearly brings the fact that we have taken several steps for visualising the dream of gram swaraj and village revitalization but the process is indeed very slow or stagnant. Therefore, it would be appropriate to revisit Gandhi’s idea of village and gram swaraj in the contemporary context so as to make a speedier change in rural India.

 Dr.George Mathew, the Founder Director and currently the Chairman of the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi delivered the presidential address. He is a veteran in the field of Panchayat Raj and his areas of specialization are the local government system, decentralization and gender equity. His major works include Communal Road to a Secular Kerala; Panchayati Raj ‘ From Legislation to Movement and the following edited works; Shift in Indian Politics; Dignity for all: Essays in Socialism and Democracy; Panchayati Raj in Karnataka Today: Its National Dimensions; Panchayati Raj in Jammu and Kashmir; (Status of Panchayati Raj in States of India 1994; Status of Panchayati Raj in States of India in 2000; and Inclusion and Exclusion in Local Governance: Field Studies from Rural India. He is a member of several committees of the federal government and on the board of governors of national and international organizations.

Dr.George Mathew began his presidential address by congratulating Prof. Yatindra Singh Sisodia for covering all aspects of the problems and prospects of Panchayats in the present context from a Gandhian point of view. He stated that in the past several years, there was a silence about Panchayats. Now we have to break that silence. The dream of Mahatma Gandhi is yet to be realized and how are we going to realize it? We have 2,55,287 Panchayats in India. The basic question is how to reach out to these village panchayats. In the Panchayats there are wards and a representative is elected from each ward. And then there are neighbourhood groups. How the elected members and the Chairperson are functioning today? Where are the Panchayats today? How many Panchayats have proper Panchayat Bhavans like a mini Secretariat? A Reception, office, rooms for the elected President and members, special meeting hall, and so on. In fact, every Panchayat in the country must have a mini-assembly building. Do we have it?
We have been suffering because of pandemics in the past and present. Many men and women have lost their lives. In the Constitution, 29 subjects are given to the Panchayats. Nearly 30 years have passed. Primary Health Centres in every Panchayat (Number 23) is one of the most important subjects given to Panchayats. Where are the Primary Health Centres in our villages today? If there is a health problem in a family today, what will happen to the patient? Nearby towns, cities or even the capital of the State and waiting there for treatment is the only answer. This is a very serious question. I am raising this issue because this is highly relevant today. Are the 29 Subjects given to the Panchayats in the Constitution of India, a reality? No.

What is urgently needed today is that we have to create a Panchayati Raj culture. Unless we have a local government culture, we cannot achieve the goals set up by Gandhiji about Gram Swaraj. Now we have slowly and steadily developed a democratic culture in the country through elections for the Assembly and Parliament. But we need the culture of Panchayati Raj in the minds of every person living in our villages. It must reflect in the behaviour of the people, leaders, and the bureaucracy. I have written an article in the Times of India on 15 April 2013: “Panchayati Raj or Collector Raj”. Are we having the Panchayati Raj or Collector Raj today? Friends, we have to take this issue seriously: how to bring about Panchayati Raj culture?

A very important issue, which is coming to my mind during several years of work in the area of Panchayati raj is Gandhi’s fundamental principle of non-violence. In the Panchayati Raj system, after the 73rd Constitution Amendment came into existence, how many women have lost their lives because they contested Panchayat elections? How many Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes as well as those who are at the lower level of our social system, lost their lives? Dr. Siby Joseph mentioned about a film I produced on local governments. That was based on a tragic killing of a lady who fought municipal election in 1998 and was successful in bringing pipelines to Villapuram Weavers colony in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. Based on this tragic incident the film - Swaraaj: the little Republic - was produced. It was shot in the villages of Rajasthan. These are issues even today.

Prof. Sisodia raised an important issue: the PESA. In fact, I have visited most of the PESA areas. I found that exploitation of natural resources is continuing or doubling. The question is: where is PESA? Through people’s movements and people’s action we have to bring these issues affecting the livelihood of our tribal population to the forefront. In order to achieve this goal the main issue is capacity building of the elected panchayat members. Today we have a few institutions for the training of Panchayat members, maybe one each in most of the States. Are they really doing an effective training programme for 30 lakh elected panchayat members in every five years? I have gone to most of these training centres and my understanding is that the elected members are not getting training, which they need, not once, but during their five years. At the Panchayat leadership level in general there is no human capital for leadership. Therefore, let us work together, to see that every district must have a training centre for panchayat members.

Today, almost all the States have 50 per cent women getting elected to the Panchayats. If a woman is getting elected even as a proxy candidate, within one year she would say that I am the elected representative and that I have the power and I will do my duty. If we have human capital at the local government level, all the problems villagers face today can be solved.

Dr. Mathew concluded his presidential address by stating that as the village panchayats were central to the ideological framework of India’s national sovereignty, Gandhiji had defined his vision of village panchayats as village swaraj, the Panchayats as a complete republic based on perfect democracy and individual freedom. We have to commit ourselves for this goal: “Yes, we shall achieve it, we will never give up.”

Prof.Prem Anand Mishra, Dean, Faculty of Gandhian Studies, Gujarat Vidyapith, Ahmedabad while summing up the discussions of the webinar stated it has been our tradition to give a brief summary of the presentation of keynote speakers in English if the presentation is in Hindi and vice versa taking note of participation of persons all over the country and even from abroad. He superbly summed the key points of both the speakers. This exercise was helpful in maintaining a fine balance of languages and easy understanding of the theme for those who are not much conversant either in Hindi or English.

It was followed by observations and comments on the presentations of the theme. The participants of the webinar highly appreciated the webinar and thanked the organizers. Amar Jyoti , a student of Pondicherry University asked about the implementation of the PESA Act in the tribal region and how can we protect the culture of the tribal people through this act and the exploitation of natural resources which are rampant in the tribal region. In response Dr. George Mathew commented that: People should come together and take the constitutional ideas ahead through people’s movements. And second, judiciary. Because this is the law of land, we cannot violate the law of the land. Again, I am saying that we have to create a local government culture. We do not have a local government culture, especially in PESA areas. After 1996, so many years have passed, but no political or social or judicial action for implementation of the PESA. Only people’s movements, elected members and judiciary can bring PESA in action. Joining in the discussion Prof. Yatindra Singh Sisodia too emphasized the need for strengthening the PESA. Sulafa Eisa from Sudan thanked organizers for enlightening on Gandhi’s vision on Panchayat Raj. She stated that vision of Gandhi is not only beneficial to the people of India alone and shared her experience about how Gandhi’s vision of gram swaraj was helpful when she was working on a project in Sudan. Dr. Abida Begum participating in the discussion emphasized the need for orientation and training.
TRN Prabhu , President of Sevagram Ashram Pratishthan, Wardha thanked both speakers for their excellent presentations on the theme in his concluding remarks. He pointed that we should not be under the impression that passing of 73 rd and 74 th amendments Constitution of India in the Parliament and provisions for a more effective panchayat raj system in the act solved all problems relating to Panchayati raj and villages of our country. How to implement PRIs and its effective working at the ground level are serious challenges before us. There is lack of awareness about PRIs and we have to organize people, provide training to them, and create a culture of PRIs then only the benefits of the act will reach to the lower strata’s of governance. Only through such sustained efforts we can move forward towards realizing the Gandhi’s dream of village swaraj.

In the ensuing discussion Dr. George Mathew placed a suggestion for the consideration of all the institutions that were instrumental in organizing this Webinar and especially to T.R.N. Prabhu, President of the Ashram. His suggestion was that we have to identify some best panchayats which are model panchayats in the country. The Pachayat members from select districts must visit these model panchayats for a week. It should be a continuous process. They could observe what is really happening in these successful panchayats. The model Panchayats will be an extraordinary inspiration for the panchayat leaders from other States. Many prominent academicians, activists including Prof. Rajendra Khimani, Vice Chancellor Gujarat Vidyapith, Prof. Anamika Shah, Prof. Malabika Pande , Asha Buch, Prof. Pushpa Motiyani,Dr. Chatrabhuj Rajpara, Dr. Vidyut Joshi, Gajendra Prasad Mohanty, Dr. Harilakshmindra Kumar, Narendra Chug, Rajendra Deshpande, Joshy Jose, Dr. Dularbabu Thakur, Ashok Choudhary and others participated in the Webinar. More than seventy persons from different walks of life participated in the Webinar. The webinar concluded with a vote of thanks from Dr. B.K. Harish Kumara of Gandhian Collective India. He expressed his deep sense of gratitude for all resource persons from India also countries United Kingdom, Sudan and other countries on behalf of the organizers. Kapil Deshwal, Assistant Professor, Department of Gandhian Philosophy, Gujarat Vidyapith handled the system and electronic certificates were issued to participants.

(This report is prepared by Dr. Siby K. Joseph,a noted Gandhian Scholar and Director of Sri Jamnalal Bajaj Memorial Library Research Centre, Sevagram Ashram Pratishthan, Sevagram Wardha-442102 (Maharashtra) Email:directorjbmlrc[at]gmail.com)

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