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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2006 > December 02, 2006 > Panchayats and Neo-Liberal Economy

Volume XLIV, No.50

Panchayats and Neo-Liberal Economy

by Dipak Malik

Tuesday 24 April 2007


The Gram Panchayats have become nodal points of grassroot democracy as well as direct democracy. After the 73rd Constitutional Amendment in the Panchayati Raj Act, a background has been created to move towards turning Panchayats into an instrument of self-government rather than working as a mere implementing agency of the government’s line of functioning. The first Round Table of Ministers of Panchayati Raj, held in Kolkata in 2004, clearly delineated the goal of the Panchayati Raj as village self-governance—an agenda which was the crux of the entire Gandhian movement for devolving democracy in the vast subcontinent of India. In spite of the statement of intent a roadmap towards this ultimate objective in grassroot and direct democracy is still missing. Yet the exercises have borne fruit and the Panchayati Raj today is virtually an arena of a massive silent revolution.

The recent meeting of activists and thinkers on Panchayati Raj was another comprehensive exercise in stock-taking where Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar took counsel from the academicians, activists and thinkers about making Panchayats an effective instrument of governance and development at the village level. This indeed was a new type of partnership between the government, people and opinion-makers to take up a serious nation-building exercise.

Thirtythree per cent reservation of women in the Panchayati Raj Institutions is bound to be a massive exercise in social engineering unprecedented in today’s ‘world system’. The conservative framework of rural India gets an opportunity to break out of its shell of stagnation. Whereas in Western democracies it took long struggling years for a suffragette movement to win adult franchise for women, it was a shorter journey in India. In a survey made by the Gandhian Institute of Studies (GIS) it was found out that 65 per cent Panchayat Pradhan posts were won by women candidates in district Ghazipur alone, in Varanasi and Jaunpur the percentages were 59 and 54 respectively. On an average between 45 to 50 per cent of seats of Gram Pradhan have been won by women candidates in UP alone. This is a quantitative advance in the silent revolution of Panchayati Raj. It will take another decade or two to turn this silent revolution into a near qualitative jump. Another institution which inaugurates direct democracy is the functioning of the Gram Sabhas. The Gram Sabhas are a novel institution of direct democracy. The Gram Sabhas must be given teeth. One-third of the quorum of the Gram Sabhas should be fixed for women’s representation. No Gram Sabha meeting should be considered valid without one-third presence of women in it. The Gram Sabhas should be called by the PRI leaders at least thrice a year. The Gram Sabhas are generally manipulated by the Gram Pradhan and his coterie as they call a meeting in a such a way that the quorum is not complete. This gives them the chance to call the next meeting without quorum. This Anglo-Saxon fixation with bureaucratic rule should be given a go-by. And the rule of the quorum should be revised to make it mandatory for each meeting. The category of adjourned meeting should be abolished. Class representations are also needed in the Gram Panchayats. There must be a seat for the “Khet Mazdoor” (farm labourer), one seat for the artisan and one seat for the village teacher. Though the caste and gender divisions have been taken care of by the 73rd Amendment, class representations are still wanting. There is a further need of subsidiary organisations like Mahila Sabha, Gram Sansad, Mazdoor Parishad, Dalit Parishad, OBC Parishad etc.

The Gandhian concept of oceanic circle in democracy has its pivotal point in the Panchayats. This, if applied with the updated vision given by the 73rd Amendment, can inaugurate a new type of democracy, decentralisation and independence in the realm of people’s power. The earlier attempts of bringing grassroots democracy through the Soviets after the October Revolution and New Democratic Revolution in China in 1949 crumbled as these could not systematically and dialectically disentangle from the top-down approach. In the contemporary world system the various initiatives of self-governance through the PRIs are unfolding an experiment that needs to be watched as these can pave the way for a gradualist revolution or help transformation to take place.

Panchayats in the post-73rd Amendment era may emerge as an instrument of transformation, if they are throughly radicalised. The radical agrarian face is presented by the Left parties. In States where elections are fought on political lines, deeper politicisation of the Village Panchayat has led to democratic vigilance and development, but this was possible only in those States which had a hegemonic Left presence like West Bengal.
Radicalisation of the Panchayat leadership is necessary to make the Panchayats an instrument of transformation. Wherever strong peasant movements have preceded, the Panchayats have become a more effective instrument. Though land reform is on the margin of the Panchayat movement, yet in the States where land reforms have taken place there the Panchayats have fared well. Levelling in village society ultimately breeds a democratic consciousness. As a matter of fact in the vast expanse of the Hindi heartland, the Left and revolutionary forces must start their journey from the micro-level of Panchayats rather than working ceaselessly for economism generated by present-day trade unionism and the larger canvas of movements being forged in the urban enclaves. Panchayats give a chance for grassroots politicisation, new civil society building, social engineering as well as class struggle.

The Panchayats should be seen as the builder of a ‘new Civil Society’. Civil Society is a term introduced by Antonio Gramsci, a Marxist ideologue and the General Secretary of the PCI (Italian Communist Party) in the twenties. This term is now in universal application in Social Sciences. Civil Society means where a unit of society operates and sustains itself not under coercive compulsions of the state and other institutions, but functions on its own on norms, values, social mores, lively traditions generated in a society. The ‘new Civil Society’ means a venture to reconstruct the battered old Civil Society under feudal social yoke and colonial economy and rebuild a community sans walls created by communalism, casteism and colonial constructs. A ‘new Civil Society’ can come only from the praxis of grassroots democratic institutions. The last exercise in renovating the Indian Civil Society was done during the freedom struggle where the Gandhian perspective of village mobilisation, Gram Swarajya, merged with the peasant movement led by mass organisations mostly under the leadership of Marxists and radicals of different hues.

The Zamindari Abolition Act of 1948 was the first landmark step taken by the Nehru Government to liberate the Indian villages and rural society from the yoke of feudalism thrust upon through the centuries-old system reinforced and renovated by the Permanent Settlement Act of British colonial rule. As a matter of fact the Zamindari Abolition Act, introduced by the first Prime Minister of the Indian Republic Jawaharlal Nehru, was as important a step as the decree of land to the tillers introduced by the first Soviet Government after the October Revolution. The whole fulcrum of the 73rd Amendment in Panchayati Raj would not have arrived without the historic initiatives taken by the Nehru Government and later on by Smt Indira Gandhi in the late sixties and seventies land reforms which, however, coincided with revolutionary movements for land reforms reverberating throughout India from Naxalbari to Srikakulam. Similarly, the earlier Telengana, Tebhaga and Punnapra-Vayalar also stirred as a catalytic agent for defeudalisation in Indian agrarian relations.

The Zamindari Abolition Act 1948, land reform in the sixties and seventies and then the 73rd Amendments in the PRIs are significant points in India’s ‘agrarian relations history’, for institutionalisation of the Panchayati Raj. These reforms and community development schemes, initiated earlier, provided the background for the viability of the PRIs. As a matter of fact Panchayati Raj has borne fruit where very deep structures of land reform took place. West Bengal and Kerala are two instances where the Panchayati Raj Institutions have played a major role in sustaining village and civil society and renovating them on a more democratic and less divisive mode because of the deeper level of land reforms carried out earlier and of course the prevalence of the progressive movement.

As a matter of fact Panchayats constitute one of the superstructures over the basic structure of agrarian economy and agrarian society. The very base of this superstructure, the Panchayat system, does not match the nuances of the newly globalised and privatised economy. Agriculture is constantly the sick man in the duo of Political Economy and Agriculture and Industry combine, its growth rate oscillating between negative scoring and around two-and-a-half per cent or slightly above that mark. Even from the sectoral perspective of the economy, whereas still 73 per cent of Indians survive on agriculture, the GDP ratio generated by this sector has drastically gone down from 50 per cent in 1971 to 21 per cent in 2004. The gradual decrease of subsidies in the agriculture input has made farming uneconomic not only for the poor peasantry but the middle and upper middle peasantry too. There is a big flight from villages. According to Prof Yogendra Alagh, eight million hectares of cultivable land were left unused by the farmers in the year 2004-05. This is an alarming situation. On the other hand, corporatisation and the multinationals’ entry in agriculture are gaining ground. Contract farming has been accepted by the UP Government and a host of other governments. The small and middle peasantry economy is facing an unprecedented crisis which may lead to disastrous consequences. A 100 per cent FDI route in agriculture has also been guaranteed under the recent reform regime.
Neo-liberal economics, as well as efforts for transition to a neo-liberal economy means catastrophic consequences for Indian agriculture and rural society. Most neo-liberal economies are primarily industrial economies with very few exceptions.

The recipe of neo-liberal economics at one stroke deprives ‘Food Sovereignty’ in an economy. Till now India survived because in spite of deceleration in agrarian production during the colonial period and then in the sixties, it had at least left the ‘subsistence base of food economy’ more or less undamaged. The entry of the corporate world as buyers in the wheat market this year has already left ‘food self-sufficiency’ in the lurch. It has been further compounded by the free-for-all speculative market of commodity futures. Establishment of business hubs has been suggested in one of the round tables of Ministers in-charge of Panchayati Raj. The idea of “business hub” in the village has been inspired from the recent Chinese experiment in expanding the market to the villages. This is a very China-specific step as China worked under a centralised command economy with complete absence of the market; so this change looks indeed very novel in the case of China. But Indian villages are well connected with the market system for thousand of years through village fairs, the haat system, a merchant community and a lively small merchant economy at the village level and the corporate world has already entered the village hinterland. The Lever Brothers gave attention to this issue some 25 years ago; since then the villages are well connected with corporate world marketing. As a matter of fact in India we need some institutionalisation which is more effective than petty proprietary-oriented marketing system. The Panchayats instead of ‘business hub” should build up ‘cooperative hub-artisan hub’ and this should be properly nurtured by institutions like the DRDA. As a matter of fact, village produce marketing cooperatives with a centralised marketing outfit at the regional and national level should be opened instead of business hub.

The Panchayats will have to cope with these gigantic tasks. Since the peasant movements have weakened and some of them have turned to futile extremism, the task of building the alternative to face the avalanche of the neo-liberal economy is near impossible; yet village India is in search for an agency for fighting the second battle of liberation in the so-called globalised world of neo-liberal economics. But this is possible only when the PRI leadership is radicalised as well as made accountable through training, capacity building and raising the input of radical consciousness. The freedom movement in the colonial days was one of the biggest educators of masses in social and political awakening. In the absence of a colossal movement like the freedom movement, the grassroot level radicalisation should be done from the Panchayat level. A radicalised Panchayat can become on instrument of alternative building. A non-radicalised Panchayat regime would at best make few enclaves of development but at the national level it will end up merely as another representative institution becoming an arena of self-seeking polity and thus perpetuating the ills of village society for long. The Panchayat movement should not be taken as mere palliatives in face of difficulties and crisis in agriculture in the era of bitter as well as homicidal neo-liberal reforms. As a matter of fact, Panchayats have to evolve the instruments of alternative Civil Society and become the base for an alternative political economy which can face the challenges of neo-liberal invasion as well as build a better political economy and civil society at the micro level in a village.

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