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Mainstream, VOL LV No 6 New Delhi January 28, 2017

Protecting Panchayati Raj in Difficult Times

Tuesday 31 January 2017, by Bharat Dogra


One of the achievements about which India can rightly be proud of is the vast network of three-tier local self-government institutions that has been created in over half-a-million villages of the country. This system of ‘panchayati raj’ gets an important mention wherever rural decentralisation is discussed at the world level. About 2.8 million rural representatives are elected at regular intervals in this vast network of institutions of rural decentralisation and over 1.2 million among them are women. Weaker sections, including Dalits and Scheduled Tribes, are well represented.

The entire system, based on regular elections and continuity, is protected by constitutional sanctions (the 73rd Amendment); if elections are not held in time then the courts can be appro-ached to ensure that elections for panchayats are held, as happened some time back in Jharkhand.

Of course in keeping with the increasing problems and corruption in the overall political system in the country, many vexing difficulties have also been mounting in the panchayati raj system and some aspects of the system have functioned at considerable variance from the intentions. At the same time there are many examples of the welcome changes initiated by panchayati raj representatives, particularly women and weaker sections among them. If the overall performance of panchayats has been good, the future potential is much higher as once some problems can be sorted out the creativity and cooperation of people for develop-ment tasks and environment protection can be harnessed much more effectively under the panchayati raj. Hence the road ahead should be to strengthen the panchayati raj while at the same time initiating some reforms on the basis of a careful appraisal of how the system of the panchayati raj has worked so far.To give just one example of where reform is needed, it has been seen at many places that one person becomes all-important among the various team- members whether at the village, block or district levels.

So reforms to check such unwelcome tendencies are certainly needed but the overall thrust should be to make an improved panchayati raj system stronger and increase its capacity to take on more responsibilities in keeping with its constitutional mandate as well as newly emerging factors that are further increasing the need for rural decentralisation. For example, climate change and increasingly erratic weather conditions have increased the need for decentralised decision-making by rural communities to cope with the fast-changing situations.

Unfortunately the changes that have been initiated in recent times have weakened panchayati raj instead of improving and strengthening it to meet the bigger challenges ahead. The gram sabhas or the wider assembly of all adults in the village communities have been provided some important rights concerning matters of wider importance for their villages’ welfare and these are particularly strong in scheduled areas, as per the provisions of the special panchayat law enacted for the scheduled areas (called PESA in short) and particularly keeping in view the protection of the rights of tribal communities. However, with the recent emphasis on clearing more and more projects rapidly overruling environmental, social and other considerations there is an increasing drift towards ignoring the concerns voiced by gram sabhas and panchayats. The well-justified democratic rights provided to gram sabhas and panchayats that are essential for the success of decentralisation are increasingly seen as needless, avoidable impediments in the rapid and arbitrary expansion of an overcentralised and inequality-based development model.

The tensions arising from the clash of rural decentralisation with the over-centralising tendencies in the economy were evident earlier also but these certainly have increased in recent times as the new government does not exhibit any soft corner for the 73rd Amendment and the strengthening of the panchayati raj associated with it which are widely credited to Congress Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In fact the biggest national programme for the empowerment of panchayats, called the Rajiv Gandhi Panchayat Sashaktikaran Abhiyan, was rather rudely scrapped by the NDA Government last year although some aspects of this were later revived under a different programme at a lower budget. Overall the work related to the programme suffered greatly.

Another programme administered by the Union Government under the Backward Regions Grants Fund, which was particularly useful for strengthening panchayats in more backard areas, was also scrapped at least at the level of the Union Government.

The scrapping of these programmes also greatly weakened the Ministry of Panchayati Raj in the Union Government. In the previous year its budget was cut from Rs 70,000 million (Rs 7000 crores) to Rs 960 million (Rs 96 crores) with ambivalent assurances of this shortfall being made up by increased fund allocations to State governments.

However, a lot of expenditure for streng-thening the panchayati raj has also to be incurred at the national level and hence the greatly reduced allocations to the Panchayati Raj Ministry in the Union Government is clearly a big setback for various efforts to strengthen and improve the panchayati raj.

It is also not at all certain that the assurances of better availability of funds at the State level have been fulfilled. At a conference of State Panchayati Raj Ministers and Rural Development Ministers, organised in Delhi on June 28, the Ministers made several complaints regarding the delays in getting funds.

In addition at the State level, first in Haryana and then in Rajasthan, changes in the Panchayati Raj legislation were initiated which effectively prevented very significant numbers of women, Dalits and other weaker sections from even contesting elections.

Thus the overall trend in recent times has been towards the weakening of the panchayati raj at the national level and the weakening of the role of the weaker sections in a few States which may be extended later to some other States.

These trends should be resisted and the great potential of improved and reformed Panchayati Raj in playing a very creative and significant role in improving rural life and helping commu-nities to face new emerging challenges like climate change should be emphasised.

Bharat Dogra is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.

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