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700,000 republics

John Samuel on Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of local self-government, and how far panchayati raj in India still has to go to realise that vision

The three-tier panchayati raj system of India is the largest experiment in grassroots democratisation in the history of humanity. There are around 3 million elected representatives at all levels of the panchayat system and now 50% of them will be women. They represent more than 240,000 gram panchayats, 6,500 intermediate tiers (block panchayats) and more than 500 district panchayats.  The fact that the Indian system of local governance -- the panchayat system -- has its roots in the cultural and historical legacy of India makes it different from many other initiatives of decentralisation of governance.

The idea of panchayats and sabhas has travelled a long way from institutions of traditional local governance to an important cornerstone in the Constitution of India. The 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, arguably the most substantive amendments since the adoption of the Constitution, envisage panchayats as institutions of local self-governance.  The three-tier system of local governance is also meant to build synergies between representative and direct democracy and participatory governance, resulting in deepening of democracy at the grassroots level.  Though there is a huge gap between the promises of substantive local self-governance and the realisation of true political devolution of power, the three-tier panchayat raj system of local governance still offers the great possibility of transferring power to the people.

Substantive democratisation works when all people are empowered to participate in governance, ask questions, take decisions, raise resources, prioritise the social and economic agenda for local development and ensure social and political accountability. Such a vision of democracy requires democratisation from below and a true devolution of power to the people. The nurturing of local democratic culture and local self-government would be the most important means to realise the promise of Indian democracy:  an inclusive, capable, participatory, accountable and effective direct democracy at the grassroots level.

Though the idea of local government was discussed and debated in the wake of the movement for freedom in India, it took 45 years after independence to make it a constitutional guarantee.  While Gandhi argued for Gram Swaraj (village republics) and strengthening of village panchayats to the greatest extent, Dr B R Ambedkar warned that such local governments would be captured by local caste and feudal elites, perpetuating the marginalisation and exclusion of dalits and other excluded sections of society.  The present three-tier panchayat raj system, with 50% representation for women and provision of representation for dalit and tribal communities, provides a much-needed space for inclusive democracy.

In spite of the promises of grassroots democratisation, there are structural and political impediments to realising the Gandhian proposal for real Gram Swaraj. The idea of panchayati raj emerged through a series of policy proposals and processes after independence. The Balwantrai Mehta Committee (1957) came out with the first comprehensive policy proposals in the context of community development. Though the committee recommended early establishment of elected local bodies and devolution to them of necessary resources, power and authority, the primary thrust was on implementation of community development projects rather than true devolution of political power.

Following the Balwantrai Mehta committee, four other committees in the next 30 years (K Santhanam Committee,1963, Ashok Mehta Committee,1978, G K Rao Committee,1985, and L M Singvi Committee 1986)  made serious proposals to revitalise panchayat raj institutions  as per the Directive Principles of State Policy mentioned in  Article 40 of the Constitution of India: “The State shall take steps to organise village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as unit of self-government.”

It took 45 years of political and policy process to move this from an aspiration of the Directive Principles to a justiciable guarantee of the Cconstitution. Apart from the 73rd and 74th amendments, the most important step towards grassroots democratisation is the Panchayat Extension to the Scheduled Areas Act, 1996, which makes gram sabhas(people’s committees/meetings at the grassroots level) a viable means of direct participatory democracy. 

One of the major hurdles in realising the true democratic and political potential of local self-governance is the structural and systemic resistance by the bureaucracy and political elites in control of important state apparatuses. There is a tension between the instrumental value of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in community development and project implementation, and the intrinsic value of PRI as strong political institutions with regulatory and administrative power, adequate funds and fiscal capacity. Following the Balwantrai Mehta Committee recommendations, PRIs were expected to be the main vehicle for community development projects. However, funding for community development projects had stagnated by the mid-1960s and panchayats stagnated without adequate funds and authority.

Even after the crucial constitutional amendments, one of the major hurdles is that in spite of various measures to devolve administrative and implementing mechanisms to panchayats, there has not been adequate devolution of finance, functions and functionaries to the PRIs.  A few states such as Kerala, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh have made important steps towards this, though true devolution of political and financial power still remains far from being realised even here. In a dissenting note to the Ashok Mehta Committee report (1978), one of the members of the committee, EMS Namboodiripad, made a very pertinent remark: 

“Democracy at the central and state levels, but bureaucracy at all lower levels -- this is the essence of the Indian polity as spelt out in the Constitution… I am afraid that the ghost of the earlier idea that panchayat raj institutions should be completely divorced from all regulatory functions is haunting my colleagues. What is required is that while certain definite fields of administration like defence, foreign affairs, currency, communication etc should rest with the centre, all the rest should be transferred to the states and from there to the district and lower level of local administrative bodies.”

Even now, one of the key challenges is the transition of PRIs from mere local-level implementing agencies to real local self-government institutions with political, financial, administrative and regulatory powers in setting the agenda for local social and economic development.

There have been some very bold initiatives, like the People’s Planning Process in Kerala, that point towards the potential of people’s participation in local self-governance and the possibilities of panchayats. In spite of a few such innovative initiatives to strengthen PRIs and people’s participation, there are still major structural challenges to make them the vehicles for substantive democratisation at the grassroots level. Some of them are to do with the very architecture of the governance process in India and some of them are to do with the character and nature of political power in India.

Some key challenges and issues are:

  • The challenge of transforming PRIs as the location of countervailing power of people to claim their rights and demand direct social accountability.
  • The potential for PRIs to become the key vehicles for social transformation by ensuring the active agency and participation of women and marginalised sections of society.  Such a role for PRIs would help women and marginalised sections of society to assert their political space and demands for an inclusive social and economic agenda.
  • There seems to be a strong link between a vibrant local democracy and human development, as there would be more strategic allocation and effective expenditure of resources to promote primary healthcare, education and sustainable environment. However, PRIs play a lesser role in ensuring quality primary healthcare and education at the grassroots level.
  • The success of PRIs is also influenced by the effective delivery of basic services to the poor and marginalised sections. Hence, the macro-policy framework, that ensures the right to livelihood, is critical to the success of PRIs as an important vehicle for poverty eradication. 
  • Devolution of finance, particularly untied funds, is crucial to the success of PRIs as the means for local governance.
  • Deliberate efforts to remove the administrative, legal and procedural anomalies would be important to make PRIs effective.
  • PRIs offer the most effective means for social accountability and transparency. Hence, devolving financial control to them would help reduce instances of large-scale and entrenched corruption. The Eleventh Finance Commission, analysing the issue of centre-state financial relations, highlighted the need to strengthen the finances of local bodies. Hence, there is a need to have broader finance reform to ensure fiscal devolution through the national and state finance commission.

The experience of Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh demonstrates that the transfer of funds, functions and functionaries would be critical to effective decentralisation. An effective policy framework for decentralisation from above needs to be complemented with social mobilisation and democratisation from below. In Kerala, social mobilisation through neighbourhood groups and women’s groups such as Kudumbasree, proved to be an effective means to strengthen the demand at the grassroots level and facilitate the participation of women and marginalised groups in governance.

Democratisation at the grassroots level requires space for the voices of the poor and marginalised to be heard through networks of social mobilisation. Such a space for participation, demand for effective delivery of services, and demand for accountability, can strengthen the process of socio-political empowerment and capabilities of the poor. A human rights-based approach to governance is crucial for grassroots democratisation. Hence, empowerment of gram sabhas is critical to the claiming of rights and asserting the voice of the marginalised and poor. Unless the legal and administrative hurdles that often constrain the effective role of the gram sabha are removed, the potential of the PRIs will not be realised. It is important to recognise that there are entrenched pathologies of caste discrimination, patriarchy and identity-based political dynamics at the grassroots level. It is thus very important to have a safeguard mechanism to ensure transparency and accountability. There can be systematic efforts for participatory governance assessment such as social audit and people’s report card, to make sure that PRIs are not captured by the elite or by one political party or group.

While PRIs are still a work in progress, there are many initiatives that undermine the role of PRIs. For example, more than Rs 2,000 core is spent annually through the Local Area Development Fund of MPs and MLAs. Most of these funds are spent independent of the social and economic priorities of the PRIs. Such parallel systems of financing can undermine the real governance role of PRIs, according more powers to the elites of a particular political party and to bureaucratic elites at the district level.

There is also potential for PRIs to become the primary institutions for disaster mitigation, sustainable development, and water conservation, facilitation of local economies and creation of employment opportunity at the grassroots level through small and medium enterprises that make use of the local natural and agricultural resources.

The 73rd and 74th amendments provide us a unique opportunity for democratisation, social accountability, effective service delivery, poverty eradication and reduction of corruption and a more participatory democracy. In spite of all the economic growth, there is still entrenched poverty and social and economic inequality in India.  When there are islands of prosperity, surrounded by a sea of poverty and inequality, the real participation of everyone as equal citizens would be more challenging than it is assumed.  We may have to go miles before realising Gandhi’s dream of Gram Swaraj:

“Every village has to become a self-sufficient republic. This requires brave, corporate and intelligent work...I have not pictured a poverty stricken India containing ignorant millions. I have pictured an India continually progressing along the lines best suited to her genius.  I do not, however, picture it as a third class or even first class copy of the dying civilisation of the west. If my dream is fulfilled everyone of the 7 lakh villages becomes a well-living republic in which there is no illiteracy, in which no one is idle for want of work, in which everyone is usefully occupied and has nourishing food and well-ventilated dwellings, and sufficient khadi for covering the body and in which all villagers observe the laws of hygiene and sanitation.

Infochange News & Features, October 2010