The panchayats suffer from a collective failure because governments treat them like an implementing arm or a line department, without the powers of one. This tier of government is seen as a way that the country can down-size bureaucracy and hand over work to this elected group of people. It is assumed that this government non-department will be able to work without the encumbrances of officialdom and be more responsive to people. After all, the 29 functions assigned to the panchayats by the Constitution are based on the principles of subsidiary, which means, whatever can be done at the local level, should be done there.
But the process could easily become development on the cheap. The problem is that panchayats are not about creating another government non-department, but are about devolving political and decision-making powers and deepening democracy. This model can only work when these institutions get their teeth and tools to drive programmes at the village-settlement levels.
It is the country's greatest development experiment. The fact is that panchayats are not just necessary because government cannot deliver services, they are necessary because they can make delivery of services work. But in this, the development laboratory will have to learn more much and innovate much more.
A recent meeting of the empowered sub-committee of the National Development Council discussed drawing panchayats into the planning process (as opposed to treating them like the implementing arms). "We need to fill the gaps in these programmes. Total sanitation will have to be linked with drinking water, drinking water will have to be linked with the rural health mission, and so on," says Raghunandan.
Proponents of decentralisation have contended that by the end of the 11th Five-Year Plan, capabilities of panchayats should be enhanced to such a level that block grants may be passed on to them directly. The fact is that there is an institutional dilemma. If the panchayats become better staffed, better funded and more secure, then they could easily turn into the very creature--district and block level officialdom--that they are working to avoid. But if they do not have capacity to deliver, they simply cannot. The same is the issue with physical assets and resources.
Then the issue is to find new ways of doing old things. Clearly, Mahatma Gandhi's vision of this tier of government was to develop ways of self-governance, built also on the principles of self-reliance. In this modern India, what will be the village republic and how will it and its managers negotiate for an equal space under the sun?
With inputs from S Ramakrishna from Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, and Neha Sakhuja in Delhi