Less populous and more homogenous, wards serve Panchayati Raj better
After the 73rd amendment to the Constitution, Panchayati Raj institutions (pris) became key agencies in the Indian state's decentralisation scheme. So far, the focus of panchayati raj has been the village as a whole. This is perhaps because the colonial state -- and also ideologues of our freedom movement -- saw the village as an organic unit for which some amount sectoral planning could be done effectively. But it is important to realise that present-day villages seldom constitute a single unit. Instead, they are divided into a number of dispersed -- and very often socially, politically and economically heterogenous -- hamlets. Even official land records recognise this.
Moreover, contemporary villages usually have large populations ranging between 2000 and 4000. All this affects the functioning of pris. Normally two or three villages constitute a gram panchayat. So the gram sabha -- which comprises all adult residents of a gram panchayat's constituent villages -- becomes a very unwieldy body whose meetings do not excite the villagers. They are only attended by the few who stay close to the sabha's headquarters or are keen about an issue likely to be discussed at a particular meeting. Moreover, many decision-making powers at the panchayat level have been taken over (informally or practically) by the elected sarpanch. In fact, on many matters the sarpanch even has powers to override the gram panchayats.
There are ways to reduce the sarpanch's arbitrary powers. For instance, Madhya Pradesh has adopted a system by which this head cannot draw any funds unless it is sanctioned by the gram sabha. However, the importance of such a check diminishes when people from all wards within a gram panchayat do not attend gram sabha meetings. Many states have constituted sectoral or subject matter committees of the gram sabha (or of the gram panchayat) but even such meetings are also not well-attended.
Devolving powers to the wards would not preclude village-level issues also being collectively deliberated upon by the gram panchayat or gram sabha. In fact the small ward sabha, while facilitating greater participation, may not prove to be a viable planning unit and might not be able to implement some of its proposed activities without the gram panchayat's help. Thus the ward panchayat and the gram panchayat should function in tandem.
It is quite possible that initially some panchas would be more active than others in organising meetings and getting concerned government functionaries to visit their areas. However, in the long run this would make the other villagers pressurise their panchs to be more proactive. In fact this would only serve the purpose of panchayati raj. The basic idea behind grassroots democracy is that people should articulate their requirements and get the system to deliver, while themselves contributing to and participating in the delivery process. If such action is taken at the ward level then the village as a whole stands to benefit. The panch can emerge as the interface between the people and the gram panchayat. This does not require any constitutional or major legal change but only a shift of some focus from the village to the ward and from the sarpanch to the panch. The real grassroots today is the ward of the panchayat rather than the larger and more heterogeneous village or the still larger gram panchayat.
Meenakshi Hooja is chairperson, Rajasthan State Mines and Minerals Jaipur and member international editorial board on global dialogue on federalism in the 21st century. The views expressed in this article are that of the author's own and do not reflect that of the organisations she is affiliated to.
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