Divisive move

Attempted panchayati raj reforms in Madhya Pradesh

Published: Wednesday 15 September 2004

Divisive move

the Madhya Pradesh (mp) government is drawing considerable flak over its move to change the state's panchayati raj structure. A state cabinet meeting on July 29, 2004 decided to bring about the first major changes in the Madhya Pradesh Panchayati Raj Act, 1994, and the Gram Swaraj Act, 2001. The amendments would replace the existing eight committees for village development, formed under the Gram Swaraj Act, with two new committees -- the Village Development Committee (vdc) or the Gram Vikas Samiti and the Panch-Ja committee. The Panch-Ja committee would look after the five resources of jungle (forest), jal (water), jameen (land), janwar (animals) and jan (human beings).

"If all the work is to be done by the vdcs, what is the need of sarpanch [village council head]?" asks Digvijay Singh, former chief minister of the state during whose tenure the two Acts were passed. But Narendra Singh Tomar, the state's minister for panchayats and rural development, argues: "There are many lacunae in the existing system. The amendment to the two Acts will strengthen the three-tier panchayati raj system, particularly the gram sabha [village council]." The vdcs would undertake any work assigned by the gram sabhas, which would also be assisted by a team of government employees.

"The massive system with eight committees was not practical for small villages. The new system also reduces the role of the sarpanch," adds K T Chako, secretary, ministry for panchayat and rural development, mp. But opponents of the move claim that the powers of the sarpanch have actually been increased. Besides, the panchayat secretary, known for exploiting the prevailing mutual distrust among panchayati raj functionaries and government officials, has been given the additional responsibility of the vdc.

Many experts believe the mp government's efforts might prove futile. They claim that creation of an adequate structure for funding local governments is a pre-requisite for empowering them: an element missing from the amendments. Bureaucracy is another hurdle not handled. "The bureaucratic structure is still not made responsible to the gram sabhas. Panchayats are not allowed to punish incompetent and undisciplined officers," points out Manoj Rai of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, a New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation. George Mathew, director, Institute of Social Sciences, a New Delhi-based research body, suggests that concentrating on capacity building would be a better approach.

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