IT IS indeed unfortunate that the two Constitutional amendment bills to strengthen Panchayati Raj institutions and urban municipalities have received little public attention. Political decentralisation has the potential to revitalise this country in more ways than one. Theoretically speaking, it can give power to the people in a way that makes them more responsible for their own development. This, in turn, can help to reduce the debilitating dependence on government for everything. There would then be less need for bureaucrats and the bureaucracy that remains could then be more accountable. The same would hold true for politicians. Under public gaze and scrutiny, public investments would become less prey to corruption. Democracy, too, would benefit for decentralisation would increase the people's participation in determining their environment, their growth and their future. In fact, much of what's good in western nations arises out of the power that their local bodies have to determine their immediate habitat and act as a check on commercial and other exploitative forces.
But will all this be the result of the two proposed bills enacted? It's doubtful because it is the structure of the local institutions being proposed and not the intentions, that will determine the outcome. And their structure is what has not been thought through. In fact, the ongoing debate clearly shows the Indian political system is still not prepared to promote participatory democracy and instead wants to depend entirely on systems of representative democracy for the country's governance.
For people to participate, the level of governance must be small enough for a citizen to get involved, and there must be institutional mechanisms that allow the individual to participate in the deliberations of the executive branch. This means precisely the kind of relationship that legislative members have with their governments: They can demand information; they can scrutinise current programmes and future plans and they can accept or reject financial budgets.
This is quite different from the relationship that an electorate has with its elected representatives. In fact, once the people vote, there is no real relationship between the electors and the elected until the need to vote comes around again.
At the lowest levels of governance, people need institutions with whose executives they have a live relationship. Mohallas in urban areas and villages in rural areas must constitute the lowest level of democratic governance. But institutions at this level must to be both open and participatory for it is at this level that many problems can be solved. Villagers can take charge of their immediate natural resource base, manage and even enrich it. Mohalla residents can organise waste disposal services, green spaces, educational facilities, pollution monitoring, the implementation of environment protection laws and decide land use patterns. At present, many of these issues lie supine under the deadweight of an unresponsive and centralised bureaucracy. Nor is there any reason to believe that institutions of representative democracy, given their past performance, will bring much succour to the people in the future.
It is vital that the bills be recast keeping in mind a larger purpose than just political populism. We must first ask the question what do we want these local bodies to do and then structure them accordingly. The work done by voluntary agencies over the last few decades has shown clearly participatory institutions are far more effective in getting people to change their immediate socio-economic conditions -- whether it is the experience of the Sukhomajri village in Haryana or of the residents of Orangi in the slums of Karachi.
In the proposed bills, the powers of the people -- the gram sabha, for instance, in the case of rural areas -- have been left for state legislatures to define. This may bring about a diversity of approaches, it also evades the central issue. It is not trees and tigers alone that call for diversity; the power of the gram sabha literally constitutes the foundation of India's grassroots democracy. Leaving it vague only means that democracy is being debased.
The reasons for the failure of existing panchayats are many. Firstly, these panchayats are the products of village factionalism, accentuated by electoral politics and tend to be dominated by the more powerful in the village. Secondly, the panchayats are too far removed from the grassroots to be effective agents for sound natural resource management. A panchayat usually covers several villages -- on an average, three. But this ratio can differ for, in Assam, an average panchayat covers about 30 villages, whereas in Orissa and West Bengal the number is about 100. These panchayats are just too big to be effective fora for village-level management of natural resources.
Moreover, existing panchayats function as fora, thereby increasing the chances of manipulation and the formation of a nexus among village leaders, petty bureaucrats and state-level politicians. Corruption and exploitation can be traced directly to such institutions. So, it is important to appreciate that the people are not inherently meek; they are simply made powerless by the system. The proposed Constitutional amendment bills constitute an opportunity to change all this. If done in the right manner, the resulting devolution of power can have a wide-ranging impact on the country, its society, economy and ecology.
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