Consolidating grassroots democracy -- a strident demand by the people
The saga of panchayati raj, particularly from the time of introduction of Constitution 73rd Amendment, has been full of hope and despair. While the amendment has certainly propelled participatory process at the local level and provided avenues for social mobility of the weaker sections, the states have yet to devolve powers and functions on the panchayati raj institutions (pris).
What makes the panchayati raj even more toothless is the absence of any role of the gram sabha (village council). So much is the dominance of elected representatives that the panchyati raj is now termed as sarpanch raj . Without any effective power vested with the gram sabha, the pris face the threat of becoming extinct. For the simple reason that if the gram sabha is unable to take a decision and the elected representatives are not made accountable to it, people will soon lose interest in the pris.
Instances abound where the provision for convening a gram sabha has been hijacked and often fabricated and many a decision has thus been usurped. One of the main reasons why panchayat meetings are not getting enough participation is that issues related to people's interest don't find any mention in it. But once the gram sabha is made the nodal body, democracy becomes participatory and people have a direct control over all the elected representatives. Experiences in Kerala, where the gram sabha has been made nodal and even in Madhya Pradesh, which has given right to recall power to the gram sabha, the level of the pris debating local issues is high.
In this context, the demand of the Panchayat heads at a conference in Delhi earlier this month (Read: 'Power to People') for effective control over natural resources, water and minerals is an indication of the desire to establish participatory democracy. While the prime minister suggested direct fund flow from the centre to the village, he perhaps forgot about the mechanism to manage this money. If the gram sabha is made the nodal agency, this money can be effectively managed for specific local demands. Otherwise, as current experiences show, the pris just become another broker in this chain of sharing state largesse. The loot of the treasury needs strong institutions at the grassroots. Not a mirror of the representative democracy we have in our capitals.
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