ABOUT 5,000 gram panchayats in Karnataka will go to the polls on December 16 this year. But some proponents of panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) argue that the 1983 framework for the operation of PRIs was far more committed to the ethos of democratic decentralisation than the 1993 act.
They argue Karnataka's earlier laws had the distinction of subordinating district-level bureaucracy to the district-level panchayati institution. The later Constitutional Amendment, which establishes guidelines for PRIs throughout the country, is seen to revert the reform.
The supporters of the new act proclaim in their favour reservation of seats for the socially weaker groups: scheduled tribes and castes and "backward classes". Even more important is the provision of one-third of the seats for women. They also draw attention to the fact that the current act transfers to PRIs, for the first time, many activities related to local development and natural resource management.
Any two pieces of legislation on a subject can, and must, be compared and their lacunae underscored. However, it is impossible to be cynical only of any act or action that advances the establishment of local level institutions that give some power to India's vast rural population to influence affairs critical to its life and manner of living. Regular elections to panchayats, in that sense, must be welcomed even if one looks at the limits to their potential.
Genuine local governance is such an immensely complex aspiration that the final word on the subject has yet to be written. But if PRIs are to be effective, such legislation must be followed up by a range of supportive measures. The Union and state governments, including that of Karnataka with its fine record of PRI creation, should pay attention, in particular, to four vital areas for support. The first is leadership training. Panchayats do reflect the matrix of caste and land relations in rural India. But all levels of governance in India are committed, in theory at least, to break these shackles.
Second, PRIs must be given financial resources commensurate with their responsibilities. Panchayats have often failed to carry out local development activities due to inadequate money. Transfer of funds indicates a transfer of responsibilities. State governments usually reserve most of the developmental activity at the district and local level to themselves. The Planning Commission has estimated that the transfer of funds to district-level representative bodies amounts to only 0.85 per cent of annual state budgets. The G V K Rao Committee on the Implementation of Poverty Alleviation Programmes has claimed that the implementation of rural development programmes has shown a marked improvement whenever PRIs have been actively involved in them.
Third, PRIs will have to be equipped with technological expertise to check the degradation of the local ecology. If panchayati raj has to be harbinger of ecologically sound prosperity, then PRIs will have to augment traditional awareness of sustainable living with modern technology and expertise to fight ecological degradation.
Last, and not the least important, the success of PRIs depends critically on whether their democratic practice becomes an art of participation or just representation. Democratic institutions can lose touch easily with those whom they are intended to serve. In some states, even gram panchayats may represent clusters of upto 20 different villages. Gram sabhas (assemblies of village adults) must not be ignored if PRIs have to be anchored permanently to the Indian grassroots.
The PRI experiment offers a great opportunity. The choice is ours to make something of it.
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