President, Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), Delhi
Two developments in the last week essay the progress of panchayatiraj in the past 20 years. The Union Ministry of Panchayati Raj issued public notifications asking village panchayats to hold the next village council meeting in April/May. It is an irony that the highest unit of government i.e. the union government decides the dates of meetings for the lowest tier of governance. The notification violates the letter and spirit of devolution and local self-governance. If the village panchayats are not able to fix the dates and the agenda of the village council (Gram Sabha), the basic unit of participatory democracy in the country, then the very purpose of the constitutional mandate is defeated.
The second development came from the Supreme Court of India. It ruled last week that the Gram Sabha of tribal communities of Odisha must decide whether their ancestral lands of worship can be given up for the purpose of mining. The highest judiciary in the country is trying to restore the statutory rights of Gram Sabha (as enshrined in the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act and the Forest Rights Act) while the executive continues to undermine and negate such rights of village council.
Twenty years after the constitutional mandates given to panchayats as institutions of local self-governance, they are being treated as agencies of sub-contracting and administration of petty procedures by the other tiers of governance at district, state and national levels. In the meanwhile, as a consequence of this reality of panchayats, elected representatives are rapidly learning to behave as petty contractors. The public at large is beginning to lose interest in, and respect for the lowest tier of democracy in India today.
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