Toothless at 10

A decade after their inception, Panchayati Raj bodies are yet to be granted adequate powers

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Wednesday 15 January 2003

 Word not kept: Vajpayee at th (Credit: PIB)celebrations should ideally have marked the tenth anniversary of Panchayati Raj institutions (pris), which are often described as world's largest experiment in decentralised governance. Even Prime Minister (pm) Atal Bihari Vajpayee had wanted the occasion to be commemorated in the winter session of parliament. Instead, the house did not list any business on Panchayati Raj issues for the session and the event passed unnoticed. The reason: the pm himself failed to keep a promise he had made two months back.

He had then given an assurance that some 2.4 lakh panchayats would be further empowered and the constitution amended again to enable the direct flow of funds to these bodies. But the devolutionary process has remained static and hence there is no cause for cheer.
Lost landmark It was on December 22 and 23 that India completed 10 years of adopting pris as local bodies of self-governance through the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments. "If all political parties agree, the Union ministries of rural development, finance and law will together work out a draft amendment," Vajpayee had said on October 4, inaugurating a national conference of project directors of district and rural development agencies (drdas) in Delhi. He was referring to proposed constitutional amendments that would facilitate the direct flow of funds from the Centre to pris. They would also make it mandatory for state governments to devolve certain powers to the bodies.

However, according to officials in the Union ministry of rural development, it will be months before the draft amendments are ready. "They are under consideration," says Babni Lal, joint secretary in charge of Panchayati Raj. This is the only response that can be elicited from the nodal ministry. Lal refuses to divulge details, claiming that it would breach parliament confidentiality.

There is another reason why celebrations have been put on hold. The Union government is likely to miss a deadline set by around three million panchayat leaders to transfer power to them by December 31, 2002. The resolve was made at a national gathering in April this year, where Vajpayee had admitted to the failure in making panchayats effective. He sought suggestions from the leaders to improve the functioning of panchayats. The latter had then given the ultimatum to the government to transfer all constitutionally stipulated powers to them as well as hold elections to panchayat bodies.

"Given the lack of political will to empower people, the government will not be able to meet the deadline," avers Rajesh Tandon, president of Delhi-based Society for Participatory Research in Asia (pria). He adds: "If the pm so wishes, he can turn around the fate of the panchayats and solve the country's problems faster."
At a standstill The pain of not moving an inch towards decentralised governance since the 1992 statute amendments racks the entire country (see box: Power shortage ). Various studies confirm that pris remain ineffective due to the lack of commitment of successive governments. Simply put, panchayats have no funds, functions and functionaries.

According to a research by Jean Dreze, an honourary professor with the Delhi School of Economics, in most states the main responsibility of a sarpanch is just to oversee various development programmes. A study of panchayats in 19 states by the National Institute of Rural Development (nird), Hyderabad, shows that parties across the political spectrum are unwilling to delegate power to the pris. The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution has favoured amendments to devolve financial power to the panchayats. The pm's promise, too, is said to be based on this suggestion.

Though the constitution makes holding of regular panchayat elections mandatory and requires the state governments to transfer powers to these bodies to manage 29 subjects at the village, block and district level, the stipulation is being violated with impunity. The panchayat poll process has been completed in the states only recently -- that too after prolonged legal battles and interventions by citizens and civil society organisations. But even now Jharkhand, Arunachal Pradesh, Punjab and Pondicherry have not fallen in line.

The states are required to constitute district planning committees (dpcs) as envisaged under Article 243(zd) of the constitution. The purpose of these panels is to facilitate decentralised planning in each district by preparing composite plans. While Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Goa and Gujarat are yet to constitute dpcs, in several states the panels are either chaired by government officials or are not functional.

Further, state governments are creating parallel village bodies such as forest protection committees, water users' associations and watershed committees for different programmes. This limits the scope of panchayats. "Ideally these bodies should work under the supervision of panchayats, but no effort has been made to achieve this," laments noted social worker Anna Hazare.

That state governments are guilty of undermining the role of pris is evident from the pm's April 27, 2001, missive to Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu. He stated in the letter: "...With the passage of the...Act...constitutional status has been provided to...Panchayati Raj institutions. ...(The) capacity building of elected Panchayati Raj representatives and of the village community, as a whole, has to remain an area of high priority.... I have also to point out that parallel structures (which marginalize Panchayati Raj institutions) should not be set up."

Ironically, the Union government is not lagging behind in strengthening such bodies. For instance, the Union ministry of rural development is busy fortifying drdas which bypass panchayats and handle thousands of crores of rupees meant for rural development. Worse, the ministry's annual report 2000-2001 reveals that this is not a temporary measure.

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