SHRADHA KUMAR/SANJAY UPADHYAYA: In a report on auditing institution of the State for making democracy work, the section on Panchayats become critically important as the introduction of the Panchayat Raj system through the 73rd Constitutional Amendment is the most definitive step towards re-energizing democracy in the history of independent India. Unfortunately, this laudable initiative for decentralisation of governance has been circumvented by the alliance of elite political interests, change resistant bureaucracy and the rent seeking class, which has well entrenched interests in the continuation of a colonial centralised state structure. The 73rd Constitutional Amendment and ensuing state Panchayat Acts are progressive in nature and provide substantial space for responsive and participatory governance. Importantly, special provision for women, OBCs, SCs and STs are in built in the Act to protect and further the interest of vulnerable and marginalised sections.
The Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act provides special provision for function of Panchayats so as to protect and promote the tribal interests in accordance with the spirit of the scheduled areas as enshrined in the constitution. However, the actual implementation of the Act tells an entirely different story. In spite of the odds, the Panchayats generate some hope in a deeply troubled system of democracy. It also presents many micro examples of effective governance. This year report is a novel experiment in tracking and auditing Panchayats from the lens of rights to food, right to work, right to health and right to education. This report also attempts a systematic audit of implementation of PESA. Some of the key highlights of this section are following: Adjuncts of the state governments: The Panchayats function at the mercy of state governments and are usually treated as mere adjuncts of a states politico-istrative machinery. Inspite of the fact that Panchayat are democratically elected bodies and are as much a constitutional body as Parliament or state assemblies. Broad and representative democratic leadership: India now has constitutionally mandated 232,332 village panchayats, 6,000 intermediate panchayats and 534 zilla panchayats. The three tiers of these elected bodies consist of as many as 27,75,858 village panchayat members, 1,44,491 members of the intermediate panchayat and 15,067 members of the district panchayat. Growing women leadership: Women head about 175 District panchayats, more than 2,000 Block panchayats and about 85,000 Gram panchayats.
The southern states are fairing better in promoting women leadership compared to the northern states. Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh are some of the states, which have more than 33 per cent women leadership clearly indicating that some women have been elected from general seats. Parliamentary review Committee on local self-governance: A decade after the 73rd and 74th constitutional Amendments, a Parliamentary Committee was constituted to review their impact and progress. This committee of the 13th Lok Sabha, chaired by Chandrakant Khare, comprising of 30 members from Lok Sabha and 13 members from Rajya Sabha, reviewed the 10 years of implementation of the Amendments and expressed that this period has witnessed a willful violation of Constitution with respect to devolution of rights to Panchayats. The committee also expressed unhappiness over the Action Taken Report presented by Ministry of Rural Development where the replies furnished by the Government were evasive, vague and inconclusive. Ineffective fiscal decentralisation: State Finance Commissions (SFCs) have been constituted and have given their recommendations. However, only four states-Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Rajasthan and West Bengal-have largely accepted the recommendations of their SFCs. In other states only some of the recommendations have been accepted. The total fund on the 29 subjects, roughly calculated to be Rs 72,000 crore, is only minimally devolved to the Panchayats. The central ministry has retained a large portion of approximately Rs 30,000 crore and an equally substantial sum is kept at the state level, which leaves only 5 to 10 per cent to be devolved to the Panchayats. Panchayats have invariably failed to generate their own revenue and are dependent on grants from the state and the centre to fulfill their responsibility.
One important reason for poor resource generation by Panchayats is inadequate control of PRIs on natural, physical and human resources within their jurisdiction. Unfortunately, fiscal devolution is increasingly dependent on political pressures, market forces driven by contractors and, plain and simple corruption. Parallel initiatives undermining Panchayats: With the evolution of PRIs, various parallel developmental schemes and institutions have been initiated directly undermining the legitimacy and role of Panchayats. MPLADS is one such scheme. It is worth noting that many of the works undertaken under the MPLAD scheme duplicate the development work taken up by the Panchayats. It is important to underscore that PRIs are starved of funds and the financial allocation under MPLADS was increased in 1999-2000 to Rs 2 crores per year for every MP. The centrally sponsored schemes (CSS) also undermine the PRIs. The share of centrally sponsored schemes (CSS) in the plan budget of central ministries has increased to 70 per cent as against 30 per cent in the early 80s. The state governments are also promoting special interest groups with vertical hierarchy and parallel authority to that of Panchayats, such as Janmabhoomi in Andhra Pradesh and Gram Vikas Samiti in Haryana. The last two to three years have been most unfortunate as the previous NDA government attempted to strengthen District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) as the principal organ at the district level for handling huge funds. Complex procedures and lack of capacities: The governance procedures adopted for the Panchayats are extremely complex and are often a duplication of the state government rules and procedures. Particularly, the procedures of accounting adopted are very complex for the rural masses. This issue gets further compounded by the lack of skills and knowledge of the panchayat members. A study by Unnati in Rajasthan found that 40 per cent of the elected representatives were illiterates and 90 per cent of reserved category panchayat heads were elected for the first time leading to poor capacities for performing the role of panchayat representatives. Panchayats managing primary education: Some experiences of PRI managing the local primary education are positive indicating that decentralisation and de-bureaucratisation of education can be effective and would be able to meet the local demand through locally available human resource. Health care and Panchayats: Involvement of local bodies in public health delivery is almost negligible. Unfortunately, the capacities of local bodies for managing public health and sanitation are weak and as a result the local bodies would find it difficult to evolve and manage the public health system. Nevertheless, the partial success of experiments like Jan Swasthya Rakshak (JSR) model in MP demonstrates that community-based primary and preventive health management is possible and its institutionalization with Panchayats can make it sustainable, replicable and equitable. Reluctance to operationalise PESA: The PESA Act is one of the most potent legislative measures of the recent times, which recognises the tribal peoples mode of living, aspirations, their culture and traditions. But the fact that in most of the state the enabling rules are not in place more than eight years after the adoption of the Act suggests that the state governments are reluctant to operationalise the PESA mandate. Ignoring the spirit of PESA:
The state legislations have omitted some of the fundamental principles without which the spirit of PESA can never be realised. For instance, the premise in PESA that state legislations on Panchayats shall be in consonance with customary laws and among other things traditional management practices of community resources is ignored by most of the state laws. State legislations weaken Gram Sabhas: The Gram Sabhas in the PESA Act are central pillars of governance entrusted with significant role and substantive powers. However, the state legislations, perhaps by design, through a twist of legal language have taken away powers from the Gram Sabhas. PESA and water resources: As per PESA, the power to plan and manage minor water bodies exclusively vests in the Panchayats at appropriate level. However, no legal definition of the term minor water bodies exists in the statute books. The states in their conformity legislations have also not defined the term leading to ambiguity and scope of interpretation by the bureaucracy. PESA and land resources: The PESA Act mandates that there should be consultation before land acquisition for development projects and before resettling or rehabilitating persons affected by such projects. Also the Gram Sabhas and Panchayats have the power to prevent alienation of land in the Scheduled Areas and to take appropriate action to restore any alienated land of Scheduled Tribes.
However, state governments have not laid rules in this regard. What is needed today is the political will and wisdom necessary to strengthen Panchayati Raj institutions. Promoting necessary devolution of funds, functions and functionaries is a necessary condition but not sufficient in itself. What is called for is serious intervention in capacity building of elected representatives. The acid test of displayed political will be its willingness to make these institutions effective and accountable. (Shradha Kumar works for Samarthan, Sanjay Upadhyaya is a lawyer)