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Millennium Post

Of subordinate status?

Aware masses and transformative leadership are needed to ensure that local governments enjoy their Constitutionally-guaranteed autonomy

Of subordinate status?
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The new local government system has been in practice for the last two and a half decades in India. It is time to retrospect and evaluate the performance of new local bodies as a system of governance. Before doing that, one has to assess the extent up to which the local bodies are designed and allowed to function in line with the Constitutional spirit. From the reports of the government and independent research agencies, as well as from field visits in a few states, one can easily conclude that local bodies are in the hands of the state governments, and act as agencies of the same. They are not enjoying the autonomy they have been granted under the Constitution of India. Both rural and urban local bodies are integrated into parts IX and IX-A of the Constitution. All the three tiers of government derive powers from the same Constitution but the local governments have been considered weak, as they are mostly regulated by the state governments. The elected representatives of the people have been forced to follow directions instead of catering to the needs of the people who elect them. To establish their position in the local bodies, the elected representatives can seek remedies only through the judiciary, even for ordinary matters. Recently, the High Court of Madras, in a case filed by a gram panchayat president in Cuddalore district, delivered a judgement that the power of convening a Gram Sabha meeting is vested with the Gram Panchayat leader who needs not take any permission from the Inspector of Panchayat.

In the judgement, the court further mentioned that the Gram Panchayat can convene the Gram Sabha meeting any number of times depending on the needs of the people. It is a pity that even after the judgement of the Madras High Court, an Assistant Director of panchayats at Pudukkottai District passed an order that panchayats should not convene the Gram Sabha meeting without the permission of the Inspector of Panchayat (District Collector). The Assistant Director appears to be oblivious of the fact that his order was against the judgement of the High Court. There is yet another judgement delivered by the High Court of Madurai which states that the activities to be carried out by the panchayats cannot be done by any higher authority, and thereafter, the tendering process initiated at a higher level for some lower-level activities have been cancelled. It is only the judiciary that protects the powers of the local bodies when state government officials tend to exercise extra control. If state officials are appointed as staff of local bodies, they cannot behave as masters of the same. It is to be noted here that powers to be handled by the ombudsman are being handled by the District Collector in the name of the Inspector of Panchayats in Tamil Nadu. The position was created under the 1958 Act of Tamil Nadu to enable and regulate local bodies to deliver services to the people. Since the Government of Tamil Nadu kept the old Rural Local body Act, alongside adding the provisions of 73rd Amendment, all the archaic provisions of the old act have crept into the new system also. The concept of 'Inspector of Panchayat' came from the old Act. Since the ombudsman structure has been created as a separate body to deal with administrative problems of the local bodies, the concept of Inspector of Panchayat has to be dispensed with. However, as the state government finds it easy to control the village panchayat through District Administration, it retains the power of Inspector of Panchayats with District Collector and does not give those powers to local bodies ombudsman.

Strangely, even though the contextual need for reform at the local level was to empower the local bodies through capacity building and enabling them to find local solutions to many of the local problems, in reality, the local bodies are weakened through the bureaucratic interference and domination. The whole idea of giving local bodies the responsibility of maintaining the livelihood of the local population has failed.

It is interesting to note that the whole design of the rural local bodies, especially the Gram Panchayats, is made in such a way to empower the marginalised through their participation in Gram Sabha and standing committees of the panchayat; they have got reservation of seats in the local bodies. Unfortunately, awareness has been lacking among the marginalised. The Constitutionally created panchayats, coupled with right to information, right to work, right to food and right to education, came with huge outlays for the poor and the marginalised in the rural areas. To claim their entitlements as rights, the marginalised have to participate in the activities of Gram Sabha and other committees — particularly the social audit activities. But it does not happen in many of the panchayats. It is observed that wherever a right transformative leadership at the grassroots is in place, the life of the poor and the marginalised has been transformed. The committee on Centre-state relationship and Second Administrative Reforms Committee unequivocally suggested a slew of reforms to be taken by both the Centre and the state governments to strengthen the local bodies. But for both the governments, local bodies reform is not on agenda as they evince interest in reform for market activities.

The Central finance commission has successively allocated higher quantum of resources to local bodies to strengthen them to improve the quality of services delivered to the people. It insisted that every panchayat has to evolve a perspective development plan based on the participation of the rustic folk to make the Departments of state governments work on the people's plan. Yet, this has also been ritualised as usual, rather than keeping the spirit up and alive. The need of the hour is to create awareness among the people about the potential of the local bodies in finding local solutions to the local problems. Local bodies need to be made responsible for the wellbeing of local people, by preparing people as responsible citizens rather than beneficiaries of the government schemes. To do the above, we need transformational leaders at the local level. It can be done through the process of innovative training.

The writer is a former Professor and Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayati Raj Studies, Gandhigram Rural Institute. Views expressed are personal

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