Reality of Gram Swaraj
Lack of visible contribution of local governing bodies in India’s fight against COVID-19 is an indicator of the confused state of self-governance in the nation
Even the highest body in the world like WHO can take a decision to fight against the pandemic Coronavirus in a most efficient way. But the results could be achieved only through committed local actions by the local bodies with the active involvement of the stakeholders. It requires appropriate policy sets at the national and regional levels. Synergetic actions are needed among the institutions appropriately from the International to local levels. Throughout the world, the institutions and organisations involved in the fight against the Coronavirus have established a partnership with the local bodies and carried out their activities. The recent newsletter of the Swedish International Centre for Local Democracy carries stories about the excellent role performed by the local bodies in the fight against the Coronavirus in some of the African countries. In India, the media has highlighted the achievements of Kerala state in fighting against the Coronavirus by involving the local bodies and self-help group women along with huge volunteers drawn from both urban and rural areas. To some extent, Odisha too followed the model of Kerala in involving the local bodies in tackling the crisis. Barring the above, state governments are not interested in involving the local bodies in the fight against Corona. Yet the Central Government has transferred to the panchayats Rs 2,00,292.2 crore under 14th Finance Commission allocation and Rs 2,57,597.96 crore under MGNREGA (100 days work) for its activities.
Then why have the other state governments not evinced keen interest in involving the local bodies in managing the present crisis despite the presence of local governments? It is pertinent to ask why the Prime Minister of India or the Ministry of Panchayati Raj has not sent directives to states to make use of local bodies as partners to tackle the crises by using their powers and resources. But at the same time, the Prime Minister on April 24 in connection with Panchayat Day celebration interacted with elected representatives of the local bodies and asked them to work for the creation of 'Gram Swaraj' as envisioned by Mahatma Gandhi. Had the local bodies in all the states been involved in crisis management as done by Kerala, the impact would have been a different one.
Kerala's achievements in managing the pandemic have drawn the attention of the world. Of course, in many places all over India, the local body leaders are acting as volunteers on their own as they have not received any directives from the state governments. This kind of voluntarism has indicated the huge leadership potential available on the ground. One could understand the reasons for the reluctance of many of the state governments in involving the local bodies in managing COVID19 if anyone goes through the sixth volume of the 'Second Administrative Reform Commission Reports' and the report of the
'Mani Shankar Aiyar Committee'. Both reports have indicated the potential of the local bodies and the reluctance of both governments in strengthening the Panchayati Raj system.
While investigating the reasons for the reluctance of the governments in empowering the local bodies. a few scholars argue that in India the design of decentralisation is a faulty one and hence it will not enthuse the state governments to decentralise powers from their pool to local bodies. The Central Government has not devolved any of its powers to the state governments. Nor has it even given back the powers taken away from the state but state governments have been asked to devolve powers to the local bodies. Logically speaking, power has to move from Centre to state and state to local bodies. This is not happening in India.
Interestingly the Ministry of Panchayati Raj had a Cabinet Minister with budgetary support of Rs 8,000 crore at once during the UPA regime to strengthen the Panchayati Raj activities. But when NDA came to power in 2014, it had been reduced to Rs 90 crore in budgetary allocation for the Ministry of Panchayati Raj in 2015. In such a way, the importance of the subject has been reduced at the Central level. Why this kind of lukewarm attitude towards decentralisation of powers? There is a reason behind it and it was explained long back by Jayaprakash Narayan in 1965 itself in the conference organised by the All India Panchayat Parishad at Bangalore. He stated that "everyone will talk about Gram Swaraj and decentralisation of powers in India, especially people who are at the helm of affairs both in the state and the Centre. In reality, they know that it is very difficult as the power brokers will not allow power to reach the poor and the rustic folk. The power brokers know that the majority in India are poor and they are to be ruled only through state apparatus and they should not be empowered and hence empowering people in India is a herculean task. If it is to be done it should be through a peoples movement not through any legislation". The above observation holds good even today.
Yet panchayats are functioning not as an institution of self-governance but an agency of the Centre and the state governments. Tamil Nadu gets Rs 3,600 crore under Central Finance Commission allocation for panchayat institutions and around Rs 5,000 crore is spent on MGNREGA in the rural areas, yet another Rs 5,000 crores from the State Finance Commission allocation.
They are being spent as institutions of spending. But the accountability on the ground is very minimum. It is very difficult to get data on spending at the grassroots. Every finance commission, both at the Centre and the states, found it very difficult to make recommendations based on the reliable data set. Yet the Central Finance Commissions continuously gave sufficient allocation of resources to the panchayats with a hope that they would deliver services to the people. It is the right time to raise a fundamental question of why the state governments are reluctant to devolve powers and why the Centre is also not exerting pressure on the state governments to devolve the powers appropriate to them despite the huge flow of funds to the panchayats. The local bodies are not mere spending institutions. It is high time to take it to the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court to spell out the constitutionality of the bodies in terms of its standing as an institution of self-governance.
The writer is a former Professor and Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayati Raj Studies, Gandhigram Rural Institute. Views expressed are personal.