Twenty-five years of Panchayati Raj
Despite a clash of interest with state and Central authorities, the Panchayati Raj system has made commendable inroads in its 25 years of existence
The new Panchayati Raj system came into existence as an institution of self-governance after the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution of India was passed in 1993. Two-and-a-half decades since, 2.5 lakh institutions and 32 lakh representatives are in action at the grassroots. Of them, 14 lakh are women. So far, the discourse has surrounded the devolution of functions, functionaries and funds for Panchayati Raj institutions. It is ironical that the Centre is unwilling to devolve any power from itself to the states. Despite repeated pleas, the Centre has asked the state governments to devolve their powers to local bodies with the thinking that the states will devolve powers as the Constitution stipulates.
Over a period of time, the evangelists, who argued for more powers for the Panchayati Raj, constantly highlighted the reluctance of the states in delegating powers to the sub-system. It was fortunate that UPA-I had created a Ministry for Panchayati Raj and appointed Mani Shankar Aiyar as Minister. Aiyar has been a strong votary of the Panchayati Raj from the days of Rajiv Gandhi and has also been instrumental in drafting the 64th Amendment Bill, pursued relentlessly to exert pressure on the state governments to enable the Panchayati Raj system to function without constraint. On several occasions, his Panchayati Raj activities created hindrances for UPA-I, as many coalition partners felt that it was an interference with the autonomy of the states. Yet, Mani Shankar Aiyar, adopted different strategies to pursue the decentralisation process, even while facing a volley of problems from within the government and states, particularly from Tamil Nadu. Even the states where the Indian National Congress was the ruling party, he found it difficult to convince the Chief Ministers to devolve their powers.
Annual reports have been prepared to identify the extent to which powers have been given to the panchayats along with a comparison of the different states. In order to bring all stakeholders on board to devolve powers, he organised several roundtables and unanimously passed 150 resolutions with the concurrence of the state governments. At one point in time, he had initiated a proposal to receive funds from the World Bank to incentivise the panchayat. It was appreciated by all the leading scholars who worked in the Panchayati Raj system. But, it was scuttled by his own colleagues. Subsequently, while launching the world acclaimed pro-poor scheme National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), Panchayati Raj was not incorporated as an implementing agency. The duty of implementation was assigned to the Ministry of Labour. But, Aiyar fought for the Panchayati Raj and the Panchayati Raj was duly given the responsibility of implementing the MGNREGA. He consistently pleaded to the Central finance commissions to allocate more money from the Central divisible pool to the Panchayati Raj. As a result, over time, the central finance commissions repeatedly allocated huge sums to the Panchayati Raj.
The Fourteenth Finance Commission has allocated Rs four lakh crores to the Panchayati Raj for a period of five years from 2015 to 2020. There is yet another amount of rupees two lakh crores for MGNREGA implementation that has been allotted to the Panchayati Raj. Together, the panchayats receive rupees six lakh crores for a period of five years.
Now, the question is what has the panchayat achieved with this money? Scholars like James Manor, Ragbendra Jha, Andrew Foster, Hans Binswanger, Pranab Bardhan, Dilip Mukherjee, Hari K Nagarajan, SS Meenakshi Sundaram and a few others have begun analysing the impact of the Panchayati Raj on the life and livelihood of the poor in the rural areas by using the data set provided by the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER). It is a pan-India data set collected from 17 states and 241 gram panchayats covering a total of 8652 households. The dataset has been collected across two rounds of surveys. Since collection, serious deliberation and analysis have been carried out on this data set. From the analysis, scholars have derived the following results:
1. The Panchayati Raj system has not emerged as an institution of local self-governance;
2. Yet, it has ensured the delivery of public good and services as the people exerted pressure;
3. Panchayats have not been incentivised to build their competency;
4. Dalits and women have started asserting themselves and brought the critical issues of their development in the light of public discourse through the Gram Sabha and other fora;
5. Parochial politics is rampant;
6. There is heavy competition for resources coming from outside as local resource generation is limited;
7. Corruption has been reduced, but the number of people involved in corruption has increased;
8. The per capita bribe surpasses per capita tax;
9. Bribes are commonly paid for services;
10. The information asymmetry among the citizens has been reduced;
11. Significant improvement in Gram Sabha functioning;
12. Panchayats have been able to reduce the vulnerability of the households;
13. Revenue buoyancy of the panchayats has been seriously eroded:
14. Panchayats have not worked seriously on economic development;
15. Panchayats have not addressed the issues of social justice.
Despite the several limitations and constraints they face, panchayats have deliberated tremendous outcome in the last twenty-five years. Having seen their potential, it is necessary to initiate earnest effort to strengthen the Panchayati Raj system in the given context.
(The author is Professor and Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayati Raj Studies, Gandhigram Rural Institute. The views are strictly personal)