This year marks 30th anniversary of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA), salient for constitutionally establishing the third layer of India’s federal structure, Panchayats. These amendments were emblems for decentralisation of political, economic and administrative powers.
Article 40 of Constitution called for organising village panchayats and endowing them with necessary powers and authority to enable them to function as units of self-government. Despite this, it took four decades for the Indian state to formally recognise local bodies as essential pillars of our polity and mainstream political decentralisation.
This ambiguity stems from two perspectives on the scope of democracy in villages. While Mahatma Gandhi called for restoration of self-reliant ‘village republics,’ on the other hand, Ambedkar considered Indian villages as sinks of localism, den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism which was ill-suited for democracy in which equal citizens would deliberate and make decisions on an equal footing.
Deep social inequality based on status and income in rural areas convinced early leaders of Independent India that local communities in rural areas were not ready for democracy.
There was thus a belief that power was to be centralised in the hands of national and state-level elites who would break the power of local elites and carry democratisation of local power structures.
However, changes such as second democratic upsurge leading to demand for greater representation among plebians, increasing education and demand for decentralisation, decline of Congress, addressing issue of corruption and increasing accountability of governance structures, set the context of parliament to enact the 73rd CAA.
This formally set in motion the wheel of decentralisation and operationalised institutions of local governments in all states.
Achievements Of 73rd Amendment Act
- Institutionalisation of local bodies in rural areas: Most states have formed institutions of urban and local bodies with regular elections, and other constitutional institutions such as State Election Commission, State Finance Commissions etc.
- Electoral Legitimisation: Turnout panchayats elections is on average higher than in national and state elections. Poor migrants often travel from cities to villages to cast their votes in local elections, as often, they personally know the candidates for whom they are voting.
- Transformation of authority in rural areas and decline of old social order: These constitutional amendments provided extensive quotas for historically marginalised groups and women which ensured better descriptive representation of these communities than ever before. These groups gained a share of political power and were marked by the emergence of new pattern of leadership – Naya netas (new leaders) – independent of traditional power structures.
- Women’s Empowerment: There was initial concern that women’s reservation in PRI will be ineffective as men would act on behalf of women as ‘Sarpanchpatis’. However, these reservations have made women proximate and encouraged them to engage with local bodies and politics.
Reasons For Lack Of Substantial Decentralisation To Panchayats
However, some scholars have argued that Panchayati Raj in India is a performative success and has not radically or substantially decentralised, for following reasons:
- Varying performance across states: Local bodies come under state subjects under Schedule VII. Experience of local governments vary across states like Kerala has institutionalised structure, but, other states have a lesser commitment to decentralisation.
- Lack of fiscal resources: India has the lowest spending on local governments as a proportion of GDP. Also, most of the resources routed to local bodies are directed through centrally sponsored schemes where local bodies lack autonomy to devise their plans to tackle issues. Despite being enabled by the constitution to impose taxes like professional or property tax, local bodies’ mobilisation of their own revenues as a share of their total budget has been falling.
- Lack of functional decentralisation: Despite 11th Schedule of Constitution devolving 29 subjects to panchayats, most states barring a few have failed to devolve all these functions to Panchayats. Parastatal bodies often undertake functions in the realm of panchayats. Local bureaucracy often sees panchayat officials are corrupt and do not trust them with functions.
- Lack of functionaries: Despite being the first point of contact for most villagers and prominent functions in scheme administration, panchayats often lack permanent officials. Many states where the population per panchayat is small do not have panchayat secretary. Also, existing panchayat functionaries often lack technical skills and computer knowledge.
- Absence of fraternity at local level: People in Indian villages/towns do not have a shared sense of civic community. Politics at local level is devoted to managing intense intergroup competition for resources, status, and power and is poorly equipped to manage common resources or deliver public goods. Markers of caste and community around which local political mobilisation takes place have further lessened fraternity at local levels.
- Disconnect between better governance & elections: Indian electorate does not connect its electoral decisions with delivery of better public services or economic development. Populism, corruption, caste & communal mobilisation are far more effective to win elections in India.
- Lack of political pathways for successful panchayat performers to rise in their political parties. There have been very few signs of political pipeline from panchayats to parliament or state legislatures. It is still rare for scheduled caste candidates to win non-reserved seats. While lakhs of women were politically empowered by local bodies, however, they continue to receive peanut nominations in State legislatures, Parliament or even within the party.
- Abuse of Money-power in local elections: There has been a blatant deployment of money-power in the elections of panchayats. If one calculates average money spent by a panchayat election candidate, the expenditure incurred per voter is likely to be higher than in Lok Sabha or State elections.
- Lack of demand for decentralisation: Empowerment of local bodies and effective decentralisation has not become political issue in India. Local people do not pay taxes for empowered local bodies and national and state parties also do not make it their primary agenda.
Effective Decentralisation Demands Following Reforms:
- Clear devolution and activity mapping: States should be incentivised to devolve functions to the local bodies. State governments should empower and make panchayats lynchpin of their governance plans. Functions should be mapped for different levels of panchayats.
- Dedicated Human resources for local bodies:
- Every Gram Panchayat should have full-time Panchayat Secretary, who is a regular employee and functions as the Chief Executive of the Panchayat. Larger panchayats should have technical member as well.
- Career path of permanent recruits should be clearly defined with possibilities of them being absorbed in appropriate State cadres.
- Financial Empowerment of Panchayats: State governments should form State Finance Commissions to give panchayats their due financial devolution. Also, the present restriction on professional tax should be removed and local bodies should be empowered to tax properties.
- Relationship with SHGs: Self Help groups have emerged as an important pool of empowered local-level organisations. Members of SHGs are often poor females who can be made parties in services rendered by Panchayats.
- Clustering of panchayats: Panchayats with small populations should be clustered with other smaller panchayats around them leading to larger panchayats with more resources. E.g., Kerala.
- Removing distinction between 73rd & 74th Amendment Act: There is a case for unified district-level local government rather than distinction between urban and rural. Much of the incipient urbanisation in India takes place in rural areas. Urban and rural should not be considered separate entities but a continuum.
In the end, real decentralisation demands a political social contract in which national and state-level elites are ready to share their powers with local people.
An effective Panchayati Raj is essential for empowering people to make governance accountable and let them be true masters of their destiny, which will see the dawn of democracy in its substantive way in India.