* Rajan Kashyap

A democracy rides on effective governance at three levels, at the centre, in the states and by the local community. Nations such as the USA and UK derive their strength from grass root institutions, variously termed as counties, city councils or boroughs. These elected local bodies in towns and villages wield authority for taxation, development and regulation, police administration, and even adjudication in respect of local laws. After the tragic events in the USA of September 11, 2001 the world witnessed the astounding sight of Rudy Guiliani, Mayor of New York City commanding emergency relief measures from centre stage, even as President Bush stood meekly by in the background. It was clear that within the jurisdiction of the local body concerned, the elected Mayor of the city, and not the President of the most powerful nation on earth, called the shots.

In India, by contrast, the organs of local self government, municipal councils in towns, and panchayats in rural areas, are the weakest of the three tiers of government. The panchayat bodies have few financial or administrative powers. They function as poor hand maidens of state political leaders.

Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of the village as a republic, panchayat raj has been accorded much lip service in India. Most states set up a three tier structure consisting of zila parishads in the districts, the panchayat samitis in development blocks, and village level gram panchayats. In states like Punjab and Haryana, these bodies are bereft of financial or administrative authority. At best they are offered crumbs and morsels of office by way of petty grants for inconsequential items. In the state of Punjab, we witnessed the astonishing public spectacle of Members of the Legislative Assembly distributing some government grants in villages. The scene was symbolic, falsely projecting the MLAs as dispensers of charity. In actual fact the MLAs were superfluous middlemen between state and panchayat.

Many states plead for autonomy in relation to the national government, but stoutly resist decentralization from state to village. The unwritten approach has been “state powers good, village powers bad”. For years on end, some states did not conduct panchayat elections, as they were legally bound to do. In Punjab, hundreds of elected panchayats are currently suspended, under government orders, on some ground or other. Suspension of an elected local body, and placing it under some small government functionary, is akin to imposition of the President’s rule in a state. Public perception is that the real authority lies at the state headquarters. Consequently there is hardly a murmur of protest when hundreds of panchayat secretaries, who are technically employees of panchayats, are recruited, not by the panchayats, but by a Minister.

For decades ‘Panchayat Raj’ remained merely a national slogan. The year 1992 saw the Rajiv Gandhi government legislate the 73rd amendment to the Constitution of India to strengthen and empower the panchayat bodies, then numbering 496 zila parishads, 5905 block samitis and 230762 village panchayats. To effectuate empowerment the states are to enact appropriate state laws, and implement them. The states have shown little alacrity in this regard. The reform measures have so far been mainly cosmetic. These include the reservation of leadership in the village institutions for women and members of the scheduled castes, the establishment of State Election Commissions to conduct panchayat elections, and the setting up of State Finance Commissions to improve the finances.

There is still no genuine devolution of financial and administrative power to the local bodies. Village folk are concerned primarily with issues of schooling, healthcare, welfare and services for their day to day existence. The key functionaries that can help to fulfil these basic needs, such as school teachers, medical and veterinary staff, rural water supply officials, agriculture inspectors, and even engineers engaged in rural projects, continue to be answerable to their departmental superiors. In the absence of control of elected bodies at district and village level, absenteeism of government employees is rife. The local panchayat, for example, has no institutional link with the village school, or with service departments. All cadres of departmental officials are centralized. In the state of Punjab the state cadre of school teachers numbering 3 lakh is jealously controlled by the Department of Education. Teachers, who should be imparting quality education, spend considerable time and energy in seeking postings and transfers to stations of their choice. Employees of other departments as well seek greener pastures with the political support of local leaders. Instances are not uncommon where a post sanctioned for a particular village is shifted to a distant town, merely to accommodate a well connected employee. In this industry of postings and transfers, the panchayat institutions are helpless and hopeless bystanders.

Centralised authority at state level is self perpetuating. Departmental heads and lower staff prefer to report to bosses who are removed from the field. Their accountability would improve if their performance were to be appraised in the village by legally chosen democratic bodies. A common argument against empowerment of panchayats is that village leaders are unskilled and untrustworthy. It is wrong to doubt the competence and integrity of local bodies without affording them an opportunity to perform. Graft is less likely when members of the community, who are in the immediate vicinity, are themselves vigilant.

Several years prior to the 73rd Amendment the state of Karnataka had completed considerable devolution of power to panchayats. That system continues with success in that state. The Government of Punjab has recently made a slow, hesitant start. Panchayats will be entrusted with some limited financial and administrative powers in respect of just six departments.

At the national level there is commitment to village empowerment. Resistance is at the second tier, the states, for fear of loss of patronage and authority.Tier three, the panchayat, demands not delegation of authority vested at state level, but the transfer of power to where it rightfully belongs-the village. Stronger and abler governance at the grassroots will make for a stronger state, and a more powerful nation.

April – June, 2012