Author : Niranjan Sahoo

Originally Published 2013-05-04 00:00:00 Published on May 04, 2013
Mere constitutional creation of new political space would not become the answer to the growing demands for inclusion and participation in the countryside. For substantive democracy to become a reality, Centre and States need to show willingness to share powers (3Fs).
Even after 20 years, Decentralisation still remains a challenge
India’s much promised decentralisation process (popularly known as Panchayati Raj) completed its 20th anniversary on April 24. Considering its critical significance to the governance, covering over 60 per cent of the population in the country, it is rather surprising that such a historic day found no mention in major national dailies, let alone the high decibel 24X7 electronic news media. Nonetheless, all panchayats across the country organised their special Gram Sabha session to commemorate the historic day and the Prime Minister and the Minister for Panchayati Raj sought wider attention by highlighting the achievements and challenges ahead for this highly promising initiative to deepen democracy in the country. Have core provisions enumerated in the 73rd Amendment (Constitution) Act to usher genuine decentralisation in the rural India progressed satisfactorily? Can Panchayats truly be considered "self-governing institutions" after two decades of their existence? Has the spirit of decentralisation taken a deep root in the democratic space of India? What sense can one make from the two decades of working of decentralisation in India?

Key achievements

The 73rd Amendment, which for the first time provided the constitutional status to the panchayats and recognised them as "self-governing institutions", has taken a huge traction all across the country, albeit with varied intensity. From being toothless bodies in the decades earlier (post-Balwantrai Mehta Committee), the post-1993 panchayats not only have been vested with many functions ranging from civic welfare to preparation of plans and their expenditures, these self-governing units have also been provided with sizeable funds to look after their day-today affairs.

The most significant contribution is that it has deepened democracy, political inclusion and participation among the most marginalised sections of the society. The mandatory reservations for women, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes (in selected states such as Bihar, Tamil Nadu) that the 73rd Amendment enumerated has brought more than a million new representatives to the democratic space. Though there are cynical stories about the effectiveness of such representation, especially women, the studies in the recent times show plenty of positive outcomes emerging from such empowerment scheme. For example, Esther Duflo and Raghavendra Chattopadhyay, in their influential study of Panchayats in Rajasthan and West Bengal (EPW, February 28, 2004), found that women representation in the local bodies had positive impact in the adequate delivery of local public goods to disadvantaged groups. Although comprehensive nation-wide empirical studies are lacking, there is enough evidence to suggest that notwithstanding their low level of literacy, absence of political and managerial skills and exposures, elected representatives belonging to women, scheduled tribes and scheduled castes are asserting their political rights and beginning to emerge as leaders breaking away from centuries of oppression and subjugation.

Another achievement is that following impressive record of decentralisation, the Union Government has chosen panchayats as the principal planning and implementing authorities to implement its most ambitious flagship rural employment guarantee programme (MGNREGA). Similarly, recognising their transformative potentials, the 13th Central Finance Commission devolved a share of divisible tax pool for the panchayats.

The ongoing decentralisation initiative has also created a healthy competition among various states in terms of devolving funds, functions and functionaries (3Fs). For instance, Rajasthan, after getting inspired by Kerala, has decided to devolve 3Fs in respect of five departments such as agriculture, education, health, social welfare and women and child. The government of Bihar has come out with the idea of "Panchayat Sarkar" that lends primacy to grassroots governance in the overall scheme of development. Similarly, after waiting for 30 years, Jharkhand went for Panchayat elections recently. This was followed by the State of Jammu and Kashmir, which saw more than 85 per cent voting in local elections. In short, decentralisation process has taken a strong root and looks ’irreversible’ in India.

Major challenges

However, despite many positive stories, the progress of decentralisation has been dwarfed by the numerous systemic challenges and institutional bottlenecks. For instance, while majority of the States appear to have met the necessary conditions, such as enactment of the State Panchayat Act; setting up of the State Finance Commission and the State Election Commission, and constitution of the District Planning Committee, a majority of them have not devolved funds and functions to these bodies. While some States like Kerala and West Bengal have devolved as many as 26 departments to Panchayats, several States have devolved only few functions, even as low as 3 functions. Therefore, Article 243G of the Indian Constitution, which requires the State governments to devolve distinct functional items to Panchayats, remain a constitutional promise even this very day.

For instance, the recently concluded "Expert Committee on Leveraging Panchayat Raj Institutions for more Efficient Delivery of Public Goods and Services" revealed that except for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and the Backward Regions Grant Fund (BRGF), none of the over 150 centrally sponsored schemes had provided a role for the PRIs despite the Cabinet Secretary’s explicit directions through a circular dated November 8, 2004 and the guidelines of the Planning Commission. These are still managed by line departments of respective States. In short, Panchayats are yet to evolve into full-fledged self-governing institutions of local governance, largely because of the continued resistance from certain sections of State political leadership and bureaucracy which feel panchayats’ rise will lead to their redundancy. No wonder, studies and reports (including the Second Administrative Reforms Commission, 2008) blame the reluctance on the part of State Governments and higher bureaucracy to share powers with panchayat bodies in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity to the continued low momentum of decentralisation process.

However, what is a more worrisome trend is that despite two decades of its initiation, there have been little efforts to strengthen the functioning and delivery capacities of these institutions. Not only that very few States have done anything on internalising the planning process (activity mapping) of panchayats, several States have not paid any serious attention to building the capacities of newly elected representatives, many of whom are first-timers and many belong to the most marginalised sections. So, the lack of capacity has come hard on the credibility of this very promising institution. No wonder, many elected representatives remain totally dependent on officials to perform even rudimentary responsibilities, often becoming subject of ridicule. This is more evident in the poorest and backward areas wherein the elected representatives find it extremely difficult to perform well in implementing rural development schemes. Ironically, such lack of capacity is being used as a smart pretext by the political and bureaucratic leadership to not devolve many functions to these bodies. This situation is more precarious in the case of PESA Act (Fifth Scheduled Areas).

Last, but not the least, there has been little progress in terms of bringing panchayats under the ambit of e-governance. There is not an iota of doubt that leveraging of new age technologies (ICT) can transform accountability, transparency and effectiveness of panchayats. However, out of over 2.4 lakh panchayats in the country, only about 50,000 of them have implanted e-Panchayat project. And ICT initiative for panchayats was set up as early as 2004. In short, the journey towards decentralisation remains slow, tardy and unsatisfactory. Late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s memorable words "Maximum democracy and maximum devolution" continues to remain illusive words even after two decades of its arrival.

At this time of governance collapse, alarming level of erosion in the institutional integrity, scams and angry protests, one hopes to see certain degree of urgency and seriousness from the political leadership and policy makers to walk the talk on the devolution and decentralisation as promised in the 73rd Amendment. Mere constitutional creation of new political space would not become the answer to the growing demands for inclusion and participation in the countryside. For substantive democracy to become a reality, Centre and States need to show willingness to share powers (3Fs).

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with ORF’s Governance and Politics Initiative. With years of expertise in governance and public policy, he now anchors ...

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