Democratic devolution

Published : Mar 18, 2000 00:00 IST


Despite its shortcomings, the panchayati raj system in Karnataka has changed politics and governance in most parts of the State. The enthusiastic voter participation in the latest round of elections is ample proof of this.

A MASSIVE and elaborate exercise in grassroots democracy has just given over in Karnataka. Some 75,200 men and women were elected to 5,316 gram sabhas or village committees, the first of the three tiers that constitute the panchayati raj structure in the State. There were two rounds of voting: 14 districts went to the polls on February 23 and 12 districts on February 27. (Voting in Bellary district and in two taluks of Davangere and Belgaum districts were postponed). The results were announced on Februa ry 29.

The elections, under- reported by the media and largely ignored by the political establishment which governs from Bangalore, represent by any yardstick a significant step forward in the politics of federalism and democracy. In administrative terms it inv olved an elaborate procedure of constituency delimitation, and in Karnataka, of the operalisation of a complicated formula of reservations for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled tribes and Other Backward Classes (within each category there was a further res ervation of 33 per cent for women).

The present system of reservation, which adds up to a little more than 60 per cent of the total number of gram panchayat seats, was introduced by the Janata Dal Ministry headed by H.D. Deve Gowda in 1995 through an amendment to the Karnataka Panchayati R aj Act of 1993. This is the first time that elections to the gram sabhas have been held after the amendment was effected. Its impact has been extraordinary. It has thrust the responsibilities and social prestige that comes with elective office upon over 45,000 persons drawn from the socially and politically unempowered castes and the religious minorities. But for the reservation rules, a majority of these people would not have become members of the gram panchayat.

What are the features and outcome of the gram sabha elections? The first noteworthy feature is of course the sheer scale of the democratic exercise. There were 32,236 constituencies from which over 2.23 lakh voters directly elected 75,200 candidates (out of a total of over 1.3 lakh persons who contested). There were 33,272 polling stations. The number of voters in each polling booth ranged between 80 and 500, and the margins of victory and defeat was often less than 10 votes. While the voting percentage was 70 per cent on an average, it was well above 80 per cent in some districts, reflecting a voter consciousness and involvement greater than that for the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections.

Secondly, although the statutory reservation for women in panchayat elections in the State is 33 per cent, women in fact accounted for 46.74 per cent of the gram panchayat membership in its last five-year tenure. This means that a significant number of w omen contested -- and won -- from seats that were part of the non-reserved category. Affirmative action in respect of women is certainly having the desired effect. Once women begin occupying public office through a system of reservation, it does have a m ultiplier effect and encourages them to step beyond the confines of what is statutorily provided. Although elections to the gram sabha are held on a non-party basis, the entire process of candidate selection and campaigning are openly political and party -based.

KARNATAKA'S first modern panchayati raj legislation, crafted by the Janata Government of Ramakrishna Hegde, became law in 1983. The Karnataka Zilla Parishads, Taluk Panchayat Samithis, Mandal Panchayats and Nyaya Panchayats Act, 1983 recognised the princ iple of party-based elections to the two tiers of elected office -- the mandal panchayats and zilla parishads -- that existed under that Act. When the Congress(I) returned to power in 1989, it rewrote the Act, to keep it in conformity, the government arg ued, with the provisions of the Constitution (73rd) Amendment. The new Karnataka Panchayati Raj Act introduced three tiers of panchayat raj institutions or PRIs which are the gram panchayats, the taluk panchayats and the zilla panchayats. Elections to th e taluk and zilla panchayats were made party-based, whereas in respect of the gram panchayats they remained 'non-political'. In practice this is a principle recognised only for formal purposes, as gram panchayat elections are as politicised as any other democratic exercise. Critics of this law argue that it is undemocratic and counterproductive to try and shut politics out of the election process. Apart from the fact that it just does not work, legal mandates such as these would only legitimise other, m ore regressive, social categories such as caste and religion.

THE Opposition Janata Dal(S) in Karnataka has asked the State Election Commission, to look into what it alleges are large-scale revisions of voters' lists by the official machinery, made under pressure from Congress(I) legislators, in order that bona fide voters' names be excluded and the names of under-aged voters included. "Normally there is a two to three per cent change in the number of voters when electoral rolls are revised, owing to death, migration and so on," said C. Narayanaswamy, spoke sperson of the Janata Dal (S), former Member of Parliament, and a person highly regarded for his knowledge of and involvement in the panchayati raj experiment in the State. Narayanaswamy told Frontline: "This time, in respect of more than 100 vill ages in the Devanahalli Assembly constituency, the ruling party machinery has inflated the rolls and put the names of supporters who have not even crossed 13 years of age. While it is to the credit of the government that elections of this magnitude went off peacefully, the State Election Commission must conduct an enquiry into this and rectify these anomalies before the taluk and zilla panchayat elections."

In Karnataka, one-third or 33 per cent of all seats are reserved for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and another one-third for the Backward Classes under the two categories A and B. Of this BCM (Backward Communities) A, which accounts for 26.6 per cent of the gram panchayat seats, comprises 192 communities and includes Muslims, Buddhists and Dalit Christians. BCM(B), which accounts for just 6.4 per cent of the seats, comprises nine communities and has an income qualification as well.

Within each of these categories, a further one-third is reserved for women. In order that no constituency returns the same category candidate twice, the seats are rotated for every election (held once in five years). Thus, if a two-member constituency is reserved for a general category man and a Scheduled Tribe woman, it could well be reserved for a BCM(B) woman and a Scheduled Caste man in the next.

Yet another interesting feature of these elections was the large number of candidates who were elected unopposed. Just under 20,000 of the 75,200, or a little over one-fourth of those who won, were elected unopposed. Is this a reflection of the political dominance of caste and/or landed interests in the countryside, or are there other reasons behind it? This correspondent visited several villages in the districts of Kolar and Tumkur in order to ascertain the levels of participation and involvement of vi llage residents, political parties and candidates in the election process. In most of the villages of Bageppalli Assembly constituency the fights were clearly between the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Congress(I) and a rebel Congress group. "Th ere are three or four factors behind the high numbers of unopposed candidates," Sriram Reddy, a former CPI(M) legislator from the Bagepalli constituency in Kolar district, said. According to Sriram Reddy, one factor was the system of reservation itself. When the reservation category changes, very often a party cannot immediately find a suitable candidate. Sometimes there are vested interests - political, caste and financial - that come together to ensure that a candidate gets elected unopposed. Sriram R eddy said: "Despite all the negative features of this election - caste domination, money and muscle-power, corruption, political rivalry, widespread distribution of liquor - gram panchayat elections are still a very positive development which has resulte d in people becoming aware of their rights. There has been a broadening of peoples participation in politics and governance, and a big increase in women's participation too."

ALTHOUGH the 1993 Act was supposed to have been framed keeping in view the requirements laid down in the Constitution (73rd) Amendment, it is seen as far weaker in respect of real decentralisation than the 1983 Act. "There are three features that reflect the strength or weakness of a panchayati raj system," Narayanaswamy argues. "They are the administrative, financial and planning powers of the PRIs and the extent of autonomy they enjoy under all these heads." The old Act, according to him, provided for all this and developed "district governments and decentralised administration" in a real sense. Under the 1983 Act, 27 sectors of development were under the zilla parishad, most of which have returned to State government control. "Through the 1993 Act, the Congress decentralised governance to the bureaucrats in the PRIs who come under the direct control of the government." The sweeping changes brought in by the 1993 Act were not strongly contested by the Opposition Janata Dal at that time.

Real decentralisation shook the hold of local political interests, and was opposed by most members of the State legislature, cutting across party lines. Several panchayat members whom Frontline spoke to complained about the fact that funds that de volved to gram panchayats were in large part tied funds, and there was little leeway they had in matters of planning and budgeting. V. Umadevi, the pradhan of Kottakotta panchayat in Bagepalli taluk said that of a yearly allocation of Rs.1,50,000 her pan chayat receives, Rs.90,000 is tied and goes towards street lighting charges, employees' salaries and so on. "There is very little money left for us to use in any village development," she said.

Despite these constraints, the panchayati raj system, now in its third elected tenure, has changed politics and governance in most of Karnataka. The taluk and zilla panchayat elections, due to be held before May 3, will further extend and deepen people's participation in governance.

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