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Limiting people's power

Print edition : Jul 08, 2000 T+T-

The panchayati raj experiment in Tamil Nadu is yet to capture the people's imagination.

S. VISWANATHAN

OVER 12,000 panchayats in Tamil Nadu fulfilled their statutory duty of convening a gram sabha (village assembly) on May Day. Newspapers reported "enthusiastic" participation by people, particularly women, in several villages and "heated" discussions on l ocal issues and "verbal clashes" over charges against elected functionaries in some others.

The most significant of the panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) that came into existence in 1996 consequent on the 73rd amendment to the Constitution, the gram sabha is the pivot of functional participatory democracy in its most direct and authentic form. Article 243-B of the Constitution defines the gram sabha as "a body consisting of persons registered in the electoral rolls relating to a village", which forms the territorial area of a panchayat, an institution of local self-government. The Constitutio n leaves the determination of the gram sabha's "powers and functions" to the State legislatures.

The Tamil Nadu Panchayat Act, 1994 stipulates that "subject to the orders of the government, the gram sabha shall meet at least thrice in a year" and that there should not be more than six months between two meetings. It also provides that "if the villag e panchayat fails to convene the gram sabha, the Inspector shall convene it". The major functions of the gram sabha, according to the Act, are to approve the village plan as also the annual budget of the panchayat and review the progress of work on the s chemes entrusted to the panchayat. The government may entrust more functions to the gram sabha, if needed.

However, regular meetings of the gram sabha were not held, and even when they were held the attendance was poor. As a result, the quorum for a gram sabha meeting was scaled down from "one-third of the total number of its members" as provided in the origi nal Act to 10 per cent of the total membership. In November 1998, the government directed that gram sabha meetings be convened at least four times a year - on January 26 (Republic Day), May 1 (May Day), August 15 (Independence Day) and October 2 (Gandhi Jayanthi).

These mandatory meetings have been held with a semblance of regularity since 1998, but the people's response has been lukewarm in most places, according to panchayat movement activists and political leaders. They concede that they do not see any apprecia ble rise in public awareness about the significance of the gram sabha. In spite of Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi's appeal to people through full-page advertisements in Tamil dailies on May Day, reminding them of their "democratic duty", people in village s near Chennai seemed to show little interest in the meetings. Several of them confessed that they signed the minutes of the meeting, which were circulated to them at their homes or workplaces, without bothering to find out whether the meetings were actu ally held.

Panchayat functionaries attributed the lack of interest to several factors. They said that in one village people were busy as it was harvest time. In a coastal village, the people had work in the salt pans and could not spare time for the meeting. Some p anchayat presidents felt that the government, instead of insisting on convening meetings on specific days, could have allowed them to fix the date and time in accordance with local conditions.

There are other reasons for the near-indifference of the people. The concept of gram sabha as a statutory, political and administrative entity is still new. People need time to familiarise themselves with the re-emergence of PRIs with some new features - direct elections to the posts of panchayat presidents, reservation for women and members of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes - and the re-introduction of district panchayats after a gap of over three decades.

Tamil Nadu did not have elected panchayat bodies for over 10 years before elections were held in 1996. The long absence of democratic rule at the grassroots made people totally dependent on bureaucrats and members of the State Legislature and Parliament to address minor local problems. The reluctance of most bureaucrats and MLAs and MPs to yield space to newly empowered sections, which manifested itself in their attitude to panchayat functionaries and institutions, is another reason for the poor public interest in PRIs. Added to these is the highly charged bipolar political atmosphere in the State, in which sections of the people tend to be indifferent to panchayats to which elections were held on a non-political basis. In some cases gram sabhas are t reated forums to settle scores. In the process, the purpose of the gram sabha as an instrument of participatory democracy is forgotten.

E.K. Santha, who is in charge of the Chennai centre of the New Delhi-based Institute of Social Sciences, said that there was a need to bring about a more favourable atmosphere for grassroots-level democratic institutions to flourish. According to her, th ere has to be a consistent campaign to create awareness among the people about their own empowerment, and they must have a say at least in matters relating to their own locality. "There should, therefore, be a deliberate attempt from the state to spread awareness about the importance of gram sabha meetings, " said Santha.

R. Ilango, a technocrat-turned-panchayat president, who has developed Kuthampakkam village in Tiruvallur district into a model village in less than three years, agrees that there is a need to create greater awareness among the people about the gram sabha . But he has a different perception about the reasons for the poor attendance at gram sabha meetings. The articulate Ilango says that in a highly politicised atmosphere, any overemphasis on the role of one or the other of the inter-related PRIs may prove counter-productive. According to him, this has happened in several places, with the result that the people and their elected representatives see each other as rivals. While the people look at the gram sabha as a forum to harass the panchayat chief, the latter treats it as a hostile gathering. Interestingly, he says, wherever the panchayats convince the people of their sincerity and honesty, they face a friendly gram sabha and win public support for their endeavours.

Ilango, therefore, recommends a shift in emphasis: panchayat functionaries have to be motivated by the State and non-governmental organisations to ensure effective performance, which, in turn, will ensure absolute cooperation from the gram sabha. A frien dly gram sabha not only serves as a watchdog but helps ensure the total involvement of the people in developmental initiatives. "The relationship between the gram sabha and the panchayat is like the mother-child relationship," says Ilango. Recounting his own experiences, he adds that there are instances when the gram sabha stands by the panchayat president in times of distress.

With their existing powers, enterprising panchayat leaders can change the face of the countryside. However, there are limits to personal capabilities, and systemic infirmities and inadequacies cannot be overlooked. G. Ramakrishnan, member of the the Stat e secretariat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who has served on a high-power committee appointed by the Tamil Nadu Government to consider the question of giving more powers and funds to the three-tier PRIs, agrees that there has been some impr ovement in the attendance at gram sabha meetings, thanks to the efforts by panchayat functionaries and officials. But he adds that this is more an exception rather than the rule.

Ramakrishnan told Frontline that under the existing framework the powers of panchayats, which are accountable to the gram sabhas, were limited. They could not deal with several major issues that confronted the people in their day-to-day life, such as education, health, nutrition, agriculture and livestock maintenance. "Under such circumstances the people seem to be least interested in attending gram sabha meetings," said Ramakrishnan. If the gram sabha and other PRIs were to function as instrumen ts of social transformation as originally intended, panchayat institutions should be given more powers to deal with subjects that had a bearing on the people's actual needs, he said. In this connection, he cited the success of panchayati raj in States su ch as Kerala, West Bengal, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. He said that while Kerala and West Bengal allotted local bodies 40 per cent and 50 per cent respectively of their plan funds, the Tamil Nadu Government allotted only 8 per cent of its total annual income. Although it had promised to increase this allotment progressively to 9, 10, 11 and 12 per cent in the second, third, fourth and fifth year of the panchayat, it gave only 8 per cent even after three years. "This amount is insufficient even to pay the electricity bills of many panchayats," Ramakrishnan said. Besides, most of the funds released were tied up under specific schemes, he said.

Panchayat institutions can serve their purpose only through democratic decentralisation of powers and planning. Ramakrishnan recalled the Kerala Government's initiative as part of the "People's Campaign for the Ninth Plan" (Frontline, March 7, 199 7) to involve the gram sabha in preparing the village plan, prioritising the people's needs at the village level, mobilising resources including labour and integrating the village plan into the district plan and then into the State plan. The Kerala exper iment made a big impact on resource mobilisation and people's participation in planning. Its system of evolving and training "core groups" helped in identifying nearly 30,000 technically competent persons outside the government system at the village and panchayat ward levels, who could contribute to the development of their own localities in one way or the other. Tamil Nadu should think of launching a similar campaign for the Tenth Plan and make a beginning in this penultimate year of the Ninth Plan by stepping up its assistance to the local bodies and motivating them to perform better.

Many activists believe that if the gram sabhas are activated into energetic forums, where meaningful discussions are held and developed into purposeful institutions entrusted with economic planning and social audit, it will go a long way in empowering th e people, including disadvantaged sections such as women and Dalits, in real terms.