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A new political class

Print edition : Jun 17, 2005

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The elected leaders of panchayats are now in a better position to assert themselves, but they continue to face resistance from legislators and officials reluctant to share power with them.

S. VISWANATHAN in Kolar

THE first 10 years of the panchayati raj institutions (PRIs), which came into being as constitutional entities in the mid-1990s, have been a turbulent period in several States, mainly because of their special feature of empowering Dalits and women. In many places, elections for seats and posts reserved for Dalits and women in PRIs faced stiff resistance from vested interests.

After the elections were held and the elected Dalit and women representatives occupied nearly half of the seats and posts at different levels of the panchayati raj system, the detractors tried to put spokes in the wheel by questioning their "capacity to rule". Dalit women were the worst affected. They were not even allowed to occupy the seats that they had won and were humiliated in several places. Some officials were uncooperative in the beginning. The elected Dalits and women had to fight back with the help of certain political parties that were committed to the causes of grassroots democracy and the liberation of Dalits and women. The government and non-governmental agencies organised "capacity-building programmes". These efforts together have succeeded in empowering Dalits and women to a great extent.

The PRIs enter their second decade with their leaders better informed, more assertive, more confident and more efficient. However, the resistance they have been facing all along does not appear to have been overcome fully. New forms of resistance and hindrance appear to come in their way, from bureaucrats, legislators and some sections of people who seem to feel threatened by the emergence of a new political class from the villages.

Signs of this development were most visible in Karnataka, when this correspondent covered the visit of Mani Shankar Aiyar, Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas and Panchayati Raj, to some PRIs, as part of a programme to interact with elected representatives, officials, legislators and Ministers to rejuvenate the panchayati raj system (Frontline, June 3). The Minister was accompanied by a host of senior Central and State officials during his visit to Kolar district to see for himself the functioning of the three-tier setup.

Interaction with officials, the elected representatives, a few legislators and a cross-section of people gave one the impression that the functioning of the PRIs in the State, which can boast of putting in place a progressive and effective panchayati raj system with some unique features, has generated divergent views among them.

Karnataka has 5,652 gram panchayats, 176 taluk panchayats and 27 zilla panchayats. Karnataka and Sikkim are the only two States that have devolved to PRIs all the 29 functions earmarked by the Constitution under the 73rd Amendment, according to V.P. Baligar, Principal Secretary, Department of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Government of Karnataka. Baligar said Karnataka was one of the few States that allotted more than the stipulated percentage of budget funds to its PRIs. It has allotted 28 per cent of its non-Plan expenditure and 34 per cent of its total expenditure to PRIs, which is 2 per cent more than what the State Finance Commission has recommended. With enormous powers and privileges, the PRIs have been entrusted with major responsibilities and this has created discontent among those who had enjoyed these privileges for a long time.

AFTER Kerala and West Bengal, Karnataka is known for its early initiatives to strengthen democracy at the grassroots through the devolution of powers to village panchayats. A landmark Bill adopted by the Karnataka Legislative Assembly in 1983, when the Janata Party's Ramakrishna Hegde was the Chief Minister, provided for a two-tier system comprising zilla parishads and mandal panchayats. This well-conceived piece of legislation, whose architect was Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Minister Abdul Nazeer Sab, had to wait for three years to get the President's assent. The Act had two significant and progressive features. One, it provided for reservation of 25 per cent of the seats in these elected bodies for women much before the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution in 1993, which facilitated the mandatory reservation of 30 per cent of seats for women in local bodies that became constitutional organs. Two, it had a provision that gave a zilla parishad president the status of a State Minister. Between the zilla parishad and the mandal panchayat, there was an intermediate tier, the Panchayat Samiti, with the elected heads of the mandal panchayats as members.

Elections were held for the zilla parishads and mandal panchayats in January 1987. The new system brought in some radical shifts in the power structure, both political and bureaucratic. Several administrative reforms followed the devolution of power under the Act. The State Budget provided for a district sector in tune with the new functional assignments down the line. A State Finance Commission was also put in place. A significant feature of the reform was that the Deputy Commissioners (District Collectors) were divested of their development-related responsibilities and officials far senior to them were appointed Chief Secretaries of zilla parishads.

The zilla parishads became crucial bodies in development activities in the districts and major development agencies such as the district rural development agencies (DRDAs) were brought under their control. Officials cite studies to show that rural Karnataka witnessed rapid strides in development work, particularly in respect of rural infrastructure such as roads, water supply and school buildings. This situation, however, did not last long. The system lost its much-needed political support with the death of Nazeer Sab. When the five-year terms of the zilla parishads and mandal panchayats ended in 1992, the elections were postponed and the zilla parishads were brought under the Deputy Commissioners' administration. In a major policy shift, officials junior to the Collectors were posted as Chief Secretaries of the zilla parishads, which meant a return to the pre-1987 administrative hierarchy with the Deputy Commissioner at the top.

The new Karnataka Panchayati Raj Act was passed in 1993, following constitutional amendments. This Act was largely patterned on the 1987 Act. A major change, however, was the introduction of an elected body at the taluk level. Although the Act ensured the devolution of 29 items to the PRIs, the administrative structure it envisaged was much weaker than the one provided by the earlier Act, according to some experts. For political reasons, there was also some delay in holding elections under the new Act. The reduction in the terms of the elected heads of the PRIs on the recommendations of an official-level reforms committee, the State government's failure to provide for budgetary allocations commensurate with the functional devolution, and the emergence of numerous parallel development agencies are seen by experts as some of the factors that hamper the PRIs' efforts to fulfil their constitutional responsibilities.

A REPORT of the World Bank in June 2001 on rural decentralisation in India has also pinpointed several lapses in the political, administrative and financial functioning of the PRIs. The Bank's findings resulted in Minister for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj M.Y. Ghorpade launching a fresh set of reforms aimed at confronting problems instead of glossing over them, finding operational solutions within the existing political and legal framework, initiating strong legislative measures to address devolution through executive action, and building the necessary fiscal framework with the same purpose.

One of the salient features of the reforms was that the PRIs were given greater freedom to form joint committees among themselves so that they could collectively pursue common objectives. The members of panchayats were required to disclose any pecuniary interest they might have in any question that would come up for discussion at the panchayat meetings.

The reforms also included significant provisions that required taluk panchayat and zilla panchayat members to declare their assets and also to maintain election expenses accounts. Gram panchayat presidents were made executive heads, as in the case of taluk and zilla panchayat heads. The attendance of officials in gram panchayat meetings was made mandatory. Provisions were also made to ensure that adequate devolution of finances and functionaries accompanied the new activity mapping framework devolving functions, besides an enhanced statutory development grant of Rs.5 lakhs a year for every panchayat.

Yet another achievement was the announcement of a taxation policy for the panchayat institutions. The scheme of making pro rata deductions of payments due from panchayats on power consumption was withdrawn. Instead, a new scheme was put in place under which the government would release the full amount and the panchayats would pay the bill amount calculated on the basis of the metered units of consumption. This came as a big relief because the deduction of power bill dues wiped out half of their development grants in the case of most panchayats. Thanks to the revised billing scheme, panchayats are said to have claimed drastic cuts in their power bills.

Even as these measures to expand the activities of the PRIs were encouraging the newly empowered panchayat leaders, discontent among people with vested interests was increasing steadily. Just as elected Dalit and woman leaders had to confront resistance from upper caste Hindus at the early stages, all elected panchayat leaders now face hostility from some legislators and even Ministers who are apparently reluctant to share power with village leaders. For instance, when the government revised some guidelines relating to the Ashraya (housing) scheme recognising the right of the gram sabha to select beneficiaries and of gram panchayats to implement the programme, the move was resented strongly by some legislators. Sections of bureaucrats, who feel that their powers have been clipped, are also said to be intolerant of any widening of panchayat heads' powers. A repeated complaint from these sections is that the panchayat leaders are inefficient and incapable of managing large funds. Under pressure from some Ministers and legislators, the government constituted a Cabinet sub-committee to review the devolution to panchayats.

THE panchayat leaders, nearly half of whom are newly empowered women and Dalits, are certainly in a better position now to take on the challenges from the growing groups of people with vested interests, thanks to the experience they have gained in office and the training provided to them by governmental and non-governmental agencies. Lending their support to this new political class in rural Karnataka are some progressive legislators and Ministers, who are committed to the cause of gram swaraj. This section, said a panchayat head, would always be on the alert against any retrograde administrative or legislative action that might slow down the process of devolution of functions, functionaries and finances. Networking has enabled panchayat heads to interact with one another and even establish links with their counterparts in other States. This has facilitated the emergence of pressure groups to prevail on the government whenever needed. Organisations such as the Elected Women Representatives' Federation and the Grameena Mahila Mukkoottu, a federation of 6,000 Self-Help Women's Groups have also been mobilising support for the cause of larger powers and funds to panchayats. Increased powers and greater responsibilities may open up the possibility of an unprecedented role for the newly empowered women and Dalits.

The question, however, remains whether decentralised political power alone can ensure their total liberation or even the attainment of economic development and social justice, the twin objectives of the PRIs, particularly when the neoliberal economic policies at the Centre pose a serious threat to the very existence of these deprived sections.

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