The 73rd Amendment of the Constitution was passed more than a decade ago, but a lack of political will has undermined the effectiveness of panchayati raj institutions and the process of decentralisation.
On December 22, 2002, it was a decade since the passage of the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution of India, which empowers panchayati raj institutions as bodies of self-government. The amendment generated lots of hope and enthusiasm throughout the country as it was looked upon as a bold step towards strengthening democratic and decentralised governance in rural areas. But the process has not been as successful as it was expected to be, and all hopes seem to have been belied. In fact, genuine and sustained political will coupled with the necessary bureaucratic support is the locomotive needed for effective local self-government, particularly in post-colonial developing countries. It is the lack of this will that seems to have derailed decentralisation in India. Even at the outset, this problem was evident - the word `unit', used in the Directive Principles of State Policy, was replaced by the relatively weak `institutions' in the Constitutional Amendment.
The introduction, in the immediate wake of the 73rd Amendment, of the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme, which allows Members of Parliament (MPs) to spend Rs.2 crores a year towards local area development, bypassing panchayats and municipalities, indicated that there was a clear lack of political will towards decentralisation. The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (2001) showed that the scheme was plagued not only by the lack of funds but also by the misuse and diversion of money earmarked for the project. Most of the plans undertaken form part of the 11th and 12th Schedules in the 73rd and 74th Amendments of the Constitution, which refer to the functions that are to be transferred to the local bodies.
The lack of political will is further reflected by the fact that the number of centrally sponsored schemes (CSS) has increased since the 73rd Amendment was passed. (There are more than 200 such schemes currently.) The share of CSS as a proportion of total number of schemes has shot up to 70 per cent compared with less than 30 per cent in 1980s. These schemes are framed by the Centre and implemented by the panchayati raj bodies. The institutions of self-government are forced to accept them because of the Centre's financial clout. It is certainly a deplorable situation.
Political indifference on the part of the Central government as well as the State governments has resulted in a delay of panchayat elections. By the 73rd Amendment, it is mandatory that panchayat elections be held at the time of general elections. Many States have avoided holding them on one pretext or another. This led to legal battles and interventions by non-governmental organisations in many States.
Panchayat elections were completed in West Bengal, Bihar and Assam recently after a series of legal battles. Arunachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Punjab and Pondichery are still to hold panchayat elections. Incidentally, the National Scheduled Caste-Scheduled Tribe Commission has suggested that funding be withdrawn from those panchayats that have not held elections.
However, the Central and State governments have done little of note in this regard other than issuing weak warnings on the need to hold the elections. In fact, there have been occasions when the party in power has held panchayat elections for its own narrow ends. This happened in the case of Tamil Nadu when P.V. Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister. The Gujarat government recently made an attempt to undermine the democratic process by announcing financial incentives to the extent of Rs.1 lakh to those panchayats that hold elections on the basis of consensus. It is good that the enlightened voters rejected the plan.
The 73rd Amendment stipulates the transfer of powers and functions to panchayati raj institutions as part of the decentralisation process. Facts and relevant data tend to show that there has been very little progress with respect to the transfer of funds, functions and functionaries to panchayati raj bodies across the country. The well-known economist Jean Dreze has shown that in most States the main responsibility of a sarpanch is to oversee the implementation of development programmes.
Research undertaken by the National Institute of Rural Development, which covers 19 States, indicates that political parties are reluctant to devolve powers to panchayat bodies. In Uttar Pradesh, for example, the members of the Assembly refuse to approve an ordinance that seeks to empower panchayats. The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) has suggested an amendment to the Constitution to devolve financial powers to panchayats. Interestingly, the amendment seeks to develop panchayat institutions as institutions of self-government (often termed the third-tier government) without providing a list for them in line with the existing constitutional practice. The other two tiers of the government in India draw their powers and functions from the respective lists provided in the Constitution. Local government, however, has to depend on the State government.
The 73rd Amendment conceptualises panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) as instruments of planning for economic development and social justice. The States are required to set up District Planning Committees (DPCs) to facilitate decentralised planning under Article 243(ZD). The DPCs are entrusted with the job of preparing composite plans. Large States such as Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Gujarat have not yet set up DPCs, thus evading constitutional responsibility without being punished. States such as Haryana and Tamil Nadu have made government officials the chairpersons of these bodies, against the very spirit of the 73rd Amendment. Madhya Pradesh has undermined the authority of local government bodies by setting up district governments around the DPCs. The DPCs in Madhya Pradesh are chaired by State government Ministers. The concept of panchayati raj loses its significance when a Minister heads a DPC. The failure to set up DPCs and government policies that undermine the authority of these institutions speaks not only of a lack of political will but also of a lack of conceptual clarity about the institutions of self-government as envisioned by the 73rd Amendment.
While governments are unwilling to strengthen panchayati raj bodies, they have created several parallel village bodies such as water user groups in Uttar Pradesh, Gram Vikas Samitis in Haryana, vigilance committees in Himachal Pradesh, village protection committees in Gujarat, and watershed committees in Rajasthan. Of late, parallel bodies are being set up at the behest of donor agencies. For example, village education committees have been set up to accommodate demands laid down by the British government, which funds a project known as the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP). These parallel bodies do not have any effective organic links with the constitutionally mandated panchayati raj institutions; they only serve to maginalise PRIs.
Interestingly, in a letter to the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, the Prime Minister voiced his concern about the growing number of parallel structures in the villages. Despite this, the Union Rural Development Ministry is busy fortifying bodies such as the District Rural Development Agencies, which can bypass panchayats and directly handle thousands of crores of rupees meant for rural development. What causes greater concern is the suggestion in the Ministry's annual report that the measure is not a temporary one.
The recent move by the Union Rural Development Ministry to constitute District Vigilance and Monitoring Committees (DV&MCs), with MPs as chairpersons, to oversee rural development is another case in point. This would serve to undermine the constitutional status of zilla parishads. Zilla parishads, which are elected bodies, are already overseen by DV&MCs, which have only nominated members. The setting up of bodies such as DV&MCs is justified on the grounds that it will improve the efficiency of PRIs. Ironically, excessive political interference is generally cited by the members of the bureaucracy as the basic reason for inefficiency in the panchayati raj system.
The engine of democratic decentralisation run using panchayati raj institutions seems to have been derailed. There is a lack of political will and bureaucratic support; the understanding of the constitutional perception of panchayati raj is also inadequate. There is a need for another round of constitutional amendments coupled with sustained pressure from the electorate. The idea of amending the Constitution, made public by the Prime Minister, has not been pursued. Electorates need to be educated on decentralisation mechanisms and their rights under this process. However, it is utopian to expect power-grabbing politicians to work in this direction. Non-governmental organisations need to be commended for their role so far but the massive task of strengthening PRIs requires a new brand of politics that is genuinely committed to democratic decentralisation.
Prabhat Datta is Centenary Professor of Public Administration, Calcutta University, and Adviser, State Institute of Panchayats and Rural Development, Government of West Bengal.