( On the occasion of Panchayatiraj Day April 24)
By Sandeep Kumar Pattnaik*
India is currently celebrating its democracy. The nation is in the middle of a general election process for selection of the next national government and state governments in some States including Odisha. But in the din of current electoral frenzy it seems, the nation has forgotten its vision of ‘participatory democracy’. As we celebrate Panchayatiraj Day on this 24th April it gives us an opportunity again to think and act for ‘participatory democracy’ the quintessence of strong Panchayats.
Genuine democracy implies a bottom-up pattern of power sharing and not a top-down one. Mahatma Gandhi believed that the strength of the government atop must rest on the strength of its foundation, the self-governing village and not at its expense. He wanted a well knit political and economic decentralization. He advocated the creation of people’s power to underline the power of the state. After Independence, with the concept and practice of democracy evolving, the idea of the Panchayats was revived.
The Panchayats were to play a new role for strengthening the foundation of democracy whereby the people would directly exercise their democratic rights. However this concept did not find any place in the Part-III entitled ‘Fundamental Rights’ of the Constitution, but was paid only a lip-service in its Part-IV entitled Directive Principles of State Policy, the provisions of which, though fundamental to the governance of the country are not justiceable before the Courts of law.
The leaders of independent India believed that the fruits of industrialization with centralized planning would gradually trickle down to the people. Besides, the political leaders and bureaucrats who wielded considerable power did not want to share it with common people. They regarded these institutions as competing centers of power. In the process, devolving power to the people was not given priority. However in the course of time several government appointed committees chaired by such stalwarts as Balwant Rai Mehta and Ashok Mehta advocated for strengthening the Panchayat Raj Institutions and suggested the ways to realize the same.
In the year 1992, P.V. Narasinghma Rao led government brought about the 73rd amendment to the Constitution of India. Thereon the Panchayat Raj Act became applicable all over the country from April 24, 1993.
The 73rd Constitution Amendment is a revolutionary step towards the decentralization of power and system of governance. The said amendment provided for planning and development of local resources by the Panchayats, periodic elections to these bodies and reservation of seats for women and SCs and STs at all levels. As per this Amendment the basic feature of the new Panchayat Raj would be devolution of political power in the hands of people and to enable them to participate in the developmental schemes meant for the village. However, practical experience with regard to the promised empowerment and autonomy of Panchayats is not at all visible or significant.
Following the enactment of 73rd Amendment, almost every state government of the country repealed their respective Panchayat laws which were old and outdated, and replaced them by a single, comprehensive and consolidated Panchayat law in their effort to comply with the said Amendment. However Odisha stands out as an exception to this general trend. Instead of a single and consolidated law, Odisha is still maintains three Panchayat Acts made at different points of time; namely, Orissa Gram Panchyat Act 1964, Panchayat Samiti Act 1959 and Zilla Parishad Act 1991. All the three Panchayat laws of Odisha are marked by one common feature, that is, concentration of all real powers – be it in respect of taxation, finance and administration – in the hands of bureaucrats of State Government at different levels, so as to keep every level of Panchayat under their control.
Besides, the texts of these laws are too bulky and laid out in a too complex and cumbersome style which renders them unintelligible and unfriendly to the general readers. No elected member of a Panchayat – be it Zilla Parishad, Panchayat Samiti or Gram Panchayat – can comfortably decipher and interpret its provisions. Thus, first and foremost task of every votary of Panchayatiraj in Odisha should be to see as to how a single, consolidated law in conformity to the mandate of 73rd Amendment to cover all the three tiers of Panchayat be enacted to replace the existing basket of 3 Panchayat laws, and this new law ought to be framed in simple Odia language and laid out in a user-friendly style so that every literate villager is able to go through it comfortably.
In the year 2013, to mark the 20th Anniversary of the epoch-making legislation i.e. 73rd Constitution Amendment, the Ministry or Panchayatiraj, Government of India constituted an Expert Committee under the chairmanship of Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyer.
The Committee brought out a report on 24 April, 2013 titled ‘Leveraging PRIs for more efficient delivery of public goods and services’. A major finding of this report was that the states have visibly failed in carrying out the devolution of funds, functions and functionaries to the Panchayats, as mandated by the 73rd Amendment.
Out of about 150 CSSs (Central Sector Schemes), only two, namely MG-NREGA and BRGF provide for the role of Gram Sabha and Gram Panchayats in respect of administration of these schemes. Other Schemes are basically bureaucracy-driven and therefore poorly administered. This fact also demeans the 73rd Amendment since the latter provides for planning and execution of all rural programmes and schemes through Gram Sabha and PRIs.
Besides, the CSSs have promoted parallel bodies at village level which are made responsible before the bureaucrats of respective line departments, but not answerable to the local Panchayats or Gram Sabhas. The CSSs don’t recognize the centrality of Panchayats in the system of delivery of goods and services, but are designed in such a way as to make delivery through the bureaucracy. Hence there is a need to ensure that the devolution to Panchayats shall promote efficiency of CSSs in the delivery of public goods and services.
Being self-governing units, the Panchayats need to directly receive the money transferred to them. Besides the States should also endow Gram Sabha with necessary powers as required under Article 243-A of Constitution. It needs to be remembered that the Panchayats are symbols of representative democracy, but the Gram Sabha is a symbol of participatory democracy.
Powers of Grama Sabha in the Scheduled Areas are already incorporated in the PESA Act 1996 enacted under the Article 243M of Constitution. The elected representatives need to implement the decisions of the Gram Sabha and the government employees at various levels need to concur with the same. The Gram Sabha can thus become a strong, basic unit of democracy.
*Sandeep Kumar Pattnaik is working as a programme officer with the National Centre For Advocacy Studies, Bhubaneswar. He can be contacted @[email protected], M-8763210608)