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Self-governance still eludes panchayats

Having been reduced to the implementing agencies of government programmes, Panchayati Raj Institutions haven’t lived up to their promise. However, panchayats led by Bahujan representatives offer a glimpse of what governance from the bottom up can achieve. Zeeshan Husain reviews the book ‘Panchayati Raj’

It is beyond any doubt that significant changes have been taking place as a result of 73rd Constitutional amendment and implementation of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in India. Kuldip Mathur’s book Panchayati Raj, which is part of the Oxford India Short Introductions Series, dwells on these changes.

The book is divided into seven chapters plus an introduction. In the “Introduction”, Mathur provides a broader framework to understand the context of PRIs. He does so against the backdrop of neoliberalism where the State changed its role from being a government to providing governance (p xiii). Good governance involves a State which is efficient and allows (or helps) private players to deliver goods and services to citizens (or customers) (p xv). According to the World Bank, this improvement in public-sector efficiency requires decentralization (pp xviii-xix).

‘Panchayati Raj’

The first chapter alludes to Gandhi’s idea of “Gram Swarajya” and its influence on the larger political discourse in India. While Gandhi painted the Indian village as a utopia, Ambedkar held the opposite view of it being a dystopia. We find that the discourse behind the enactment of Panchayat Act lies somewhere in between. It was under the Directive Principles of State Policy (under Article 40) that the State was encouraged to work towards organizing village panchayats and helping them to function as units of self-governance (p 17).

The second chapter traces the historical journey of the Panchayati Raj law. Mathur classifies PRIs into three generations. First generation followed the Balwant Rai Mehta Committee recommendations (1956), second generation followed the Ashok Mehta Committee recommendations and third generation came after the 73rd amendment to the Constitution. Each generation, much like our Intel processors used in computers, is an improved version of the previous one. The first two faced negligence by central and state governments, lack of financial independence, irregular elections and other issues. It was observed that “panchayats were not seen as institutions of people’s participation that played a role in deepening democracy” (p 25).

A Gram Sabha convenes in Sarangi in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh (Photo courtesy: Ministry of Panchayati Raj)

The third chapter describes the framework, powers and functions of PRIs. In 1993, local self-governance institutions were made mandatory both in rural and urban areas through the Constitutional amendment. This made panchayats the third and last tier of the Indian state, with an autonomy to prepare plans of economic development and social justice (p 35). The amendment provides for the Gram Sabha, comprising all the registered voters in the panchayat’s jurisdiction, as the foundation of PRIs. However, the state legislature determines the power and functions of PRIs. This gives state governments an edge over the PRIs, turning the latter into paper tigers. This chapter recognizes the role of NGOs in helping the panchayats to execute their own functions. Various NGOs train panchayat leaders so that they can carry out their mandated work smoothly.

The fourth chapter paints a bleak picture of the powers and functions of PRIs, mainly with respect to finances. PRIs receive funds, but not based on their local needs. Both MPLADS (Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme) and District Planning Committees overshadow the work domain of the panchayats (pp 72-76). They reduce PRIs to “agencies to implement centrally sponsored schemes, leaving them with little freedom to pursue their own local concerns” (p 70).

Well, the fifth chapter, is the longest and the most significant. It speaks about the representation and participation of Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Women in the PRIs. Mathur shows how the Dalit and women sarpanches have fared with examples. He finds that more often than not they face opposition from a casteist and patriarchal Indian society.

Nevertheless, things are changing for the better, albeit slowly, due to India’s diverse cultures. Mathur quotes from Sarpanch Raj (2010), a work by N. Palaniswamy: “SC representatives perform better when they interact with a reserved [SC] president – a result that suggests that shared identities, and therefore caste-based social networks, shape the effectiveness of reservation policy” (p 99).

Twelfth Gram Sabha in progress at Jarapa Village, in Rayagada, Odisha (Photo courtesy: The Hindu)

In case of STs, the problem is much more complicated. Despite the passing of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) act in 1996, the wretched condition of the Adivasi folk has not been ameliorated at all. Rather, the State played the double role: supporting Adivasi interests on paper but leaving them at the mercy of the corporates in practice. Today, when neoliberalism and Hindutva politics have joined forces, deterioration in the situation of tribals, Dalits and women is palpable.

The sixth chapter, like the fourth chapter, again speaks about the major hurdles encountered by PRIs. For Mathur, three major institutions and systems work alongside PRIs. The district administrative system (such as the District Rural Development Agency), NGOs and caste panchayats all together run parallel to the PRIs. This reduces panchayats to one of the many institutions in the government machinery. The third tier of the Indian state has not materialized as it was intended. While the district administrative system and NGOs reduce PRIs to bodies that implement programmes handed down to them, caste panchayats undertake many undemocratic practices. PRIs thus end up as a sham.

The seventh chapter is the postscript. Overall, Mathur finds that PRIs are helping in “the deepening of democracy” despite “conflicts and contestations”.

Though the book places PRIs in the context of neoliberalism, Mathur never explains this scenario in detail. Much emphasis, quite justifiably, is placed on the actual working of the panchayats and the challenges it faces from Indian polity and society. The book succeeds in depicting the complicated existence of PRIs. In some places, they have effected radical changes while in other places they have failed miserably. They have given us a reason to be hopeful and to despair.

On the role of the NGOs, Mathur appears to be waver. In one place, he says their parallel existence and functioning weakens PRIs while in another place, he says the opposite. The books seems to have been hastily written and edited. For example, the fourth and the sixth chapters overlap to an extent. Similarly, the fifth chapter says that representation is important but does not elaborate why. There are enough examples from the field which show the increased effectiveness of the village panchayats when the panchayat president is from a disadvantaged group (for example, Inclusion and Exclusion in Local Governance by G. Matthew and B.S. Baviskar, 2009). The book could have at least highlighted the lack of representation of religious minorities, mainly Muslims, and the role of the administrative apparatus in keeping this community out of PRIs. As Yogendra Yadav, leader of the party Swaraj Abhiyan, recently wrote, communalism is the biggest threat facing the idea of India now. Perhaps the introductory nature of the book meant that these issues remained out of its scope. But it does a good job of introducing the PRIs to the interested layman.

Title: Panchayati Raj (Oxford India Short Introductions Series)

Writer: Kuldeep Mathur

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Price: 230 (Paperback)

Year: 2013

Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, culture, literature and politics. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +917827427311, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in)

The titles from Forward Press Books are also available on Kindle and these e-books cost less than their print versions. Browse and buy:

The Case for Bahujan Literature

Mahishasur: A people’s hero

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History

Mahishasur: Mithak wa Paramparayen

The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

About The Author

Zeeshan Husain

Zeeshan Husain is a sociologist. He is an alumnus of the Tata Institute of Social Work, Mumbai, and Centre for Study in Social Sciences, Kolkata

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