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For panchayats to emerge as efficient institutions, they must have adequate financial resources transferred to them from other levels of government. Photo: Hindustan Times
For panchayats to emerge as efficient institutions, they must have adequate financial resources transferred to them from other levels of government. Photo: Hindustan Times

Whither the little republics?

To realize the potential of decentralization, it is important to invest in gram sabhas, gram panchayats

On 1 October, while listening to an elected representative from a gram panchayat in Rajasthan, it struck me how the idea of decentralization had lost favour in the debate on development in India.

Mahatma Gandhi believed in panchayats as “little republics". But more importantly, he was of the view that democracy could only flourish if it was entrenched in villages first. These ideas did not find favour with the authors of the Constitution. B. R. Ambedkar, in particular, did not share this romantic view and recognized that panchayats as they existed were neither democratic nor necessarily fair and just.

The growing failure of developmental programmes and recognition of the limitations of centralized institutions led to committees such as the Balwant Rai Mehta and Ashok Mehta committees, mooting the importance of panchayati raj. In 1993, by the 73rd amendment to the Constitution, panchayati raj institutions finally found a constitutional mandate. Nearly two decades later, the idea seems to have lost favour.

Government statistics show that there were nearly 233,000 gram panchayats and nearly 2.65 million elected representatives in March 2008. The fact that nearly 37% of these representatives are women implies that there are more women elected to public office in India than anywhere else in the world. In the past few years, following Bihar’s example, five other states have reserved half the seats for women.

There are powerful arguments in favour of decentralization.

The general body of the panchayat or the gram sabha if strengthened and mobilized can lay the foundations of genuine participatory democracy and not merely the electoral version. The gram sabha can generate demand for services, identify those who need the services the most, monitor quality and ensure that the panchayat is accountable to them.

The opportunity for dalits and tribals proportionate to their population and for women to find representation, gives them a voice and an opportunity to participate, influence and lead panchayati raj institutions.

If panchayats are entrusted with requisite powers, authority and resources, incentives will be created for citizens to exercise their preference and to influence their elected representatives. At no other level in our democracy can this be done with as much ease as it can at the panchayat level. Resources can be allocated and distributed more efficiently by panchayats than by centralized institutions.

Despite the obvious benefits, panchayats are languishing in the absence of a commitment to genuine devolution of powers as well as fiscal decentralization.

For the potential of panchayati raj and decentralization to be realized, it is important to invest in gram sabhas, gram panchayats and their representatives.

The budget for the Union ministry of rural development (MoRD) for 2012-13 is a little over 73,000 crore and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) accounts for almost half of this. The budget of the ministry of panchayati raj for the current year is 5,351 crore or 7% of MoRD’s budget. Tragically, 91% of the ministry of panchayati raj’s budget is for creation of assets and secretariat costs. A bulk of the rural development schemes in this country, including the MGNREGS, are to be implemented by gram panchayats. Yet, there is no evidence of any significant investment being made in these institutions or the representatives. Each department of government concerned with rural poverty, creates new village level institutions undermining the legitimacy and authority of gram panchayats.

For panchayats to emerge as efficient institutions, they must have adequate financial resources transferred to them from other levels of government. But more importantly they need to raise their own resources—through taxes, levies or receipts for the services they provide. With growing centralization, the future of panchayati raj remains bleak—unless it can find new champions.

V. K. Madhavan has worked in the not-for-profit sector for two decades and spent 15 years living and working in deserts and hills. He’s still on the fringe asking questions and looking for answers. He will write every fortnight.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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