Home / Politics / Policy /  Process of devolution hasn’t been understood: Mani Shankar Aiyar

On Wednesday, India marked 20 years of panchayati raj, an exercise in devolving power to people at the grassroots. Rajya Sabha member Mani Shankar Aiyar was India’s first panchyati raj minister, appointed to the newly created ministry in 2004. He headed a committee that examined the reasons why attempts at sharing power with self-governance units haven’t been entirely successful.

A report by the committee was presented to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday. Aiyar said in an interview that with respect to empowering panchayati raj institutions, there’s still some way to go. Edited excerpts:

How do you look at these 20 years in terms of implementation?

In respect of the mandatory provisions of the Constitution for panchayati raj, we have almost 100% success. We have as many as 2.5 lakh institutions of local self-governance elected in this country and to these bodies we have elected some 3.2 million representatives and of these about 1.3-1.4 million are women. There are more elected women in India alone than in the rest of the world put together.

We have tried to compensate for social disadvantage by bringing in reservations. And, I think we could say today that what has been achieved in the sense of establishing these institutions is without parallel in history or anywhere in the contemporary world. And that is why I would say that in respect of those provisions in establishment of panchayati raj, making it ineluctable irremovable and irreversible, the glass is almost entirely full. But with respect to empowering these panchayati raj institutions…there is still a long, long way to go.

Critics say the lack of political will is one of the reasons for panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) not doing well.

If there hadn’t been political will, do you think 2.5 lakh institutions of local self-governance with frequent elections and also the various other mandatory provisions like the state finance commission, the state election commission, etc., would have come into existence?

Where does the flaw lie then? Is it in the PRI structure?

I don’t think any country in the world has the complexity of devolution that India has. Partly it’s because of our size, partly it’s because of our population and much more because we are one of the few democratic, developing countries in this world and therefore the methodology for devolution had not been thought out earlier.

The actual exercise for effective power must be with elected representatives for they alone are responsible to the electorate that took them. The present alarming situation should not be allowed to continue. I call it alarming because in the UN (United Nations) Human Development Index, although there has been some improvement and our performance has been somewhat better than some of our peer countries, the fact is with more than 8% growth in the 11th Plan (2007-12), the rate of poverty alleviation has been only 1.5%. So, on the income front, our model of growth is going to inevitably result in widening disparity of income and wealth. And to compensate for that, we have to provide public goods and services efficiently.

If you have the district collector as the inspector of panchayats, does that not reveal a structural flaw? How does one fix this?

The most important training is of the district magistrate and all his officers. There has to be an orientation of the minds of these people. It has taken 20 years for the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie to discover that the real training and capacity building is of our functionaries and it’s only then that our elected representatives come in.

Now, when we don’t have any training for our MPs (members of Parliament) and MLAs (members of legislative assemblies), why do you suddenly say that these people lack capacity? The fact is that they are political representatives and they will continue depending on the will of the people.

But before everything they need to be told what are their functions so that on-the-job training takes place. If you don’t give them functions, how are they going to be trained?

Equally, if the finances are retained by the bureaucracy then where do they have the wherewithal with which to undertake these functions?

And, if the functionaries regard themselves as separate from and superior to these elected representatives, there is a dysfunctionality to the way panchayati raj operates. We have created a shell and not filled it with water.

What exactly was the purpose of your committee?

It occurred to Rajiv Gandhi when he became prime minister (1984-89) that whatever the two greatest men of the 20th century for India—Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru —had desired in terms of empowering the people was far from accomplished. And he came to the conclusion that that was because we did not have constitutional provisions for the third tier of our democracy as we have for our first two. So he said that we may be the world’s largest democracy but we are also the world’s least representative democracy. And by bringing it into the Constitution, we now have representative democracy at the grassroots. But nobody had really understood what the process of devolution is.

The purpose of our committee is not to criticize people but examine why this devolution has not taken place and our answer is we haven’t really understood the process of activity mapping of functions, finances and functionaries. Provided there is political will after this report in Delhi to ensure that centrally sponsored schemes are delivered through the panchayats through a process of devolution that approximates the activity maps that we have here in our report, then you will find a sudden spurt in the effectiveness of devolution. What is required is a partnership between central, state and panchayati raj institutions. I think it is a breakthrough report but I think it’s for the government to decide.

One of the important requirements for panchayats to function independently is being financially viable.

The health of village panchayats will depend on what its responsibilities are.

Unless and until you decide which are the unbundled activities that are to be undertaken by the panchayats and fix the share of the total finances in relation to those unbundled activities and then decide who are the functionaries at what level who will be reporting to the panchayats, until you do this in a scientific way, you will not be able to get it to move.

The unique contribution of our report is that we have taken eight very major schemes of the central government and we have explained how exactly we can scientifically do the devolution of funds, functions and functionaries. Once all these three fall into place only then will the system cease to be dysfunctional and then you will see the results. Today the system we have is dysfunctional and the outcomes are not commensurate with the outlays. The outlays have gone up from 7,500 crore to 2.5 trillion and you are getting the results that you were getting when you were spending 7,500 crore, then there is something really sick in the system that must be replaced by an alternate system.

One of the major achievements of the panchayati raj Act has been bringing women into positions of power. But this happened without them demanding this, it came unexpectedly. Have you made any suggestions in your report about improving their capacity to play a role in governance?

When I was minister for panchayati raj, we did a survey of 20,000 respondents—16,000 of whom were women and the rest were men. There were many positive things that came out. Unfortunately, there is this phenomenon of the sarpanch pati (husbands of women village council chiefs), there is a kind of focus on that to denigrate the system. You said there was no demand from the women but if the presence of women had not been important, do you think many state governments would have gone from one-third reservation to 50% reservation for women?

It’s quite clear that a very large number of women have been politically and socially empowered because of panchayati raj and this is seen as desirable by the political class, so much so that it is about to happen on a national scale. We have recommended that the system of rotation of seats reserved for women takes place after at least two or preferably three terms.

At present, women or anyone from a disadvantaged background have only one five-year term. And most of them fail to get re-elected.

If there is rotation after 10 years and the woman gets re-elected then she will be as empowered as any man in the panchayat. So we need two things—effective empowerment of panchayats in terms of functions, funds and functionaries and a change in the rotation system that will allow women to be panchayat heads for at least two terms. That will greatly alter the profile of women in the panchayats.

This is the third in a series of reports on panchayati raj 20 years after it was given a new constitutional framework.

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